SONY Corp, which set up its Malaysian operations 1973, has been making a range of its products in this country for more than three decades. This is something many of their consumers are probably not aware of – from portable audio devices to high-resolution hi-fi/headfi products and TVs, Sony has invested significantly in Malaysia, like a number of other Japanese manufacturers.
These days, Sony turns out numerous audio products from its northern factory in Penang and television sets from its plant in Bangi, Selangor. High-profile items like the acclaimed “1000” series noise-cancelling wireless headphones, hi-fi exotica like the HAP-Z1ES HDD audio player and a variety of portables are birthed in the Penang facility and shipped out globally.
Like many other big-name brands, Sony is not open to factory visits by the media, so I was surprised when, a few weeks ago, I was invited to a Sony Centre opening in Penang (the largest in the northern area), and thence for a tour of the Sony Electronics Malaysia factory in Prai, on the mainland.
The Penang factory was opened in July, 1991 by then prime minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad (now Tun, and back for his second stint), whose “look-east” policy benefited many Japanese industries.
We were not allowed to take any photos inside the factory, and a while there was a team headed by Sony Malaysia managing director Satoru Arai to answer queries, we were told to forward questions they were not ready to answer via email.
This, of course, didn’t surprise me, nor did the state of the factory, which spotless and organised with a precision that would put the Germans in the shade. Then again, this is a Japanese tradition – three decades ago, I visited the Japanese factory of another big gun, and had a similar experience. That the Japanese way of manufacturing is absolutely efficient is a given – being witness, at close quarters, to the manufacturing some of today’s most popular headfi products, drove in the point.
The factory is sited on a land area of 170,000 square metres and has a staff strength of over 5,000; while many of the employees are Malaysian, a number of them come from neighbouring countries as well.
So, once the press conference was done and after I returned from the assignment, I submitted a list of questions to the Sony management, which took a few weeks to respond.
First, we are t0ld this is the first media visit to the Penang factory; what is the message Sony wants to get out to consumers?
“Yes, this is the first time that we have arranged for the media to visit our Penang factory.
“Our objective is to show the media Sony’s strong manufacturing competence and premium operations, and the excellent expertise and engineering power of our employees.
“More importantly, we would like Malaysians to know and be proud that some of the latest Sony audio products are made here in this country.”
How many current models from the Sony range are being made in the factory, and of these, how many are exclusive to the Penang factory?
“We currently produce close to 100 audio models in the Penang factory, including headphones, digital music players (Walkman), sound bars and high-power audio systems.
“Several models are exclusive to this factory, including the MHC-V81D sound system which was used in the performance at the Sony Centre opening (see photo below). This model is locally conceptualised, designed and manufactured exclusively in Penang.
“The WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling model is also manufactured exclusively in Penang.”
The WH-1000XM3 is the third generation of Sony’s renown, noise-cancelling wireless headphones, all of which have been highly acclaimed in headfi-dom. Why was the Malaysian factory chosen for its manufacture.
“As explained earlier, the Penang factory has strong manufacturing competence and premium operations. Coupled with the engineering expertise of its employees, Penang is now the key manufacturing plant for Sony’s noise-cancelling headphone models, manufacturing for the global market.”
How many parts (or percentage) of the WH-1000XM3 are made in-house in Penang?
“The driver, a key component in the WH-1000XM3 model, is made in-house in the Penang factory.”
We were told that there is also an R&D facility in Penang – what areas do they look at and where was theWH-1000XM3 developed?
“The R&D team in Penang oversees R&D for MDR models (e.g WI-C600N, WH-CH700N) and high-power audio systems (e.g MHC-V81D, MHC-V71D). The R&D also covers key components for these models such as the micro dynamic devices for the MDR models and the speaker unit for high-power audio systems.
“End-to-end solution is provided, from electrical, mechanical, software, acoustic, PCB to packaging design. The Penang R&D team also provides design support for other Sony manufacturing plants.
“The WH-1000XM3 model was designed in Japan. We manufacture the WH-1000XM3 model for the global market, including US, Europe and Asia.”
From a broader perspective, how does Sony hope to benefit from the current government’s call to promote “Made in Malaysia”?
“”In line with the Malaysian government’s call to promote ‘Made in Malaysia’ products, we are happy to share with Malaysian consumers that some of the latest Sony audio products are made in Penang, so that they can be proud of this.
“Penang is a key manufacturing plant for Sony and we will continue to strengthen our manufacturing operations here to produce products for the global market.”
The “human factor” seems to be a crucial part of the manufacturing and assembly process at the factory, but increasingly, automation technology is and will be getting to the point where it will make more sense to adopt it on a larger scale, for the sake of cost and precision. What are Sony’s mid- and long-term perspectives on automation?
“At the Penang factory, we are continuously innovating our operations, including increasing automation production of various processes.
“Our inspection and alignment block processes for high volume models such as the WH-1000XM3 are already automated and we are now focusing on automating the assembly block process.”
- Photos provided by Sony Malaysia.