Flex sees IoT ecosystem as the future of manufacturing

I believe that the Internet of Things, or IoT, is the future of manufacturing – we call it the Intelligence of Things. It’s also the future of healthcare, automotive safety, aerospace, telecommunications and pretty much every other industry sector. That’s why we’re positioning IoT everywhere at Flex.

Global production, global headaches

Most people have never heard of Flex, but chances are that you’ve used something we’ve produced. We build components for many of the world’s largest OEM product manufacturers, including cell phones, appliances, medical devices and even computers. Our production lines occupy 52 million square feet of factory space globally.

We’re always looking for ways to make our production lines more efficient. Of course we have skilled maintenance crews in each of our facilities, but our goal was to use them to help prevent line breakdowns, not fix them after the fact. We asked ourselves how we could better understand the underlying conditions that lead to specific line failures or even product defects. For each individual piece we build that has an error, it can cost us around 100 times the item’s value to undo the problem after the fact, as opposed to getting it right the first time. The answer was to put the power of IoT and analytics on top of our equipment and product instrumentation.

Prediction, prevention and improvement with IoT

We already use sensors to gather data about the machines that run our production lines. As you can imagine, those sensors generate massive amounts of information. Typically, we’ve used that information to identify malfunctions or imminent breakdowns. But IoT lets us go much further.

Today we’re working with IBM on a pilot that layers Watson IoT on top of the sensor network in one of our automotive parts plants. This gives us visibility into a huge data set that we can use to drill down to specific details that tell us about the health of our manufacturing lines. We can spot issues before they become line-stopping problems. We’re looking at things like rotational vibration and auditory noises, tiny errors that can help us make predictive moves. That kind of visibility lets us decide whether to send the maintenance team today, or whether we can wait a week or a month to prevent a line stoppage.

Furthermore, when we embed IoT into our products themselves, we can further drive errors out of the manufacturing process. Using IoT enables us to analyze the root cause of errors or defects, whether it’s faulty material, equipment, human error or other processes, and remove it from the equation. This helps us drive our costs down, product quality up, and improve the entire manufacturing process.

Positioning IoT everywhere

IoT also complements and helps us improve our robotic assembly lines. Flex has its own robotics lab where we develop the robots that do repetitive actions in critical places where we need consistency and predictability. Even though we program the robots, we still need to measure and analyze their action. For example, we need to know whether a robot is applying the right amount of pressure to seat a memory module in a computer system. IoT helps us pull and analyze the data from millions of sensor points, to help ensure that the robots are doing the most efficient job.

See how Manufacturing is being transformed by Watson IoT

As we continue to instrument and apply IoT analytics to our factories, robots and products, we’re able to analyze new sets of raw data for the first time. Seeing all that data is helping Flex derive intelligence from the information to solve real-world problems. With IoT we believe we can run our lines more efficiently and streamline costs. We anticipate that customers can get their products more quickly because we won’t have as many rejects at the end of the line. Also, our maintenance crews won’t be running around responding to breakdowns. We can tell them where to go and when to be there before problems arise.

The bottom line is that at Flex, IoT is everywhere because we’re constantly looking at places where we can add instrumentation and analytics to our processes and products to achieve more consistent and better outcomes.

Learn how to get more out of your operation. See how Flex is improving quality and consistency in its manufacturing processes by watching the video interview with Bret Martin.