During CES 2021, Panasonic announced a variety of new products and innovations in entertainment, mobility and automotive, sustainability, wellness, lifestyle, and food retail. The Panasonic CES 2021 Digital Experience featured plenty of innovations, such as PTZ and Lumix cameras, VR glasses, Technics headphones, Pro AV gear for eSports arenas, the Cosmos air filtration system, Aura meditation technology, and a new augmented reality (AR) HUD for automobiles. But, behind all this new hardware and is an enterprise tech story that was shaped by the events of 2020.

SEE: CES 2021: The big trends for business (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

I had a chance to speak with Faisal Pandit, President of Panasonic Systems Solutions Company of North America, about some of the company’s CES 2021 announcements as well how the company has worked with its cusomters to help them adjust or accelerate their digital transformation plans in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is a transcript of the interview edited for readability.

How Panasonic went remote in a matter of days and helped customers continue operations during COVID

M. Faisal Pandit, President of Panasonic System Solutions Company of North America
Image: Panasonic

Bill Detwiler: You and I had a great conversation last year, or I should say in 2020, at CES. And we were talking about digital transformation, both about what Panasonic had been doing and was doing internally, but also how you were helping your customers achieve their digital transformation goals. And I don’t think either of us knew how important those efforts would be in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and how companies would have to dramatically accelerate their digital transformation plans. So talk about what Panasonic did over the last year in the wake of the pandemic to accelerate its plans or to make sure that it was on the right track. And then I’d love to hear how you helped your customers achieve their goals.

Faisal Pandit: Sure. I can start out by saying that COVID-19 accelerated those digital transformation initiatives across multiple markets. Prior to COVID crisis hitting us, concepts like agile digital transformation were still… I wouldn’t call them in infancy. It was not a widespread adoption. There was still some hesitancy at multiple levels. Do we make these investments? Are we ready for the returns? Should we hold off? But COVID kind of changed the dynamics in many ways. And I’ll talk about some specific market scenarios that we dealt with, but.

But taking a step back, for us, it was like any other company, a major, major change. Back when this crisis hit around March timeframe, like any other company, there was a bit of a panic, but as soon as we got out of that, we were looking at a tremendous level of uncertainty facing us. But what worked well was, we were able to sort of prioritize things. We said, “Customer are important, so we need to focus on customers. We need to make sure that they’re able to sustain their operations, they’re able to continue with their business as much as possible.” Number two, and in no particular order, was a safety and wellbeing of our employees. We didn’t want to put them in any kind of difficult situation. And number three was our focus on continuation of our key initiatives, investing in the longterm of the business.

Faisal Pandit: So coming back to the customer part, about 30% of our business comes from… And I’m speaking about the System Solutions business that I run. About 30% of our business comes from government sector, public safety, federal frontline workers, essential services. So it was extremely critical, extremely important for us to make sure that there’s no disruption on that front. It wasn’t just catering to the needs of a certain customer space. It was helping manage the COVID impact.

Image: Panasonic

So then as far as the employee safety was concerned, it was important for us to more move to a remote working model as efficiently as possible. And surprisingly, we did really well. In a matter of days we were able to take the entire workforce remote without any major disruptions. There were obviously some startup issues, but we’re able to work through those issues fairly well. And if you would have asked me at the last CES conversation we had, “Can you imagine taking your organization remote in a matter of few days?” in a matter of seconds I’d have said, “No, that’s not possible.” But we did it. And that’s a reflection of the agility of the organization that gives us a lot of confidence, that innate ability that we have of being agile. And that sent a very strong message to the organization.

And lastly, the investment in the future was really critical, because sort of the typical reaction in such situations is, “Let’s wait and watch. Let’s hold on, stay on the sidelines, and then deal with things as they happen.” But we didn’t want to lose our momentum, the traction that we had put on, especially on the digital transformation initiatives. We didn’t want to lose that. We wanted to continue with that. So we were able to, albeit at a smaller scale, we had to cut back in certain ways, but we continue to maintain the traction. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with what we did.

We also set some worst-case expectations from a business point of view, just to make sure that we don’t have to go back to our employee base again and again. We don’t have to go back to our customers and create any kind of major disruption. Eliminating uncertainty was a key focus area for us, because we wanted to make sure our customers what we can deliver, and we communicated that upfront with full transparency. Our employees knew what they would have to deal with. We made sure they understood that. And thereafter it was all about execution. Fortunately things improved over the months, and that helped us continue traction on some of the key areas that we had outlined for us.

