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Business trends

Old clunky PCs hamper Japanese production from going high-tech

Some machines on the factory floor are 30 years old with floppy drives

PC Expert in Chiba Prefecture fixes aging personal computers for clients across Japan. (Photo by Hidetsugu Shimazu)

TOKYO -- As the "internet of things" revolutionizes manufacturing worldwide, many Japanese factories struggle to keep pace due to outdated personal computers on their production lines.

Hundreds of thousands of computers no longer supported by software updates are believed to be operating across Japan. Many of them simply lack the defenses to protect interconnected factories from outside cybersecurity threats.

PC Expert, a computer repair shop in Chiba Prefecture, receives more than 100 inquiries from around the country each month. Its interior is filled to the brim with outdated models, some running on long-obsolete operating systems like Windows 95.

"We are contacted not only by smaller manufacturers but also by big corporations like automakers that are desperate to keep old computers running for longer," said PC Expert chief Tatsuya Morita. Some have even brought in 30-year-old computers with floppy disk drives, he said.

Since the 1980s, computers have become a critical component of many factories. While many kinds of production equipment are made to last for decades, the computers that run them are intended to be used for only four or five years.

Data released in June by the Japan Machinery Federation shows that 62.4% of the country's factory equipment is at least 10 years old, and 19.1% is 30 or older.

Factories usually shy away from making changes once a system is up and running. A site could suffer massive losses if production comes to a halt because of compatibility issues with a new computer.

Replacing an entire production line and its related computers can cost huge amounts of money. Fixing old computers usually takes a fraction of that, leading more companies to hold on to old units that are far past their original life span.

It may make sense in the short-term to scrape by with minimal fixes, but it can cause problems in the long run. Connecting outdated computers to sensors and other equipment through the internet poses security risks, since unsupported operating systems have less protection against cyberattacks.

The WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 took advantage of such weaknesses. It disrupted operations at Honda Motor and other companies by targeting old computers that were running without updated security protections.

Soracom, a unit of telecommunications provider KDDI, provides specialized data links so companies can tap the internet of things without exposing old computers to outside risks. The company had 1 million contracts as of June.

Still, independent networks do not guarantee security, since they can be infected through compromised flash drives and other devices. Replacing outdated computers with up-to-date models offers the best defense against cyberthreats.

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