How Sharp Keeps Its Biggest LCD Plant Under Wraps

from the desk of Spectrum's Asian correspondent, John Boyd:

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The LCD industry has become so ultracompetitive that manufacturers are maintaining a level of security over their operations that is surely worthy of anything the Pentagon has put into practice. Take Sharp Corp., for instance. For the past 12 months it has been operating the only eighth-generation (8G) manufacturing facility in the world: the Kameyama No. 2 Plant, in western Japan. (Eighth-generation plants build displays on 2.2-by-2.4-meter panes of glass, making them ideal for 45- to 50-inch LCD TV panels. Seventh-generation plants work with 1.87-by-2.2-m panes.) The fab churns out 60 000 huge panels a month, which are then conveyed mere meters straight into a TV assembly plant virtually next door. To keep competitors from learning how this cost-efficient setup is designed and works, Sharp keeps overall operations a secret even from most of its own employees working at the facility by restricting their movements. Plant-wide access is reserved for just a handful of top managers.

To enforce this level of security, Sharp has divide the fab into five zones and assigned a color to each one. Plant employees have to wear colored uniforms according to their roles, and they must stay within their designated boundaries. To ensure they do, surveillance cameras keep track of them. Given that the plant is operated entirely by robots, the few humans that do get to enter the inner sanctum are in maintenance or troubleshooting.

To keep its secrets secret, Sharp even went to trouble of buying the fabâ''s manufacturing equipment from different suppliers. This was to prevent a would-be single supplier getting to view the big picture. And just for good measure, Sharp even took on the responsibility of partly installing the equipment itselfâ''the equivalent of James Bond tooling up his own gadgets.

One benefit of all this security is that no one is ever disturbed by a cellphone ringing when working inside the plantâ''they are banned. Cellphones incorporate cameras and thus would be able to transmit photos of the setup instantly. To make sure this regulation is upheld, Sharp employs metal detectors at the entrance, which ring loudly should a phone be discovered.

Might the company now consider relaxing a little, given that rival Sony revealed yesterday that it had begun producing panels at its 8G plant, a joint-venture operation with Koreaâ''s Samsung Electronics? After all, today Sharp actually invited the foreign press to come and â''seeâ'' the plant. Alas, what the company meant was that for a brief couple of minutes we were allowed to peer through a window that looked onto a dimly lit corridor where transport robots carry concealed loads to unknown destinations. Sharp still knows how to keep a secret.

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