Today, we turn our attention to our Corporate Commercial Innovation team. Working out of our innovation centers in Boston and Silicon Valley, this team is chartered with identifying and adopting technologies that provide our customers with strategic advantages. This team of dozens is staffed by engineers, designers and project leaders. We asked Ben Cooper, global leader of the commercial innovation practice, to pull back the curtain on some of the key technologies Flex is betting on, the projects his team is working on, and an ideal technology portfolio that helps our customers win.
Following is an excerpt of our conversation with Ben.
How do we connect the work that your team is doing to what we tangibly deliver to customers?
Our team works closely with our business unit leaders to understand their priorities and market opportunities. We then invest our energy and resources into finding novel solutions that allow Flex to differentiate ourselves in the market. This could be by developing new capabilities, identifying new partners or bringing forward relevant new technology.
We’re looking to align with technologies that can create scalable, repeatable models for innovation around the world and add value to our customers. We also evaluate technology platforms that will be relevant for years to come and have applicability across as many industries as possible.
As far as deliverables, we provide technology packs, know-how, capabilities, IP and the guidance on how to best solve our customers’ problems and accelerate their time to market. Once we identify the technologies that match the objectives, we’ll incubate them with an eye to building high-impact solutions at scale.
We’re also on the constant lookout to work with new partners that are developing new technologies that meet and or exceed the requirements of our customers.
Our design center is also a hub of innovation working with our customers to engineer solutions. What is the difference between corporate commercial innovation and design center services?
You’re absolutely right. We are by no means the only group that innovates at Flex. In fact, both teams have strong design and engineering expertise in a variety of disciplines, such as software, plastic, mechanics, electrical, textile and so forth.
The difference is the innovation team takes a forward-looking perspective on technology, and makes investments in capabilities that Flex can leverage for future engagements with customers. Our design centers, on the other hand, take input directly from our customers. When customers engage our design centers, they play a big role in directing how and where to innovate and collaborate intensely with our teams to develop a specific solution. With corporate innovations, we own the investments we make which allows us to leverage that know-how in the future to scale and deliver benefits to our diverse customer base.
You have experienced both Fortune 100 businesses and startups in your career. Do you see variations in terms of how innovation is defined based on differences in the size, industry and other attributes of the business? How is “innovation” viewed by your team? Is it both art and science?
Regardless of industry and company size, my definition of innovation is: how are we doing something new to add-value and solving real-world problems. More specifically to Flex, we identify opportunities that are mapped to the priorities and needs of the business units we serve, such as health solutions, lifestyle, automotive, etc. We synthesize the needs of these groups and identify platform technologies that we believe will have the greatest potential impact on Flex’s ability to accelerate our customers’ business.
To your other question: yes, innovation is absolutely both art and science. We use objective measures on a daily basis to assess progress and performance towards our goals but the bottom line is: are we solving a problem? Our team has rigorous processes in place to allow us to move efficiently and evaluate ideas. That is the science of it.
At the same time, we have to think outside of the box to solve very difficult problems. This means we put a lot of faith in the people we surround ourselves with. When we're trying to take on thorny challenges, we have to try things and allow the team space to sometimes take circuitous routes to solving those problems. At the end of the day, we may have to go through several iterations to land on the optimal solution. This requires an open-mindedness to new inputs and ideas, and I don’t think this approach can be completely systematized.
Can you share a few projects helmed by your team that are in deployment?
One example is low-power wireless solutions. This is applicable for use in smart homes, vehicles, and other potential environments where the need for a frictionless device-changing experience would be needed; imagine you can walk into your car and your phone is automatically charged. This could also be deployed in a medical setting where a healthcare worker takes vital measurements with an IoT wireless device.
Another example is a textile speaker cover that uses 3D knitting technology which our Boston site specializes in. In collaboration with our audio team, we’re using complex knitting structures and other materials to reduce waste, increase manufacturability and lower overall cost. It is also a very unique and visually appealing solution.-Ben Cooper, Global Leader of Commercial Innovation
So that’s the hardware; we’re also working on the audio algorithms to improve the sound quality and other human-machine interface experiences.
What is an emerging technology that most excites you?
I’m excited by the work we’re doing in soft systems. This is going to help seriously provide unique value to our customer that have needs integrating soft-based architectures, like textiles. We’re working on functionalizing them through the integration of electronics and establishing scalable advanced manufacturing techniques. Textiles are ubiquitous, so this is a pretty big market opportunity. Flex is leading in this area. We’re not just demonstrating what can be, but what impact this domain can have. We’re starting to see our investments here make headway with the audio-video-collaboration program that allows us to offer differentiation to our customers.
We’re also going deeper into areas like artificial intelligence and machine learning and integrating these into our hardware solutions. We see opportunities to build horizontal technology platforms by collaborating with different business units like lifestyle, medical, industrial, and automotive.
What is the biggest challenge your team faces?
We take on projects where we have expertise, and at the same time, we have to keep pushing ourselves to learn new technologies we’re not yet familiar with. It is a lot to keep up, and in the case of new technologies, we have to make tough judgment calls. Our resources are not infinite. Do we dip our toes in to test the waters on an emerging technology? Or dive in and potentially be chasing a “red-herring?" The questions we keep asking ourselves is: how vital is it, or will it be, to our customers and our own business?” We want to get ahead of trends, but we can’t be all things to all markets at all times.
Now, let’s look at where you’ve been that has prepared you to direct and run our corporate innovation efforts. Your academic background is physics – how do you go from being a physicist to a technologist?
It’s not a big leap, really. It’s all about solving problems in new ways that add unique value. I studied biomedical physics as an undergrad and pursued a masters in kinesiology with a concentration on biomechanics. This led me to VF Corporation which, like many large corporates, also operates an innovation center. I was actually a founding member of the group, leading research and testing.
I’ve also co-founded startups, so you could say I’ve managed technology from different vantage points, from leading a young business or a corporate innovation center. This wide range of experiences has helped me clarify the role of technology and applying discipline to how we go from concept to deployment.
My approach is to understand the technology and the business case and connecting the two to solve a problem. At Flex, I have the best of all worlds that enable me to do this. I appreciate the complexity and the depth of this organization and the diversity of our portfolio is incredible. The fact that we touch the value chain from ideation to design and engineer then new product introduction to full-scale manufacturing is amazing.
What is your vision for corporate innovations at Flex?
Ultimately, to add differentiating value to our customers. This involves enabling our business units to leverage platforms that will have impact across industries and end markets. Since our business units are vertically integrated – from sales to engineering to manufacturing – there’s a really strong opportunity to build solutions that can scale and allow us to connect the dots between our teams.
At the end of the day, we want to identify trends and technologies that can have significant impact. We can then develop them and demonstrate to our customers how these technologies and capabilities can make a difference for their business. We need a scalable and repeatable model to achieve this. That’s what we’re working towards each and every day.