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For smart get Sharp

A resurgent Sharp is positioning itself as a one-stop-shop for the smart office. James Goulding reports

Sharp Inspire 2018
Sharp Inspire 2018

Sharp’s new slogan, Be Original, might be an ironic choice for a copier company. Not that Sharp would see itself in such terms. In fact, even its Business Solutions Group, which derives 90% of its revenue from MFPs, could hardly be described as a copier business.

Today, MFPs are just one component, along with displays, digital signage, video conferencing systems, document management software, managed IT services, cloud services, AI-based digital assistants and even water coolers that the company and its resellers fit together in fully integrated solutions to meet customers’ ‘smart office’ needs.

Sharp Inspire 2018, held in Edinburgh on January 15-18, gave Sharp the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of its capabilities – much improved since Foxconn’s $3.8 billion takeover of the company in August 2016 – and alert dealers and their customers to the new products and technologies it has in the pipeline.

The timing of the event could not have been better, coming off the back of Sharp’s fifth consecutive quarter of net profit and just weeks after the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) reinstated Sharp stock to the first section, having demoted it to the second in 2016.

Jeff Ashida, president of Sharp Electronics Europe, was particularly pleased with this development, telling PrintIT that Sharp Corporation’s reinstatement was not just a technical consideration, but of great significance to the future competitiveness of the company.

“Seeing Sharp stock downgraded from the first section to second section on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in the middle of 2016 was a great disappointment. There is a big difference between section one and section two in terms of corporate credibility and reputation and that affects things like human resources. People like to join a first section company,” he said.

A return to profitability in 2017, based on sales growth of 22%, ensured that Sharp Corporation’s return to the top rank was achieved in record time, after just one year and four months in TSE’s second section.

Mr Ashida attributes Sharp’s rapid recovery over the last 18 months to a combination of cost cutting and structural reform and access to Foxconn’s technological, manufacturing and procurement capabilities, as well as its huge network of technology companies and alliances, which has given Sharp greater presence in the growth markets of China and Asia. He adds that Sharp has also benefited from a change in culture.

Sharp Inspire Expo 2018
Sharp Inspire Expo 2018

“The Foxconn culture is very aggressive, hungry, speedy, agile. Japanese companies don’t have that culture. We might have had it 30, 40, 50 years ago, but on the whole Japanese companies have become mature, if not complacent. A big benefit of Foxconn’s investment is that we are exposed to that aggressive, hungry, energetic, ambitious culture – quick, quick, quick. That brings another dimension,” he said.

The effects are evident in Sharp Corporation’s plans for 2018 and beyond, notably a rapid expansion of its consumer products portfolio, including re-entry into the smartphone market, further development of its LCD TV business and a move back into Sharp-branded white goods.

As Mr Ashida put it: “The recovery phase is over, and we are now on the next phase of acceleration.”

Expanded MFP range

This optimism is also evident in the Sharp Business Solutions Group, one of five business units in Sharp Corporation.

Sharp’s B2B MFP and display business has always been profitable, but its parent company’s financial problems meant that in recent years it wasn’t able to reinvest profits in its own operations. The financial stability that Foxconn brings has changed that and given Sharp the freedom to reinvest in its Business Solutions Group – a good example in the UK being its acquisition of the Midshire dealership – and to accelerate its product development.

Examples on the MFP side include the introduction of a range of A4 printers/MFPs, filling a historic gap in the company’s product portfolio; a new range of A3 MFPs; and a new light production colour device – the first to offer full bleed, edge-to-edge printing of A3 pages saving customers the time and expense of printing and then trimming SRA3 pages.

With the launch of these products, Sharp now has a common interface, print driver, software, supplies and accessories across its entire range. This gives customers the same experience from desktop devices right the way through to light production MFPs, making it easier for them to standardise business operations and document worflows.

A real leadership statement: the Sharp 8K Studio
A real leadership statement: the Sharp 8K Studio

Volume AV range

Sid Stanley, General Manager Europe – Visual Solutions, says that Foxconn’s manufacturing efficiency has also enabled Sharp to strengthen its AV offering, which accounts for just 10% of Business Solutions Group’s revenue, but has grown by 150% since 2014.

“Sharp positions itself as a premium brand and for a long time, because of that and the fact that we had no money, we didn’t enter the volume categories where the numbers are generally great, but the profit margins are very slim. What we were able to do very quickly with Foxconn is introduce a volume range (the PNQ range of large screen monitors). Because we had the right product at the right price, we instantly went from zero to 15% market share,” he said.

“At the same time, Foxconn said ‘let’s be innovative and enter the emerging huddle space’, so we launched two huddle screens and that was 100% incremental business. The huddle concept is still emerging, but that’s an application we have decided to back and will continue to back as users adopt it. Neither of these things would have been possible prior to Foxconn.”

Technology leadership

As well as filling gaps in its product portfolio, Sharp is using Foxconn’s resources to position itself at the forefront of technological innovation, notably in 8K display technologies and what Sharp calls AIoT, a blending of Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things.

Two examples highlighted at Sharp Inspire 2018 were the 8K Studio, which brought together an 8K camcorder and 8K display to capture and display life-like images in incredible detail (Sharp has also launched 8K TVs in China and Japan – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are due to be broadcast in 8K); and the Sharp Digital Assistant, which uses artificial intelligence and Internet of Things technologies to make knowledge workers more productive.

