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A Persistent Approach to Pursuing the Ultimate Picture Qualit

A Persistent Approach to Pursuing the Ultimate Picture Qualit

The "Reference": Panasonic ZT60

Because it's the last letter of the alphabet, the letter "Z" is suggestive of "the ultimate" or "the highest." The ZT60 plasma TV that Panasonic released in 2013 honored that series name by giving it the highest levels of both picture quality and design. As a result, it received extremely high acclaim from markets all over the world.

In today's interview, we're talking to the engineers who achieved the "ultimate picture quality" through ZT60 development.

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The ZT60 Series has a "Z" in its name, meaning "the ultimate" or "the highest." Could you tell us how you feel about naming it "Z"?

Kitano: The ZT60 is the result of a long history of picture quality development by Panasonic engineers. It represented just the "ultimate picture quality." In other words, it's the peak of quality from Panasonic, which has continuously pursued the best TV picture quality through cutting-edge technologies. Although the VT50 Series model in 2012 had already received high acclaim from the industry, we decided to create the better products from the scratch. That means we would re-think the concept and go back to the basic. We started by defining the true meaning of "the ultimate picture quality." This led us to reconfirm three major points.

- Black reproduction
- Color reproduction
- Gradation

You could call these three points the roots of all picture quality elements required in a TV. Naturally we've worked for those points in previous models. However, we decided to review these three points and make improvements wherever possible to optimize their overall balance. That is our mission.

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I see, so after long years of aiming "top quality", in 2013 you placed even higher target. In order to achieve that target, you've done thorough revamping. Is that right?

Sugano: Yes, when you're dealing with the top-end TV model, you're naturally subject to being checked, corner to corner, by AV critics and editors who have extensive technical knowledge and a keen eye for quality. Points that the ordinary customer may not be aware of are examined and evaluated in detail, so you have to be extremely careful. And in addition to this, we, engineers who are engaged in manufacturing have a strong and pure motivation to provide users with the highest possible picture quality.

In the new ZT60, we achieved a level of perfection that satisfies even professionals. We believe that ZT60 will be highly evaluated from people like AV critics and editors, and from "early adaptors," who are users with a strong interest in new products. On the other hand, we're confident that we achieved an incredible level of picture quality that also excites ordinary users.

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What were some of the actual problems or pressures that you had to deal with?

Sugano: It was difficult to set targets for exceeding the highest level of picture quality. Determining how we could create the highest possible picture quality took longer than expected.

Also, in the world in which we compete, everyone is working to realize the better products from those of the year before. Of course our rivals work so hard to achieve it. We have to work to improve upon even the best results from the previous year. If we don’t, we stand the risk of other brands catching up and possibly even being taken over. That kind of pressure was constantly with us.

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You said it was difficult to set targets. Did you have some specific target values for picture quality?

Sugano: We reviewed all the Panasonic flagship models released from 2007 to 2012. Each of these models had achieved high picture quality through a variety of technologies, such as the use of various panel drives and 3D phosphors. Our approach is examining these technologies and figuring out how we could beat them all.

There were also target values for the three major points we mentioned earlier. For black reproduction, Pioneer KURO Series was strong. For color reproduction, there was the performance of the phosphors developed by Panasonic prior to 3DTV. And for gradation, there was the double scan drive performance, also developed by Panasonic. In each case, we concentrated the best parts of each of these top-end models to end up with the ZT60, which exceeded them all.

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Was there anything you refer to when you are aiming the best picture quality?

Sugano: Yes, movies. We checked a large number of movies to make sure our TVs are getting closer to achieve "ultimate" picture quality. For crisp black reproduction, we used movies with a lot of dark scenes. For developing gradation, we used movies that had many scenes showing close-ups of people's faces and objects with considerable depth. To check overall imaging at the stage where a prototype had reached a high level of completion, we used a scene in an animation movie in which a fish tank is shown. We did it in order to review the level of brightness, depth and clarity. This scene became an essential scene in checking the three major points (black reproduction, color reproduction, gradation) and AGL performance.


Kitano:
Animation movies are often considered to be children's content, but they're ideal for checking picture quality. It's because high-quality animation has the splendid use of detailed shading. The development team checked these animation scenes over and over again for our evaluations.

The picture quality checks continued for a very long time. We were constantly staring at verification scenes from April 2012 to February 2013 following CES. At the same time, we were comparing the gradation with other-brand models and checking the superiority of all three of the major points: black reproduction, color reproduction, and gradation.

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Can you tell us any of your effort to improve the imaging?

Takeda: Because I'm in charge of the "black reproduction", I put all the effort to improve this area. For example, with a plasma TV we use electrical discharges to light up individual pixels – similar to phosphors – on the panel. However, for dark scenes, too much light would disturb to reproduce the dark scene and degrades the picture. By reviewing the discharge method of previous models to make sure that there is no unnecessary light being produced from the discharges, we were able to thoroughly reduce any excessive discharging. In addition, by changing the discharge amount for each horizontal line in the panel, we lowered the black luminance for the entire screen.

