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Dispatch from the Far East

PRO AV columnist Pete Putman spent several days in Osaka, Japan, as a guest of Sanyo Electric's Digital Systems Co. You probably know them best as the group that manufactures Sanyo LCD (and DLP) projectors, which you've seen, spec'ed, and installed a few times in your career. Bu the projector division is just one of six groups under the Digital Systems banner.

Credit: Pete Putman, CTS

Last November, I spent several days in Osaka, Japan, as a guest of Sanyo Electric's Digital Systems Co. You probably know them best as the group that manufactures Sanyo LCD (and DLP) projectors, which I'm sure you've seen, spec'ed, and installed a few times in your career. Sanyo, which started in 1947 as a manufacturer of bicycle lights, is the world's largest maker of projectors. The company as a whole had consolidated net sales of $18.7 billion in its fiscal year ending March 2008, with an operating profit of $700 million. The projector division is one of six groups under the Digital Systems banner, and its branded and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) sales grabbed 7.5 percent of the worldwide projector market in 2007 (valued at $8.9 billion). In the 5,000-lumens-and-over space, Sanyo's branded and OEM projectors accounted for nearly 30 percent of all sales.

Those numbers aren't that surprising when you consider there are at least 32 models in the company's 2008 projector lineup–three short-throw, three home theater, 11 office and education, and 15 high-brightness theater and large venue projectors. In addition to its own brand, Sanyo also makes products for Christie and Eiki.

During my visit, I toured the projector factory, starting with the PC board and surface-mount component (SMC) assembly lines. From there, I witnessed how the PC sub-assemblies were then wired together with power supplies, input boards, and optical blocks, followed by final assembly of the lenses and housing, and then by a quality-control check.

The optical block assembly area used specially designed cameras and test patterns to precisely and automatically align three LCD panels, with all the activity taking place under dark tents. When each projector emerged, its panels had been converged to within the width of a whisker and secured in place. The projectors then underwent repeated drop tests to ensure the alignment stayed put.

In this day and age of cost-cutting, it was surprising to learn that only Sanyo's small, portable business and education projectors are assembled in China. Larger models (classified by Sanyo as "value added") are still built in Japan, primarily because certain optical components for them can't yet be found or made in China.

The day I visited, employees were putting the finishing touches on several of Sanyo's PLC-XF47 projectors, rated at 15,000 lumens and currently the largest projector the company makes. We also spent time discussing the company's QuaDrive 4LCD technology, which is currently used in only the PLX-XP200L but will surely migrate to several others by the time InfoComm 2009 rolls around. This technology adds a fourth LCD panel to boost green-yellow spectral response, extending the projector's color gamut enough to hit most of the P3 digital cinema color space, according to tests I ran recently.

My tour also took me to a quiet, darkened screening room where I got a sneak peek at the Sanyo PLV-Z3000 home theater projector. It's reportedly the first model with 5:5 pulldown processing, something I originally thought was associated with the 5:5 frame cadence used by anime cartoons. It turns out 5:5 is actually Sanyo's way of achieving 120-Hz frame rates with 30-frame interlaced video content. Five progressive video frames are interpolated from every three interlaced video fields (not frames), using full x, y, z (three-axis) motion interpolation.

This is supposed to result in the sharpest possible 1080i video from an LCD projector, although the demo they showed me used Blu-ray movies (24p) and not interlaced video. The 24-frame content is frame-quadrupled to 96 Hz, while 60 Hz progressive video (like 720p/60) is doubled to 120 Hz. I'll reserve judgment on how well this works until I have a chance to try out the projector.

The Side Story

A worker assembles the power supplies for Sanyo projectors at a company fab in Japan (top). An exhibit in the company's lobby includes the pro AV industry's first SVGA (1996) and XGA (1997) LCD projectors.

A worker assembles the power supplies for Sanyo projectors at a company fab in Japan (top). An exhibit in the company's lobby includes the pro AV industry's first SVGA (1996) and XGA (1997) LCD projectors.

Credit: Pete Putman

While projectors were the main attraction on my trip, there was a coinciding side story that was nearly as interesting. It involved Panasonic's announcement that it had agreed to buy a controlling stake in Sanyo. Company executives wondered what exactly the move might mean for Sanyo, not to mention how it might impact their jobs.

Ostensibly, Panasonic's desire to absorb Sanyo (creating a consumer electronics colossus almost as big as General Electric) arose from the former's desire to pick up the latter's industry-leading technology and intellectual property in solar energy and batteries. Panasonic, as you know, also manufactures and sells projectors, although not on the scale Sanyo does.

Given how tightly Sanyo runs its projector business, how much effort it has put into "green" energy-saving initiatives, and the company's strong position in projector sales, Panasonic's best course of action would probably be to leave things well enough alone.

The two companies don't really compete in projection technologies: Panasonic has largely adopted single-chip and 3-chip DLP for its large venue and auditorium projectors, while Sanyo is 100 percent LCD across that particular line.

If anything, it might make more sense for Panasonic to let Sanyo manufacture all of the branded business and education projectors for both companies, as Panasonic only has about a half-dozen offerings in those markets and nowhere near the dealer and distributor network of Sanyo.

When I wasn't talking projectors, I visited historic temples and shrines in the ancient imperial cities of Kyoto and Nara. These places offered a drastic contrast to Sanyo's state-of-the-art technologies. (One wooden temple I saw has been standing since the 8th century and is the oldest wooden building in the world.) What they had in common, though, was attention to detail, design, and construction techniques–things any AV pro should be looking for in the products they use.

InfoComm Educator of the Year Pete Putman is a Pro AV contributing editor and president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa.



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