Flex’s Kettler; edge-compute as bandwidth saver, healthcare next big thing

Flex, formerly Flextronics, is undergoing a pretty major strategic transition – moving from manufacturer to indispensable design partner for many of the world’s largest technology brands. With connected products making up such a large amount of new business, as companies seize the opportunity of the IoT, 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 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 as just the manufacturer. Developing all manner of electronics, from industrial equipment for electrical grids, to consumer electronics, healthcare devices, and also automotive, Flex is taking a bigger slice of the pie in those sectors – with Kettler heading up the enterprise compute wing, which houses most of the big brand names.

Kettler, who joined Flex in May and has previously served as Dell’s CTO after starting his career in IBM, said that this evolution required a change in company thinking, which has now led to Flex running some 28 developer sites to better cooperate with potential customers – as it transitions from an Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) provider to a key development partner.

The shift, Kettler’s main takeaway, is 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 offering. Kettler sees this scaling to around 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 much slower – such as the entrenched healthcare market.

But that market is, encumbered as it be, is apparently an exciting one – 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.

In the automotive side, a multi-billion-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 automakers 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 for 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 really start to tackle the low-power communications needed for IoT devices, instead choosing to focus on going faster and faster. 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 sees edge-computing as a major focus area, with Kettler noting that sub-millisecond latency in 5G isn’t useful if you’re still using a cloud-based application to manage decision-making, as it adds at least 10ms to any communication here. To actually make use of the promised latency, an application would have to use edge-compute resources close to the device, perhaps on the device itself.

The other aspect of 5G is the increased network density, with its base stations promising to support magnitudes more devices per-tower, and per square-mile. Kettler pointed out that edge-computing would help solve both the latency issue for applications, but could also solve the looming bandwidth problem for the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) that would have to build out sufficient bandwidth to their new and very dense 5G networks – in order to haul all that data back to the cloud applications that need it.

For the network customer, there are obvious savings to make by not paying for useless data to be sent up 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 LPWAN 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.

That might be a long-term view, but thinking of edge-compute as a bandwidth saving measure is not something that gets any real discussion, and so getting Kettler’s view on the topic was useful. He added that the combination of WiFi and 5G technologies could be used to provide fixed wireless access points, something that telcos will be quite interested in, thanks to the ability to mitigate the cost of last-mile installations at customer premises.

For the IoT perspective, those CPE devices and supporting infrastructure could provide a hook on which to hang IoT services, both for in-home things like smart home devices, but also metering services, environmental sensing, and asset tracking. Kettler noted that there could be moves to merge WiFi with 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.