Also, in order to attain gradation that meets or exceeds that of double scan drive, we worked on increasing the number of subfields,* which was the most essential element in raising the picture quality of the plasma display panel. Because the subfield number is so important, we needed to find approximate conclusion regarding the subfields number at the earliest stage of development. That means, the number of days to the deadline was limited, so the schedule was tight and engineers have the difficulty to meet the target by then.

 

To increase the number of subfields, we had to reconstruct the drive waveform, which had already been optimized to achieve a stable discharge, in order to shorten the processing time. Here again, we thoroughly reviewed the discharge and drive waveform, and after repeated discussions with related departments, such as the circuit designers, we introduced a new drive waveform and eventually succeeded in increasing the number of subfields.

* About Subfields:
60 frames per second must be generated to create a TV image. For a plasma TV, in order to express the gradation (the brightness) of each frame, the time for turning the light on and off must be even more finely divided. The duration of this time division is called a subfield. The more subfields there are, the finer the on/off light control and the more detailed the gradation.

Kitano:
With the ZT60, we actually changed our way drastically. We tried to develop ZT60 from the scratch, not only from existing know-how but we brought our thinking down to a zero base. We also changed the way we co-operate and crossed over conventional team borders. I think it was what led to our success in completing the project. In all the models I've worked on previously, we were very goal oriented, but we were operating at an even higher level with the ZT60. More than an accumulation of development achievements from plasma TV, this was a model that took Panasonic's DNA of picture quality to the highest level ever.

Sugano: The level of beauty in expressing red colors was also a topic in our development. Since the human eye is very sensitive to red, the overall gradation of the TV screen will be very vivid if red can be beautifully expressed. This is an element that is absolutely important for improving gradation. As such, we continued to work on it right up to the time that mass
production began.


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Could you tell us more about the collaborative style in which the team was able cross ordinary borders?

Kitano: Almost every week, the ZT60 development members from both Kadoma and Ibaraki held a videoconference to share and examine a variety of topics. We were all able to give our opinions freely and we all are intense.

Taniguchi :
Teamwork was also emphasized in the launching of the AGL method. Members from four locations inside Japan (Kadoma, Ibaraki, Amagasaki, and Utsunomiya) got together every week for a tele-conference. Problems from everyone's specific field were resolved one at a time at these meetings. Members from production department in factory also participated,and discussions were often heated.

Members from each of the bases also gathered for actual in-factory verifications. Although tele-conference was very useful for discussion, the final verification was done in the factory together, while viewing the actual production line. I think this was the fastest way to reach the goal. That process made our teamwork even better.

I was aware that motivation of the members working for ZT60 was quite high and we all worked with the mind that this model is going to be special so we should put all the effort for ZT60. That makes our collaboration strict.

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Wasn't there any conflict caused by the close collaboration?

Kitano: Everyone had the same mindset to create something extremely good. Also, if you worry too much about conflict, you'll never be able to break through to a higher level.

We never give up even when we faced with a very high hurdle, because we all know we have to resolve it or we won't achieve the ultimate picture quality, which allowed us to work especially hard at it. We realized that these things couldn't be resolved by simply following the same development style we had. Since the entire team shared the same challenging goal, it made it possible for us to bond together and get the job done.

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Could you describe the AGL method that enabled ultimate picture quality?

Taniguchi: Since 2009 Panasonic's flagship TV models have adopted a "One sheet of glass" design scheme, which has been highly evaluated. However, some people expressed concern that the front glass panel might sacrifice picture quality.

Installation of a glass panel in front of the display panel creates an unnecessary air layer between the glass and panel. This air layer can cause double-images and other problems. For models leading up to the previous year's model, the VT50, we used a filter technology and the like to overcome the problems created by the air gap layer.

When we decided to review all the related technologies once again, we decided to focus on the simple but most fundamental target of eliminating double-images. To pursue the ultimate picture quality, we had to consider removing the unwanted air gap layer between the display panel and glass panel. However, it was extremely difficult to physically get rid of the air gap layer. As a result, we opted for the AGL method. At the beginning, we racked our brains to figure out how we could reduce the air gap layer to zero and how we could achieve the highest possible picture quality after achieving the zero air layer. AGL stands for Air Gap Less, and the name "AGL method" was coined by us at the time the development started. This method uses a technology commonly referred to as direct bonding.

