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Flex is a leading sketch-to-scale™ solutions company that designs and builds intelligent products for a connected world, providing innovative design, engineering, manufacturing, real-time supply chain insight and logistics services to companies of all sizes in various industries and end-markets. Flex’s partnership with Lanner goes back over ten years, a long and successful relationship that continues to evolve in line with changing market demands and technological advances.

Recently, Andrew Aitken, COO of Lanner, caught up with Flex senior vice president of global design and engineering, Murad Kurwa. What resulted was an insightful, thought-provoking discussion, taking an in-depth look at some of the key technologies that will shape the future of manufacturing.

Andrew Aitken: So to begin with, Murad, can you tell us what your current role entails?

Murad Kurwa: I’m senior vice president of the advanced engineering group, reporting in to the president of global operations. In simple terms, my group is a matrix organization for both the corporation and corporate technology, as well as the regional manufacturing process and manufacturing development team.

I’ve been with Flextronics since 1998 in different roles, but in my current role I have roughly 250 people reporting in to me across the globe. My team and my role are more on the corporate side of things, providing the central services and support for the organization in the areas of advanced manufacturing, advanced technologies, and electronics, as well as new approaches and methodologies working towards the digital factory. In particular, looking at analytics and other tools, including simulation, is a very important element of my job role and of my group’s charter.

Andrew Aitken: So, at the moment a lot of people are talking about the industrial Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, but one of the interesting things for me is that benefits have to be driven by “imagineering” in partnership with your customers. Flex seems very customer orientated. Can you tell me a little bit about how you are using the voice of the customer to realize value?

MK: The way we manage that is by realizing that not all customers require vast data for managing products and product performance, or for understanding different attributes of how the product is made. But, on the other hand, some customers very much do need this data. So, customer voice is essential if we are to interpret real time data to understand how to take action and, in particular, to understand how do we take action as their manufacturing arm.
It’s almost like looking at a partnership without any walls between our customers and us. Acting as one team, we need to have the ability to not only to find insight in the data but to also take real-time action to prevent downstream failures, avoid any supply disruptions, and prevent any feed issues, all while helping us with the maintainability of our equipment and processes. Customer voice is a must-have for sensitive devices that require this in-depth level of knowledge to optimize performance, so we definitely take that in to consideration throughout.

AA: So can you explain the role that you see predictive simulation playing in your business, both short and long term, as the Internet of Things starts to connect more complex end-to-end processes?

MK: I would break down simulation in to two main facets. One is pure engineering and design related technical simulation, and the other is more operational, where we use Lanner’s WITNESS platform to model our operations.

On the engineering side, we use several tools to simulate thermal, electrical, mechanical and other types of stress, as well as finite element modeling and so forth. This gives us a great advantage, enabling us to design the process, our tooling, fixtures and equipment properly. It gives us the ability to link our design-for-manufacturing requirements and to pass on any suggestions and recommendations to our customers, not only at the early stages of design but at the different stages of the product lifecycle.

If we look at predictive simulation, this is where we would focus on the operation of the entire factory - to optimize a process cell or line simulation. The archaic processes of using Excel, charting and brainstorming have their advantages, but we need to move to an advanced level so that we can speed up the simulation of options, comparisons and, ultimately, our recommendations. Because our timeline to get product from our customers in to our factories, taking them through proof of concept or NPI to mass production, is very short, we need to optimize the speed of our approach. In light of this, advanced technology, such as predictive simulation, is critical for our business.

AA: In terms of the operational use of simulation, clearly you've got some pretty complex supply chains that you seem to be creatively developing and innovating, so are you using predictive simulation to help optimize those supply chains beyond the factory walls?

MK: Yes, we do that very rigorously to ensure we set up the right factories in the right places, by simulating the lead times, the costs, the distances and the necessary suppliers around that product and the factory. It’s particularly relevant for cases where we’re dealing with a completely new customer, new product, new strategy, new business or new customer base.

AA: If we were to look to the future, to look at the deployment of technology in three years’ time, what new uses would it have and what new users would be using this? What would it look like?

MK: I’m actually working on a project today using WITNESS models. I have a team working on simulating and planning activity around the manufacturing of PCBs. Ultimately we need a certain setting in our lines in the factory, resulting in a very high utilization of our assets. There are many different factors involved in the plating process, different lamination and configurations that come together, it’s a very complex process. If you do it by spreadsheets or other, more traditional ways, you may not even know where your hidden factors are. So the future of simulation will be more and more towards high mix, hybrid complex areas such as this, where you have some mammoth processes, some continuous flow processes, and then there are some discrete processes and something that has feeder process, inspections and tests, etc, etc. So how do you plan for maximum utilization of these work centers? That’s what we’re doing at the moment. I think the future for companies like Flextronics will be looking at predictive simulation for those types of operating models.

AA: We're currently working with a company where we have helped them through a major growth change, planning, building and operating a new factory including a virtual reality model that has helped secure new customer contracts. They are now linking to their ERP system so that the exact status of the factory can be dynamically accessed and viewed in a 3D environment. Simply put, we can see ways in which there is going to be a business gamification chapter of simulation. Is that something that you can connect with?