Panasonic Food Locker
Image: Panasonic

Now, as far as the impact on customers and the markets, to my earlier comment about how this COVID experience kind of accelerated the transformation in the markets… So one of the best cases of that transformation was the food services industry. You have restaurants have shut down. You can’t dine in, but you still got to eat, so you still got to make it happen. So delivery and pickup services increased drastically. And again, because of our focus on that market for many years, because of our belief that that market is ripe, for digital transformation, that market in order for it to sustain in the long run, has to adopt a different set of practices, we had already put some initiatives in place, for instance, our focus on drive-through efficiencies through our ruggedized Toughbook devices, ruggedized tablets. We had also invested in an initiative around smart lockers, both hot and cold and ambient, and that worked out quite well, because that was clearly a need. The need was contactless technology. How do you pick up food without having to engage with a person in the store? And we were able to roll out our food locker services to several customers. And that product line has gained so much traction, and there’s so much interest in that [space] to remain.

Along those lines, our manufacturing space… Again, manufacturing brings a cluster of people together, so obviously that can be a challenge when you are in the midst of a global pandemic. So what we did was we put a lot of focus on rolling out new systems and services that would reduce the reliance on people, that would automate a lot of aspects of the manufacturing floor, and again, along those lines, some workflow efficiency tools focusing on employee safety, focusing on reducing the reliance on manual processes, and so on and so forth.

So back in March and April, I couldn’t have imagined that we’d get busier, we’d be doing some really radical technology development that would change the course of some of these industries in the long run. And as far as our employees are concerned, we were able to manage the transition quite well. Customers did not see any major impact from our end. We maintained solid technical support. We maintained the engagement, virtual, unfortunately, in most cases, but we made it happen.

Digital transformation: Lessons learned from COVID and our new normal

Bill Detwiler:  So I’m curious to drill down on that first point you talked about, which was the hesitancy that some leaders had to really push forward with digital transformation because of the investment required or because the uncertainty around the ROI or when it would pay back those investments. It seems that out of necessity that that went away in the midst of the pandemic, because it was really adapt or perish.

Faisal Pandit: Right.

Bill Detwiler: And so what was that like in… Or do you think that that lesson will be carried forward to the next set of decisions that IT leaders are making?

Faisal Pandit: I sure hope so, but please keep in mind that our memory sometimes is limited, so once a crisis is over, we get back to some level of normalcy. But I hope the lessons of this crisis are strong enough that people will continue to remain vigilant about the need for change, especially in some of these industries. I think it goes back to people avoiding disruption. You want to minimize changes within your operations. You want to avoid disruption. You fear disruption. And sometimes people are not ready for that. But I think this crisis has made it very clear that, one, the companies that are successful are the ones who are willing to embrace change, who are willing to go out on an abstract idea at times, and embrace it, and make the necessary investments. It doesn’t mean you have to create an imbalance in your organization, in your business, to the point that you tilt it towards more futuristic initiatives, but finding the right balance.

And I think it really speaks to the leadership talent that exists out there, because there are some people who are so focused on the short-term investing for the sake of investors. Then that creates a very short-term focus. But there are some trailblazers out there who have demonstrated over the years their ability to think ahead. And we hope that some of the people who have been on the sidelines in the past will learn from these lessons. And that goes back to our company’s philosophy. We’ve talked about how one of the key success factors for Panasonic’s 100 years of success has been its focus on the long run. We don’t necessarily get too shaken up by near-term swings, the upside or downside. We invest in the long run. And some of the initiatives that we were able to launch during COVID, they wouldn’t have been possible if we had not made those investments in the previous years, anticipating some level of change, certainly not to this extent.

Bill Detwiler: So let’s talk about that long-run view. I’d love to get your take on what you think and what you’re hearing from customers about the technologies that have been developed as a response to the pandemic and the business processes that have been developed as a response to the pandemic that are going to carry forward. So you mentioned contactless delivery, the food locker programs. And I’ve had this conversation with so many companies about changes that they’ve made and they don’t see going back. There is a new normal, and I know it’s a little cliche to use that term. But what do you see as those processes and technologies that are going to go forward with us?

Faisal Pandit: Sure. You start off with the work from home model. That’s created a completely different space, a new set of technologies. Again, nothing drastically new. They were there, but they were sort of not emphasized. They got the right attention through this COVID crisis. You have collaboration tools. You have remote communication tools that are going to be a strong focus going forward. I don’t expect everybody to work from home forever. I think there will be hybrid model. But there will be more focus and emphasis on the ability to use technology for collaboration, on the ability to use technology for remote communication.

