Panasonic Forecasts Internet of Things by Recalling its Past

Konosuke Matsushita was just 23 years old when he opened shop with his wife and her teenage brother and started to develop an attachment plug for Japan out of a basement workshop.

The attachment plug was Matsushita’s light bulb idea, literally and figuratively, but sales lagged and the young company was on the brink of shutting down before it really started. A sudden and unexpected order for 1,000 plugs arrived during those dark early days saved Matsushita and provided enough capital to continue working, tinkering, developing new ideas.

Two years later, Matsushita introduced the dual-socket attachment plug, a more important innovation than it might sound like today. Three years after that, his improved bicycle light provided beams for a nation where far more people still peddled than filled their tanks. A series of radios followed, then appliances, stereo systems, turntables, televisions, on and on.

You know his company today as Panasonic, one of the larger electronics producers in the world. The technology giant recently reported an annual revenue of more than $64 billion, but the original attachment plug and the bicycle light, introduced in 1918 and 1923, respectively, remain at the heart of what it is today.

“They indicated a willingness to take a risk,” Todd Rytting, the chief technology officer for Panasonic Corporation of North America, said Wednesday during a breakfast keynote at IndustryWeek’s Best Plant Awards in Charlotte, N.C. “They indicated a willingness to change.”

With almost a century of operation, Panasonic is still reinventing itself. During recent years, the company has expanded its reach to include some of the top LED video boards in the world –- Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and Charlotte Motor Speedway each entertain fans with Panasonic products –- and a deeper dive into the Internet of Things.

Panasonic North America CTO Todd Rytting discusses the company's future plans regarding Internet of Things, involvement in the Tesla Gigafactory and advanced weather forecasting capability with IndustryWeek's Matt LaWell - watch the video interview below:

Expanding Everywhere and Everything

“To Panasonic, a 747 is a ‘thing’” Rytting said. “We are the largest global supplier of in-flight entertainment systems today, … but we provide the entire system, which includes the display, the processor that controls the display, all the communications between the seat and the server, the antennas that communicate with the satellites and the global data bus that brings all of the information to our global control center, where we monitor, in real time, every plane that is operating our equipment.” That works out to about 3,000 planes at any time.

“The airlines can do everything correctly, but if you’re on a 12-hour international flight and you can’t watch your movies, you’re going to be upset, and the airlines know that.” Which is why, Rytting said, “they trust Panasonic.”

Cars are ‘things,’ too, in terms of the Internet of Things, and Panasonic is at work on head up displays and smart industry clusters for cars from about a dozen automakers –- products that might change the very way we drive. It also produces lithium-ion batteries for several vehicles, and has partnered with Tesla to develop the Gigafactory in northern Nevada.

Panasonic purchased AirDat in order to be more involved in weather forecasts, related to gathering information and data from airplanes. Those forecasts can be far more accurate than the National Weather Service and have the potential to help cities make better decisions about when to close roads or shut down, and when to remain open.

All this is a far cry from attachment plugs in 1918, and it will probably be a far cry from whatever is part of the Panasonic portfolio in another 97 years, or even 10.

And where will Panasonic be in another decade? Rytting, as qualified as anybody, said the company could well “be past the point where we crack the code of how to manage this mountain of information and present it to people so it helps them make decisions of value.” The problem, at least for now, is that there isn’t a business model.

“Once we get the information in a place where we give it more value, the systems will grow,” Rytting said. “Our sophistication of what a thing is will grow, and we’ll be able to treat a factory as a system, 10 factories as a system, a city as a system.

“We’ve figured out privacy, we’ve figured out security, and in 10 years, we’ll be talking about communities and cities being integrated systems.”

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