Flex eyes 5G as it shifts from manufacturer to design partner

Flex, formerly Flextronics, is undergoing a major strategic transition – moving from contract electronics manufacturer to strategic design partner for many of the world’s largest technology brands, and hoping to ride the 5G wave to accelerate its transition.

With connected products making up such a large amount of new business, as companies seize the opportunity of the Internet of Things, the company has brought in new leadership to ensure it snares as much of that new business as possible.

Kevin Kettler, Flex’s CTO and SVP of communications and enterprise compute, explained the company’s evolution, which increasingly sees it jointly developing products with its customers – a big shift from its days the manufacturer of others’ designs.

Developing all manner of electronics, from industrial equipment for electrical grids, to consumer electronics, healthcare devices, and also automotive, Flex is targeting a bigger slice of the pie in those sectors.

Kettler’s enterprise compute wing houses most of the big brand names. He joined Flex in May and has previously served as Dell’s CTO, after starting his career in IBM. He acknowledged that the evolution required a change in company thinking, which has led to Flex running some 28 developer sites to cooperate better with potential customers.

He believes that companies like Flex have seen their roles change – from contract manufacturers to co-developers. Kettler said that extensive insight into the manufacturing processes were key to this, and that the emerging overlap between industries meant that elements and ideas could be cross-pollinated.

Noting that a more unified industry was good for business, Kettler said that around 25% of all designs are now sketch-to-scale – the term used for that co-development process. Kettler sees this increasing to 35%-40% in the next few years, as companies look to outsource development in order to focus on software and service. The CTO said that this shift was similar to that seen in the compute industry, but noted that some industries move far more slowly – such as the entrenched healthcare market.

But that market is, encumbered as it be, is apparently an exciting one now it is becoming connected and digital – with Flex promising announcements shortly. Aggregating and conveying data, carrying out patient monitoring, and linking insurance providers with healthcare providers – Flex is hoping to have an angle in all of those applications. Kettler said aftercare cost reductions and compliance were the main focus areas, as well as preventative care – to keep humans in better health through early intervention, much like predictive maintenance for machinery.

On the automotive side, a multibillion dollar business for Flex, the company saw that it could cross-pollinate using its experience in the enterprise compute wing, in terms of designing computers to be used in difficult and hot environments. Kettler said that most auto makers are currently aligning their strategies to focus on 5G adoption – because of the potential uses of extremely low latency communications, which are potentially well-suited to real time applications. High bandwidth communications are also of great interest for these customers, and again, the enterprise commute teams hope to bring their experience to bear in those joint design partnerships.

Of 5G in general, Kettler said that it was distinct from previous cellular transitions, as it offers both high bandwidth and low latency options – notably different from LTE, which took until the Release 12 to start to tackle the low power communications needed for IoT device in earnest.

Kettler agreed that there is still a lot up in the air, as 5G is still pre-standard, but noted that there are opportunities for Flex’s sectors here. The company also sees edge computing as a major focus, with Kettler noting that sub-millisecond latency in 5G isn’t useful if you’re still using a cloud-based applications to manage decision making, as it adds at least 10ms to any communication round trip. To make use of the promised ultra-low latency of 5G, an application would have to use edge compute resources close to the device, perhaps on the device itself.

The other aspect of 5G is increased network density, with its base stations promising to support far more devices per tower, and per square mile. Kettler pointed out that edge computing would also help solve the looming bandwidth problem for mobile operators, saving all the data having to be hauled back to the cloud. Parameter-defined alerts or simple delta-based changes could be sent, instead of streaming every single reading from each of the sensors a gateway manages. That gateway can be fitted with enough compute power to manage the local processing, allowing it to intervene if needed, or simply enforce policies or rules for the edge devices.

For the operator, encouraging edge compute for remote locations means potentially avoiding costly network upgrades or SLA breaches. While many MNOs would like to profit from carrying those useless packets, there will come a point where price competition from services like low power WANs will tip the scales – and those MNOs might find themselves wanting to offload those readings to an edge processor that can sort the wheat from the chaff.

From the IoT perspective, devices and supporting infrastructure could provide a hook on which to hang IoT services, for smart home systems, but also metering services, environmental sensing and asset tracking. Kettler noted that there could be moves to merge WiFi into the 5G standards processes, rising from a desire to implement a seamless handover system to jump devices from 5G cellular networks to WiFi.

Kettler said that all Flex customers were interested in increasing their connectivity options, ranging from white goods appliances to streetlights. He said there had been great progress in this regard, and that 5G could eventually help greatly in unification – as a bridge or link between different ecosystems.