Masuda:
It was our first attempt to use the AGL method for a large-screen TV. It was a very difficult method to employ. Needless to say, mass production was a prerequisite. So members expressed their concerns, such as whether the use of the AGL method would achieve the desired yield rate and whether it would enable us to maintain profitability. I was involved in the development of the actual method. In the beginning, even most of the development team members were not really positive about the method. What changed our mind was also the teamwork. For example, the hardware department and software department, which usually work separately in the past, collaborated closely in the development of the ZT60. I believe this collaborative approach raised our motivation and enabled us to overcome the difficulties.

Taniguchi: Actually, development of the AGL method was initiated even before the ZT60 project. We began research and development of the AGL method near the end of 2009 as a possible means of improving picture quality in addition to its use for design enhancement.

At that time, we wanted to complete the technology as soon as possible so we could incorporate it immediately in the development of new TV models. However, it was extremely difficult to bond the glass and the rigid panel without creating any air gap layer, and we were faced with repeated failures. We simply couldn't develop the method successfully. We kept trying and conducted numerous experiments. Before we succeeded, we had developed more than 20 material types for bonding material development and bonded more than 1,000 panels with unsuccessful results.

After a few years had passed, we were able to see the prospect of commercial application of the AGL method. This coincided with the start of the ZT60 development. For many years, we went through the process of trial and error, without knowing the cause of our failures. But as soon as we discovered the cause, we believed that the method could be applied to mass production. We were thrilled to incorporate the new technology into actual products.

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What caused the failures?

Taniguchi: It was simple. Air bubbles. Air bubbles cause problem. Air bubbles were generated between the bonded glass and panel. It was not easy to fine the way to remove the air bubbles.

For example, imagine fixing a clear protective film onto the LCD of a smartphone without any air bubbles generated between them. If you've ever tried it, you know how difficult it would be to bond a 65-inch sheet of solid glass to a panel without leaving any air bubbles between them.

Even when we bonded them cleanly, air bubbles were generated later on the bonded surfaces.That was a difficult problem to solve. It troubled us from the start of our development activities until right before we successfully achieved commercialization. When we discovered the cause of the air bubbles and figured out how to solve the problem, all our worries and anxieties suddenly disappeared. It was such a nice feeling.

 

What were the difficulties caused by the large panel size?

Masuda: First, it was difficult to set up the equipment for stable production. A large panel tends to distort and makes bonding difficult. Slight distortion may not cause much trouble when the panel is as small as the LCD on a smartphone, but it becomes a major obstacle when the panel is 65 inches in size.

Taniguchi: In our verification test, we started with a display panel and glass panel about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Then, we gradually increased the size. When the size exceeded 40 inches, it became increasingly difficult to achieve zero air bubbles.

Because we didn't have the facility experiments with large-size glass sheets, we sought the cooperation of a factory in Japan that specialized in processing glass. It was the first time for that factory to handle glass sheets integrated with electronic modules, so I am sure our request was not easy to fulfill. The glass processing company aligned with our goal of "creating the
ultimate picture quality," and worked earnestly with us in the development.


I went to the factory frequently from our development base in Kadoma. During the final stage of development, I probably spent 80 or 90 days out of the year at the factory. Then, our long-cherished goal became a reality. We were able to bond the display panel and glass panel without generating any air bubbles between them and also suppressed the generation of air
bubbles after bonding. We were extremely excited.

Masuda: The design concept for the ZT60 was "One Sheet of Glass." Achieving this concept required high-precision manufacturing technology, in addition to the technology for display panel and glass panel bonding. We had to perform detailed finishing work carefully without cutting any corners.

Taniguchi:
The production method for the ZT60 is completely different from that for previous plasma TVs. For the ZT60, we did things we avoided doing before because of potential risk. We were determined to achieve our goal, though, and never gave up.

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What was the most difficult challenge you faced in terms of picture quality?

Sugano: When we demonstrated our new TV model next to other companies' products at CES in 2013, the picture quality of our TVs was close to our target, but I felt we needed to work harder on the final tweaking. We felt pressure because we were urged to obviously exceed our target.

Takeda: We were under a lot of pressure in those days indeed.

Masuda: Just about when we were ready to start mass production, we were faced with the problem of how to transport the panels bonded by an outside company to the Panasonic plant in Osaka without damaging them. When we actually transported bonded panels as a test case, problems did occur. Fortunately, we were able to solve the problems in a week, but we still felt rushed.

Taniguchi: Bonded panel sets are very delicate, and we had never experienced problems like these during the development of conventional TVs.

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I heard Mr. Masuda started his career in Panasonic after working for another company in the same industry. So, what was your impression of Panasonic after you started working there?

Masuda: My impression was that Panasonic engineers are very skilled and the company has an incredible depth of manufacturing know-how. Since Panasonic is such a large enterprise, it invests a lot of money once it decides to go ahead with a project, and then it carries the project through. I also felt how devoted everyone is to manufacturing.