MK: Absolutely. In fact I think our company would be very much interested in learning more about that. We are doing pieces of that by carrying out predictive analytics, combining it with 3D simulation to be able to look at the factory of the future. As new business comes in, we need to see in virtual augmented reality how that layout would look and be able to decide quickly if we need to expand the building or layout, or if we need an in-house supplier to be able to feed the materials. We need that tool; we need to have that capability. We are doing parts of it today. In fact we have an activity around improving our augmented and virtual reality application in the repair process and also in logistics training.

AA: So, in terms of Flextronics, if you were to look at your sweet spot for WITNESS and where you are getting most value, where would that be?

MK: We use WITNESS mainly in the area of factory layout and factory planning, helping us with the initial planning for necessary resources, cycle times, etc. For us right now, this is the best use case and sweet spot.
There are many other areas where we believe WITNESS could benefit us, simulating automation processes in particular. One of the activities that my team and I manage is factory automation. So, robotics, use of robotics, and gantries, and different Cartesian systems and different robots, and how this might dovetail into certain manual processes, or how it might go on in-line to something else. Basically, how we will simulate the likes of robotics, collaborative robots and so forth.

AA: Absolutely. WITNESS has moved forward significantly and the good news is that the latest version that's soon to be rolled out, WITNESS Horizon, is all about making that bridge with three dimensional drag-and-drop. A palette of three dimensional shapes is far easier for users to use quickly, with the added ability of just having to press a 3D button on the technology to provide a 3D representation of the world that they've created. That visualization and user friendliness is very important if we're going to engage and collaborate with the business users and business questions. That's really the important thing our key customers have been telling us. They tell us that our technology is more than feature rich; it's packed full of every feature given its robustness and deployment over many years. But what they do want is the smoothest, user experience, for non-specialists. You need to satisfy your power users who may want to build some complex automation, and do that as quickly as possible, but the ease of deployment and scalability is increasingly important, too.

One of the other things we're doing is developing our cloud offering so that simulation solutions can be accessed consistently around the world by different teams using the cloud. This means they can run different scenarios in the cloud very quickly and have the analytics come back directly to them so that they themselves can get to the right answer, as opposed to at centre somewhere, where somebody else will have built that engine that’s hidden behind the dashboard. So I definitely hear what you’re saying.

Moving on from this, you manage such a global team, Murad, how does your team share and distribute information, particularly in terms of simulation? And how do you then use that information to make decisions when you've got team members all over the world?

MK: That's another good question. In our organization we have to ensure good levels of control and a good job of disseminating best practice know-how. We actually have a best practice team and a best practice portal, and all our know-how, past experiences and history, anything we do including analytics, simulation and new technology deployment is kept in our central data repository that’s user access searchable with key fields and data. At the same time, we also push out this know-how on a monthly and quarterly basis. We use all possible channels, such as blogs and webinars, to push and pull different business development and global accounting engagements, so they are all up to speed with what engineering is doing, to make sure they’re fully aware of developments when talking with customers.
We've discussed WITNESS several times in our groups and our organizations throughout the globe so we are very cognizant if things are not disseminated in a right way, in a timely manner, or if it gets stale. We (myself included) are very active in providing that information and we evangelize a great deal of our practices and technologies within the company.

AA: And connected with that, Murad, maintaining your capabilities and skills, there's a learning curve to simulation modeling capability, as you well know. Obviously with people moving quickly through the organization, a growing organization like yours, you're constantly training and developing an inflow through that learning curve. How do you manage that?

MK: We have Flex University, within which we have various different training programs, which are also linked through leadership programs on skills (soft skills, hard skills and development) and growing different members of various organizations within Flextronics. So Flex University is a key area of both pushing and pulling the training and then our business leadership program training also encourages training to hone our skills. So we use the Flextronics internal system first, and then we look to external training programs to fine tune skills in certain areas. In fact, we have attended WITNESS training from time to time.

AA: One of the reasons I ask is that with the Internet of Things, the biggest differentiator is going to be highly capable people. It's encouraging to hear Flex University is forward thinking. What seems to come across is Flextronics as a blend of an established organisation with an almost start-up mentality. Is that a fair comment?

MK: Absolutely, that's exactly the way to think. We are always on the lookout for new ideas and new opportunities, new options, new ways of doing business and bringing new solutions. People make a big difference in our company so we are also always looking to bring in the right talent to keep a good balance. And, the culture of the company is immense. It's huge and it touches everyone to the core. So those three factors combined help us to keep looking at ourselves as a small company, maintaining that start-up mentality, willing to take a risk. The company gives us the option to take risk, enabling us to go out and venture those ideas, and bring those ideas to fruition.
So, with Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and robotics just a few of things discussed, it’s safe to say that technological change is happening at an astounding speed. What this discussion highlights, however, is that businesses such as Lanner and Flex are more than ready to embrace change, and are often themselves the facilitators of change, providing their customers with the right tools and resources to ensure they’re at the front of the queue when it comes to future-proofing their businesses.

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Flex is a leading sketch-to-scale™ solutions company that designs and builds intelligent products for a connected world, providing innovative design, engineering, manufacturing, real-time supply chain insight and logistics services to companies of all sizes in various industries and end-markets.

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