In front of you is the big box that contains your new personal computer. You pry open the cardboard to get to your machine. In your way, though, are big rectangles of foam and what seems like enough printed material to wallpaper a small closet.
Did you ever consider that some executive somewhere worries about getting each individual piece of paper into the box in front of you? Just how would a company determine that the right assortment of papers makes it into each box?
If you’re Sony, you put the box on a scale that measures to the thousandth of a pound. That’s delicate enough to sense whether the box is missing a sheet.
That’s what my hosts at Sony Electronics Inc. tell me about the machines in front of me.
I am in Building 5 of Sony’s Rancho Bernardo complex. It’s a sprawling space with steel mesh shelving and a white floor marked with a good deal of tape. Sony brought the media to its factory last week to watch its executives ceremoniously finish the factory’s 5 millionth Vaio-brand computer.
Sony officials are apologetic that so little is going on in the background. Clusters of workers put together computers here and there, but a good deal of the factory floor is row upon row of shelving and fixtures that, for now, are idle. Factory workers can rearrange the fixtures into efficient production “cells,” and can call up part-time employees, as production schedules warrant.
Things will ramp up during the summer, when the factory meets orders for back-to-school season, said Kevin Trepa, director of manufacturing and refurbishing at the factory.
Sony Electronics employs roughly 2,600 people in San Diego. The company recently moved its Vaio engineering team here from San Jose. The move involved fewer than 100 people, but it made a huge difference, according to spokesman John Dolak.
Sony executives acknowledge that they pay a lot more to run their factory in suburban San Diego, rather than another country on the Pacific Rim. But it’s worth it, they say.
Having the engineering, manufacturing and repair folks under one roof brings operational and strategic benefits, said Steven Nickel, the general manager for business planning and service operations for Sony’s Vaio unit.
In other words, nothing beats face-to-face interaction.
“You can make major leaps during discussions you can have in a break room or in the hallway,” Nickel said.
Sony also makes up for high wages by running a lean shop. The company relies on just-in-time shipping. Inventories of both parts and finished product are kept to a minimum. Computers running Oracle enterprise resource management software keep the supply-chain ballet going smoothly.
Another benefit of having everyone under the same roof, Dolak said, is that it makes the frequent design changes easier. Computer models change with the seasons, and hardware combinations that were fresh during the spring will be outmoded by summer.
Technicians such as Julia Isabel, who has a quartet of motorized screwdrivers hanging within reach of her work area, make quick work of assembling laptops. Isabel is a picture of concentration. Once the computer in her hands is done, it goes through “aging” , the process of loading the operating system and all the other software specified by the customer. Racks of servers in a chilled room handle the software installation, which may be customized for each individual unit.
Nothing sticks around for long. I’m standing by a stack of boxes waiting for the 4 p.m. FedEx truck. Like many of the boxes, the one under my hand is going directly to a customer. It’s addressed to Ithaca, N.Y. By the time you read this, the carton is probably across the continent, maybe in the hands of some researcher at Cornell University who might actually need one of those papers that Sony made the effort to include.
Contact Brad Graves at his new e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at (858) 277-6359, Ext. 3115.