In a factory here, workers in the smart company jackets of Sony Corp. are making video monitors that bear the logo "IBM." In a plant near Tokyo, other Sony employes are turning out disc drive units for computers made by Apple and Hewlett-Packard.
Sony is taking orders for semiconductors from all over the world, and expects $48 million in sales this year. Meanwhile, Sony executives are planning bigger business in broadcast video systems and office automation.
There is a new focus at Sony on the "nonconsumer." The company that built its fortune with rapid-fire innovation of products for the home now is talking about selling to offices and factories.
The company that built a $4 billion-a-year business by sticking to finished products with the Sony label is now willing to be an anonymous subcontractor, making parts and products that other companies will pass off as their own.
This crucial shift in strategy is occurring as Sony nears the 40th anniversary of its founding in a fire-damaged department store building in postwar Tokyo. The change is part logical evolution, part response to its most serious financial crisis in decades.
Chairman and cofounder Akio Morita is quick to refute any suggestions that Sony is running out on the consumer. His latest offering -- "a real sensational product," he calls it -- is a battery-powered compact disc player modeled after the Walkman cassette player.
Still, Morita notes that times are changing. "Competitiveness in the consumer field is getting much keener than before," he said. "Mark-up or margin in the consumer business is squeezed year by year. . . . The industrial side is more profitable."
In lower-scale consumer goods, Sony and other Japanese producers are taking a beating from newly industrializing Asian competitors such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Korean color TVs have cut deeply into Sony's sales in the United States.
Morita says the key is to expand industrial production while maintaining a firm hold on the upper-scale audio and video market. If people are willing to pay the extra cost of a compact disc player or a hi-fi video player, there is money to be made.
Currently, only about 20 percent of Sony's sales are in nonconsumer goods. The plan is to raise the figure to 50 percent by the end of the decade.
This change would make Sony similar to many of its major competitors in Japan, such as Matsushita (whose products include the Panasonic brand) and Hitachi, which already have major sales in industrial systems.
Through its history, Sony has had ups and downs in profits, a natural product of its stock in trade of developing new types of consumer entertainment systems and then creating the market for them.
Some have been fantastically successful: About 12 million Walkmans have been sold worldwide since 1979, when Sony introduced the concept of high-quality stereo sound on the run.
Others have flopped. After rushing its Beta videotape system to the consumer market in 1975, Sony watched its competitors gang up with the opposing VHS system and quickly dominate sales. (Although Sony makes VHS tape, it continues to refuse to make the machines that play it.)
Still, fiscal 1983 was a shock. For the first time in memory, consolidated income actually dropped, falling by 0.3 percent to about $4.7 billion.
On the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Sony's shares plunged, and the Japanese financial press, to which the company had been a symbol of the postwar recovery, unleashed a torrent of stories about the death of "the Sony myth."
Morita blames the setback on sales drops caused by worldwide recession and the company's failure to recognize it promptly and cut back production. As a result, factory stockrooms around the world were piled high with unsaleable TVs, VCRs and sound equipment.
Belt-tightening followed. Some Sony factories cut to three or four days' production a week to clear inventory. Employe rolls fell by attrition, executives flew economy class and administrative offices got strict orders to cut costs by 10 percent.
Planners even turned on the once-sacred research and development budget, going only with projects that had good prospects of turning into something to sell in the near future.
The crisis helped rouse Sony into beginning a major consolidation and modernization of production plants. Components were redesigned to reduce labor and were standardized. Automation was introduced. Circuit board production, for instance, was centralized at a plant near Nagoya, where 90 percent of each board's pieces are installed by machine.
Managers reached the conclusion that Sony should begin subcontracting work. It was argued that the group's huge investment in semiconductor production would make no financial sense if used only in-house. "By selling to many people, we can reduce the unit cost," Sony Deputy President Masaaki Morita said.
Taboos against private-label production for others also were discarded. Sony had done a bit of this earlier -- it supplied Betamax VCRs for sale under the Zenith brand.
Now the company's Ichinomiya plant in Nagoya is producing color monitors for use in a computer design system that IBM sells. (Sony is sensitive about this contract and declined to show a reporter the production line.)
Morita and other old-timers at Sony profess to feel unperturbed when they see someone else's name going on Sony quality. "Putting on the IBM name is prestigious, even for us," said Hitoshi Sohma, general manager of the Ichinomiya plant.
Sony also has decided to push for new sales of finished industrial equipment, a field in which it is already a major force. It controls most of Japan's broadcasting video equipment market and claims a 50 percent share of the U.S. market.
As underdeveloped countries such as China expand the reach of their TV networks, Sony plans to be there selling simple studio equipment. In the industrialized world, it plans to press ahead into high-definition and other next-generation equipment.
Morita said the shakeup has rendered Sony "very healthy." Its stock has recovered, although it remains well below the prices of the boom years. But among the public and outside analysts, Sony still has not recovered its reputation for invincibility.
"The buds of a revival have appeared," said Eiji Azuma, who watches Sony for Daiwa Securities Research Institute. "But I am waiting to see whether they continue to grow. The products they have now are not sufficient to revive the Sony myth."