International ambition

Fujitsu is not a brand immediately synonymous with high-end consumer electronic design, but its head of design is bringing three prototype products to the West in a bid to change perceptions of the Japanese company.

Taking on the usual suspects in the sector – Apple Computer, Nokia, Sony, Samsung, Philips and so on – Kimitaka Kato, general manager of Fujitsu Design Centre, will show international consumers models of a folding laptop, a PC with a built-in ‘turntable’ and a four-way sliding mobile phone. Talking to the Western press for the first time, Kato is hoping to drive the company’s design credentials into the minds of non-Japanese consumers.

Fujitsu is one of the largest IT services companies in the world and claims to be the leader in its core Japanese market. About four years ago, it recognised the need to reach Western customers and started to reach further outside this core market.

The technology slump of 2001/2 is largely responsible for Fujitsu’s change of strategy. As the technology bubble burst, the company realised that high growth could only be achieved overseas. According to the company’s investor relations manager Sean Nemoto, technology markets are growing by 6 to 7 per cent in Europe and the US, around three times the levels in Japan at present. This meant that Fujitsu needed to develop a better understanding of other cultures and consumers, he adds.

‘The Design Centre is now following a new corporate strategy and so is now much more important in driving the business,’ says Nemoto.

Kato says it is no longer sufficient for Fujitsu to design to a Japanese ‘standard’. ‘We are trying to get some feeling for other regions and cultures so that we can tap into the growth of overseas markets and support our customers in other countries. Historically, we have focused on Japanese culture and used Japanese technologies,’ he says.

Kato’s Design Centre is based in Tokyo and receives an annual budget of about ¥2bn (£9m), inclusive of designers’ salaries. For local knowledge, the company also works with external design consultancies, collaborating with seven groups in the US and five in Europe, including London product design consultancy Sabotage.

The importance of industrial design to Fujitsu’s growth strategy was marked in 2001 when the company elevated the Design Centre to report directly to the board – previously it was a sub-division of the Products Business Support unit. ‘In the past, technology was the main differentiation between companies and brands, but technology is mature now and most companies have access to the same systems. Now design is the main differentiator,’ says Kato.

According to Adrian Berry, partner at Factory Design, Fujitsu currently has a very low profile in the UK when it comes to consumer products. ‘Domestically, there really isn’t very much I can think of. The name is more associated with office equipment than consumer-facing products,’ he says. To drum up Western interest in Fujitsu design, Kato will show the three prototypes at the 2006 International Design Biennale, kicking off in Saint-Étienne, France, today. ‘This fair is one of my most important actions as it will show our design capabilities internationally and communicate our ideas to users,’ says Kato.

The turntable PC uses touchpad technology to allow users to ‘scratch’ CDs. To aid film viewing on the 48cm screen, the keyboard’s back light may be switched off, reducing visual distraction. The second design is a smooth, pebble-shaped mobile phone offering four modes, each activated automatically by sliding the cover in one of four directions to reveal the relevant control keys. The final product is an ‘ultra-mobile’ laptop PC, which folds in three directions to approximately 15cm across, the size of a CD case. In one position, gaming controls replace the keyboard, allowing the device to become a hand-held games machine.

While these models have a technological and aesthetic appeal (the glowing white lines of the turntable PC inevitably evoke Jonathan Ive’s Apple Computer blueprint), what is it that sets the Fujitsu brand apart?

According to Kato, what makes Fujitsu different is its control over the entire manufacturing process and its added security features.

‘The basis of the corporate brand is reliable technology, but these products are a window for the end-user to see into Fujitsu’s products and technology,’ he says. A finger-print reader on the folding laptop, designed to increase user security, is one example of differentiation, he claims. The company’s core IT competence also gives control over the whole manufacturing process, integrating hardware and software in a way that some other manufacturers cannot, according to Kato.

Feedback from the Saint-Étienne fair will be used to take the new designs from prototypes to marketable products. ‘To understand customer needs and desires is by far the most important factor in all product development and marketing strategy, but the last touches and unconscious factors are more at the freedom of the designer,’ says Kato.



FUJITSU

• Design Centre based in Tokyo, Japan, with 136 designers, plus psychologists and ergonomic specialists – and an annual budget of ¥2bn (£9m)

• Kimitaka Kato joined Fujitsu in 1977 after graduating from Kyushu Institute of Design and became general manager of the centre in 2000

• Fujitsu claims to be the third largest IT services group in the world and the market leader in Japan

• Business spans computing, telecommunications, software, IT systems and consulting

• Company is looking to increase non-Japanese sales from 30% to 50% of its total

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