On the other hand, I felt invisible walls between organizations because of the large company size. But for the ZT60 development, all members, including those in partner companies, worked in tight collaboration toward achieving the ultimate picture quality. The successful completion and commercialization of the ZT60 owes much to good teamwork.

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Taniguchi: We took a different approach in developing the ZT60. It's important to continue tackling challenges even if they're considered to be extremely difficult by most people. I'd like to maximize our recent development experience in future manufacturing activities.

Masuda:
We were able to overcome some huge obstacles, and I'd like to aim for an even higher goal based on our achievements and experience. I hope to attain good results in our next product development by refining the collaboration among our teams and encouraging a challenging spirit among our members.

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Takeda: I think real-time collaboration among team members was the key to overcoming difficulties. I'd like to pursue our passions and Panasonic's goals in all our development and manufacturing activities in the future.

Sugano: I agree that close communication with members in other departments was a major factor in our success. All members, actually so many members like panel developing section, hardware dept, picture quality section, and software department worked together, worked so hard to do their duty devotedly. I believe that the attitude of our members is our inherent strength.

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Kitano: I think the ZT60 development is our answer to "the ultimate picture quality." I think we can apply the problem-solving approach we used in developing the ZT60 for creating new LCD TVs and other products.

As 4KTVs become increasingly popular, the potential for high picture quality is expected to rise. We can apply various picture quality improvement technologies established through the ZT60 development to the creation of 4KTVs in the future. We'll persistently pursue the ultimate picture quality. Please look forward to the release of new Panasonic TVs in the future.

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Nobuhiro Kitano
Unit Leader, Electrical Design
Hardware Engineer

Entered Panasonic in 1991, and worked on the design and development of CRT TVs for the Japanese market.
Worked on CRT TVs for overseas markets from 1995 to 2004.
Since 2004, worked on the development of plasma TVs mainly for European markets.

What kind of content would you like to watch in the ultimate picture quality?
My hobbies are photography and traveling. So I want to watch travelogues and documentaries showing World Heritage Sites on the ZT60. I also want people to watch impressive, magnificent scenery and places they visited on tours to appreciate the picture quality of the ZT60.

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Takashi Sugano
Electrical Design, Set Picture Quality Design
Hardware Engineer

Entered Panasonic in 1992, and worked exclusively on TV development in his career.
Worked on commercializing plasma TVs for the North American market from 2006 to 2013.
Since 2000, mainly worked on raising picture quality for the North American and other markets, receiving many honors for his achievements. For example, these include Panasonic's first THX certification, a remastering function incorporating a wide-color-gamut panel, obtaining ISFccc certification, and introducing Panasonic's first 3DTV to the market.

What kind of content would you like to watch in the ultimate picture quality?
I'll leisurely watch the videos and photos of my child in school sports day with my family. When I watch them on a PC, the images are not as clear as they should be, so it'd be great to see them on the ZT60 with superb color reproduction. My child will be excited to see the crisp, clear images of himself running in the athletic meet on the large-screen TV. (Laugh)

 

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Akira Taniguchi
Mechanism Design, AGL Method
Hardware Engineer

After a career as an engineer in the medical device industry,entered Panasonic in 2007 and worked exclusively on the fundamental development of mechanisms.
Engaged mainly in new technology development like the AGL process, which contributed to the achievement of the ZT60. Presently involved in development activities while seeking directions for next-generation TVs.

What kind of content would you like to watch in the ultimate picture quality?
I like music, so I want to see operas and musicals on the ZT60. The high picture quality and superb design of the ZT60 will make me feel as if I were watching the actual performance on stage in a large hall.

 

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Kosuke Masuda
Panel, Glass Bonding (AGL) Process Development
Hardware Engineer

Entered Pioneer in 1997, and Panasonic in 2008.
Was previously engaged in KURO development.
Worked exclusively on developing plasma materials and processes through his career. In Panasonic, he began working on the development of film bonding processes. For the ZT60 project, he was in charge of developing the AGL process.

What kind of content would you like to watch in the ultimate picture quality?
My hobby is snowboarding, so I'd like to watch some of the snowboarding videos I recorded. I'm sure the ZT60 will reproduce true-to-life scenes of powder snow flying in the air.

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Minoru Takeda
Panel, Panel Drive
Hardware Engineer

Entered Panasonic in 1999, and worked exclusively on plasma TV drive technology.
Worked on development aimed at achieving maximum levels of performance (lowering black luminance, increasing gradation, raising brightness, reducing power consumption), improving quality (raising display quality, increasing factory yield), and reducing costs.

What kind of content would you like to watch in the ultimate picture quality?
It may seem like a cliché, but I want to enjoy the ZT60's expressive capabilities to show the details and nuances of dark movie scenes over and above the gradation level of ordinary TVs. I want people to re-try their favorite video collections or pictures on the ZT60. They will look differentl.