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ML Journal June 2022

CASE STUDY: Flex Empowers Employees with LISA Avatar Assistant

LISA, Flex’s ML Award-winning avatar-based line stop assistant, helps significantly improve front line operations while empowering employees to succeed.   

Company Fact File

Company: Flex
Sector: Technology, Supply Chain, Manufacturing Solutions
HQ location: San Jose, Calif., U.S.
Revenues: $10 billion+
Employees: 5,000+ employees, 30 countries
Web url: www.flex.com

Flex’s factory in Althofen, Austria, faced a business challenge: How to make its product lines more efficient in a high-mix, low-volume manufacturing environment where small inefficiencies can have an outsized impact on both the manufacturer’s and the customers’ bottom line.

Flex’s Althofen factory makes more than 500 products in lot sizes ranging from 100 to 3 million pieces, for more than 30 customers. In any given month, the factory manufactures products ranging from parts for lawn mowers to components for automotive GPS systems to Class III medical devices. Every time there is a product changeover, the equipment on the line is reconfigured, a process that requires precision and accuracy. And the factory performs more than 900 of these line changeovers every month.

“It is like a NASCAR pit stop – moving parts, moving people, and every second makes a difference,” says Paul Baldassari, Flex Executive Vice President.

The Flex team was tasked with finding a way to use automation to reduce costly errors that took place during product changeovers. However, like a NASCAR pit stop, success depends not only on the right technology, but also the skillset of workers who can quickly and efficiently shift gears as needs and product lines change.

“LISA has already helped the factory reduce changeover time by 10.5%, reduce line clearance time by 85%, and reduce quality-related downtime by 56%, all while empowering employees to succeed.”

 

The result is LISA, Flex’s avatar-based line stop assistant. This innovative system is already putting the company on the fast track when it comes to stopping a production line that is wrongly configured for the product and stopping untrained operators from proceeding. In fact, LISA has already helped the factory reduce changeover time by 10.5%, reduce line clearance time by 85%, and reduce quality-related downtime by 56%, all while empowering employees to succeed.

Using Agile Principles to Solve Real-Life Issues

Before the LISA project began in January 2019, employees had checklists they had to reference before setting up the assembly lines. But errors could still slip through the cracks due to the manual processes. This caused a lot of stress to front-line workers in terms of error prevention and the need to double check their work.  In one particularly costly scenario, the production line was inadvertently set up to include nitrogen and the output had to be scrapped.

The two primary objectives Flex was looking to achieve were to gain optimal efficiency by empowering employees on the floor to stop wrongly configured productions lines; and to eliminate waste and inefficiency by identifying scenarios in which untrained operators were configuring lines they weren’t trained to configure.

Using Agile principles, a lean group of representatives from disciplines across the organization put their heads together to find ways to accomplish these two objectives. Because the Althofen site had been investing in digital solutions for several years, it happened that there were two critical elements for the solution already in place. On the one hand, a digital source of the correct parameters was needed to manufacture a product. On the other hand, the team needed real-time data coming from the shop floor equipment that provides the actual parameters. These two elements were present, so the team accepted to challenge to combine them in a creative way to solve this operational challenge.

Empowering Workers by Design

Because Flex’s leadership team views employees as the company’s greatest asset, they wanted to empower workers to be valued contributors to the process, particularly during times when new automation capabilities are introduced to their work environments. They knew that the success of the project would depend as much on employee acceptance as it would on the technology and data sources. They also knew that employees could actively resist the introduction of LISA if they felt it was a system simply put on top of employee workflows to report errors and “correct” workers.

“The transformation journey of our Althofen site is a perfect example of Flex’s commitment to advanced manufacturing practices and technologies, continuous improvement, and developing our most important asset – our people.”
Paul Baldassari

With this in mind, the team decided to design LISA as an avatar-based system that had a literal “face” employees could interact with. The avatar approach enabled Flex to demonstrate to employees that LISA was a tool designed to assist them and help them to do their jobs more efficiently. It helped employees regard the tool as a valuable assistant, able to serve and empower them in their roles. As a result, the LISA system has become a valuable contributor to the Flex culture of employee empowerment.

For example, LISA has helped reduce stress for front-line workers by giving them an automated layer of confidence, quality, and safety to ensure success. The elimination of tedious and repetitive work has not only reduced waste but has also freed employees to focus on higher value-add and more interesting activities. In addition, it has reduced the workload, enabling employees to quickly access real-time information, helping them make fact-based decisions to improve efficiency throughout the value chain.

Lessons Learned and ROI Gained

It was only after using LISA that the Flex team in Althofen has also been able to understand some of the limitations of the data that had been informing line production decisions. Because LISA is driven by objective facts, the system does not have the same biases that humans do, biases that often cause employees to correct data without even realizing it. LISA ensures that the data being used to determine production line assembly is accurate and up to date, creating better and more precise outcomes.

LISA’s early results have been promising. The average time to change over a product line before the implementation was 13 minutes. Currently, the Althofen factory average time of changeover stands at 11 minutes, 39 seconds — a reduction of 10.5%, thanks to LISA.

Other metrics resulting from the LISA implementation in Althofen include:

  • Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) has increased 18%, with an average of 900 product changeovers per month.
  • Potential errors through the use of the digital Poka Yoke Solution (otherwise known as “mistake proofing”) were reduced from 900 to 0 per month.
  • Quality related downtimes were reduced by 56%.
  • Line clearance time to check if the operator is trained on work area time reduced by 85%.

Innovation Leads to Accolades

LISA is another proof point of the company’s unwavering commitment to innovation that improves the customer experience. LISA will allow Flex customers to save money, reduce waste, and get their products to market more quickly, making it a more attractive diversified manufacturing partner and strengthening the company’s competitive position.

“LISA has helped reduce stress for front-line workers by giving them an automated layer of confidence, quality, and safety to ensure success.”

 

Thanks in part to the results delivered by the LISA project, Flex’s Althofen factory was admitted into the World Economic Forum’s Lighthouse Network in September 2021. The Global Lighthouse Network’s focus is to accelerate inclusive technology adoption in manufacturing by building a cross-industry network that includes some of the most advanced factories and connected value chains worldwide.

The Althofen site’s demonstration of how it has deployed 4IR technologies to improve operational efficiency and agility to develop a more substantial and differentiated advantage, also garnered the company a 2022 Manufacturing Leadership Award for Operational Excellence.

Flexing Into the Future

While the current iteration of LISA was deployed in the second half of 2020, Flex will continue to iterate and make improvements throughout LISA’s lifecycle and as the needs of the business change.

Although LISA system began life in the Althofen factory, Flex plans to roll it out to twelve additional manufacturing sites in 2022 to support the company’s global digital transformation efforts.

“The transformation journey of our Althofen site is a perfect example of Flex’s commitment to advanced manufacturing practices and technologies, continuous improvement, and developing our most important asset – our people,” says Baldassari.  M

About the author:
Sue Pelletier
, a contributing editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Journal, is a seasoned writer/editor with experience in online, social media, e-newsletter, tablet app, book and e-book, and print publications..

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