For instance, on the remote communication side, we’ve had significant investments from various parts of the markets, house of worship, education, in building infrastructure for remote communication. Now, once we get back to normal, they’re not going to pull that apart, but what they’re going to do is take it to the next level. The experience it’s going to be more of an immersive experience. So far, given the limited time we had, the focus was on delivering content in any way, shape, or form, just to get job done. But it has to move on to the next level. It has to be more engaging. You cannot conduct virtual engagement through some webinars and expect people to sit there for half an hour. So the remote communication aspect is going to go to a much higher level, primarily in terms of content, primarily in terms of experiences, primarily in terms of being able to pull multiple aspects together and create an ecosystem around it. For instance, we are working on an initiative around education delivery model, obviously using our technology, coupling that with some lecture capture technology, adding additional immersive content on top of that to change the educational experience. So that’s more from a more from collaboration, remote communication.

Then we take it to the next level sort of in the field. I go back to what I talked about earlier, the manufacturing space, the public safety space ,and the food services. Food services, contactless technology is there to stay. That doesn’t mean it’s going to kill a dine-in, but it is going to be a shift, because there was already a shift, given the interest and the desire from the millennials who wanted to have less engagement and wanted to have those options, so there will be more investments in that. Again, the level of interest we’re seeing from some major names clearly tells me that that’s there to stay. So food lockers, more emphasis on drive-through technology, is going to go up again.

Again, if you go back to the conversations we’ve had, the food service, especially the chains, the quick-service restaurants, already had some serious challenges in terms of managing the high demand that was coming into the restaurant and being able to deal with that. So that is going to see a shift towards emergence of ghost kitchens, so they are coming up at a very rapid pace. We are working with a major player in that industry. And I can tell you, the rapid growth store after store and the adoption by some major retail outlets of the model has created a tremendous amount of opportunity. When you talk about, for instance, ghost kitchen which caters to the delivery and pickup needs, the model is going to be really different. It’s almost a technology-enabled setup. Again, the customer facing aspects are not going to be that important. It’s, get me the food ready on time and make sure I’m able to manage demand as efficiently as possible. So what are you going to see in a ghost kitchen? You’re going to see kiosks. You’re going to see integrated mobile platforms. You’re going to see food lockers and so on and so forth. So bringing all these pieces together would require a very seamless integration. And I think that’s where we would see, for instance, the food service pivot towards.

Faisal Pandit: On the public safety side, for instance, we’ve seen impact on funding, especially with tax revenues getting impacted during this year. We will see an impact on public safety initiatives at the state and local levels. So they are going to invest in workflow efficiency models to make sure that they are efficient in delivering their services.

Along those lines on the manufacturing space, again, we’re seeing an uptick in the demand, and that demand is not going to be addressed through manual labor or through additional labor resources in any way. In order for them to be competitive, they need to continue to accelerate their IT adoption and a broader digital adoption.

CES 2021: Panasonic focuses on digital transformation

Bill Detwiler: Well, let’s drill down on some of those new technologies that we’ve been talking about. What does Panasonic have coming up at CES, or what are you announcing at CES 2021?

Faisal Pandit:  A lot of exciting stuff. I’m disappointed we won’t be there in person, because I always enjoy the opportunity to interact with customers and talk about all the interesting things that we’re doing. But broadly speaking, we’re focused on immersive entertainment, smart mobility, lifestyle, wellness, food services, again, areas that we identified as key focus areas for digital transformation.

Illuminarium Experience’s, WILD: The World’s First Virtual Safari, will open in Atlanta in mid-2021. The “interactive spectacle” will use the Panasonic PT-RQ50k, a large venue native 4K laser projector.
Image: Panasonic

So on the entertainment side, we have a very broad portfolio of technologies that allows us to create these amazing experiences, whether it’s in a stadium, whether it’s in a museum, or whether it’s Olympics, a very different set of scale needs that can be managed through these technologies. So we’re announcing a partnership with Illuminarium Experiences, which is a digitally delivered global experiential entertainment brand that creates these custom-designed venues called illuminariums and will be delivering technology, that it display projection technology, and certain content. And that would be a big part of our launch at CES, and we’re very excited about that, because again, it extends the extends the reach of our immersive entertainment focus that has been very important for us over the last couple of years.

So yeah, along those lines, we have multiple announcements on our automotive side. We are announcing the next generation cockpit and cabin experience with improved capabilities on the in-vehicle infotainment systems and our e-cockpit. We’re also launching our augmented reality heads-up display through collaboration with certain partners, and our first truly wireless, ruggedized, automotive grade video camera and wireless in-vehicle charging technology. So quite a bit of innovation continuing to roll out. And you’ve got to keep in mind that in spite of the COVID, we’ve not held back on that innovation, because we believe that these are critical needs of the market. These are some game-changing innovations that are important, and we’re committed to them.