Big Pad Interactive Table
Big Pad Interactive Table

For Sid Stanley, both are technology leadership statements that Sharp wasn’t in a position to make before.

He said: “Once you introduce financial stability to an organisation, it can start re-investing in R&D. You also become energised and move from defence and survival, which is where Sharp was prior to Foxconn, to attack and proactivity. You start seeing strategic intent and vision coming through, both in terms where you are heading and how you will get there with your products.”

He added: “8K is a classic leadership statement: ‘This is where we will be in the 2020s, but let’s become brilliant at it now while it’s an emerging technology’. There’s a big cost and we are not going to get our money back for a long time, but being a leader in 8K, I think, is the basis and foundation for a lot of future success.”

It is also consistent with Sharp’s strategy to develop products and solutions that enable customers to digitise their operations. In this context, Mr Ashida pointed out that the extra detail and clarity provided by 8K technology would enable a doctor to view images broadcast from an operating theatre and conduct operating procedures remotely; security staff to view footage of a crowd scene and zoom in on a single individual with no loss of detail; and building maintenance operatives to view the smallest details, such as a malfunctioning sprinkler nozzle, from video footage capture with a drone-mounted 8K camera.

Sharp Digital Assistant

The Sharp Digital Assistant, pencilled in for a 2019 launch, leverages artificial intelligence to transform day-to-day business activities. A builtin speaker and microphone enables two-way interaction with software and voice control of Big Pad displays and MFPs; a 360-degree camera supports video communications and facial recognition for automatic login; and automatic cloud connectivity provides access to smart cloud services.

Initially, Sharp plans to make the Sharp Digital Assistant available as a component of the Sharp Meeting System concept – an eco-system of meeting services designed to remove the frustrations of meeting scheduling, equipment set-up and connectivity and to provide greater insight into meeting activity and the automatic generation of meeting notes and action points through AI and voice to text conversion.

In the future, it expects to integrate the Digital Assistant with additional subscription services. To facilitate this expansion, Sharp is developing a smart services platform in Europe that will link Sharp devices to meeting services like Webex and leading applications from companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Products as components

Both the 8K Studio and Sharp Digital Assistant highlight another aspect of Sharp’s strategy, which is to focus less on individual devices and more on the development of an eco-system around its products so that they can be used to solve specific business challenges.

Alexander Hermann, President of Information Solutions Europe, likened Sharp products to simple components that partners and Sharp’s direct sales teams can put together, possibly in unique ways, to meet a specific customer need.

“Today, there are fewer instances where a single type of product constitutes a sellable solution. Different hardware devices need to interact and connect with each other to form a solution. Sharp’s products are more like components. It is only when they are brought together that you will have the final product that you can sell to a customer,” he said.

“What we at Sharp are offering is an extremely broad line-up of business hardware and software. We are also developing new concepts and smart ways of linking technology to our daily lives, introducing forward looking ideas that will change the way we work and play. We can hand the component parts of the Smart Office to our partners, but it is up to them to make their choices and assemble them into their own offering.”

Expanding portfolio

Sharp Inspire Expo 2018 provided evidence both of Sharp’s evolving product line-up and how it is combining its hardware and software with software and services from technology partners.

Product highlights included 14 new A4 and A3 MFPs; the frst 4K Big Pad interactive whiteboard for precise annotation; a smaller digital flipchart; the Skywell atmospheric water generator, which uses condensation to extract drinking water from the surrounding air; a Sharp cloud-based videoconferencing solution; and Big Pads built into furniture to meet the needs of huddle rooms (Sharp Plug and Meet), small teams (the Collaboration Station) and primary school children (the Sharp Big Pad Interactive Table).

To illustrate how MFPs, displays, document management solutions and the cloud can be combined to tackle every-day business problems, Sharp demonstrated a series of applications for reception areas, administrative offices, meeting rooms and marketing departments.

These included:

a touch-screen Welcome Board providing a complete self-service solution for reception areas that visitors can use to register their arrival, alert the person they are visiting and print off a name badge;

a Digital Mailroom solution that lets users scan incoming mail on an MFP and index and save it to the cloud where it can be viewed by the addressee in the office or remotely, using a PC, tablet or smartphone;

a Sharp Accounts Payable Workflow that automates the entire process, from the extraction of information from scanned invoices to approval, payment and archiving online in the Sharp Cloud Portal Office;

a Big Pad running Sharp video conferencing software that brings quick and easy collaboration to huddle rooms, as well as the ability to mark-up on-screen documents, distribute copies to meeting participants and connect wireless devices such as tablets and smartphones; and

a digital signage solution that makes it easy to create multimedia content and distribute it via the cloud to multiple screens located on-premise or in public locations.

Unique proposition

Some of these solutions are available now; others won’t be available until later this year or next. What matters most, though, is that they clearly demonstrate Sharp now has the technologies, products, relationships and vision to develop fully integrated and customised solutions for the smart office.

This, according to Mr Ashida, is what sets Sharp apart from its competitors and what will drive future growth for the company.

“We have consumer electronics touch technology and we also have business solutions. We have a business-side and a consumer-side. Then we have the Foxconn alliance, with their funding and their manufacturing capability. They have the money and we have the Sharp brand recognition, the consumer business and the business solutions – document and visual, AI and IoT. Nobody else has that combination. The mixture of those ingredients is very unique,” he said.

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