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Panasonic Toughbook At 20: Can ‘Japanese’ Quality And Service’ Maintain Ruggedised PC Lead?

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Panasonic is making a big deal of the Toughbook anniversary. But as business becomes more important to PC makers, can it maintain its niche?

The PC market is at present characterised by slowing sales, struggling manufacturers and commoditisation, so it seems an odd time to celebrate the anniversary of a laptop range, but that’s exactly what Panasonic is doing.

Last year, the Japanese technology giant released the first detachable Toughbook – a rugged laptop designed for extreme conditions. The CF-20 could withstand falls of up to 70 centimetres and resist dust and humidity, paving the way for numerous iterations of rugged PCs.

‘Toughpad’ tablets and 2-in-1s have looked to extend the appeal of the rugged device and the CF-54 mk3 notebook was announced early this week.

Panasonic Toughbook CF-54

Panasonic Toughbook

The Toughbook has won an army of loyal customers attracted by long battery life, resistance to extreme weather conditions and durability. Communication with clients, rapid service times and customisability are also valued as organisations upgrade the tools of their mobile workforces.

Panasonic more or less admitted to forgetting the tenth anniversary, but decided that reaching two decades was an achievement given the current state of the market.

A lot has changed in 20 years. PC sales have slumped as consumers refresh their equipment less frequently, having been lured away by smartphones and tablets. Gartner says PC shipments have fallen to 62.2 million but says there is reason for hope in the business market.

“Vendors who do not have a strong presence in the business market will encounter major problems, and they will be forced to exit the PC market in the next five years,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “However, there will also be specialized niche players with purpose-built PCs, such as gaming PCs and ruggedised laptops.”

In a testing climate, Panasonic believes having a niche is a good thing, and has committed to raising its service standards for customers while maintain the same level of “Japanese quality” in the hardware.

The systems are built at facilities in Kobe, Japan and in Taiwan, where each unit goes through significant testing. Silicon has seen Toughbooks survive water assaults, being dropped to the ground from multiple angles and even frozen in ice.

A dedicated earthquake simulator has also been built at Kobe because public facilities were too busy – reducing Panasonic’s ability to respond to customers. There also plans to use artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics to predict faults and make manufacturing more flexible.

Panasonic Toughbook-2

Customer approval

The logistics, retail, utilities, manufacturing and public safety sectors make up the bulk of Panasonic’s customers, many of whom see the units as instrumental to their business.

Brunswick & Topsham Water District, a utilities operation comprising 21 employees, decided to digitise its maps in 2009. It needed durable (and waterproof) devices that could be used in bright sunlight and long battery life so it could convince sceptical employees they were just as useful as the older method.

“It’s not easy to tell a bunch of older workers you’re moving from a paper to a digital system, so we needed something that was 100 percent reliable,” said assistant general manager Craig Douglas.

The organisation is one of Panasonic’s smallest customers and it now has 14 laptops. Over the past eight years, just two have ever been broken – as a result of factors beyond Panasonic’s control.

Read more about the future of Toughbook on page 2…