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9/5/2012
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Flextronics App Gives Customers Peace Of Mind

Electronics manufacturer's quality management software not only flags problems, but cuts costs, fosters collaboration, and improves time to market.

In the low-margin business of contract manufacturing, the ability to improve product quality while cutting costs is critical. Enter FlexQ, quality management software developed by Flextronics that not only flags product and process anomalies and reduces costly recalls, but also helps the contract manufacturer foster collaboration across interdisciplinary teams, improve customers' time to market, ensure regulatory compliance, and gather information for audits.

Flextronics does contract manufacturing in two broad areas: for customers such as Apple, Lenovo, and Microsoft, where the ability to ramp up quickly and produce at scale and low cost is key; and for customers such as Ford, Alcatel, and Huawei, where build-to-order and the ability to make design changes on the fly come more into play. Flextronics partners with customers beginning to end: product design, procurement of parts, manufacturing, shipment to retailers and other channels, warehousing, even warranty work.

Its FlexQ software is an outgrowth of FlexFlow, the company's custom-developed ordering and forecasting system, which is "the secret sauce in our industry," says Flextronics CIO Dave Smoley. FlexQ started as the quality module on that system, but FlexFlow is deployed locally, at the factory level, and Flextronics determined that it's critical to share quality information across all of its sites globally, as well as with customers and suppliers.

So Flextronics developed FlexQ as a separate, Web-based application that everyone in the supply chain can access. FlexQ executes several quality processes and includes workflows for preventive action, customer complaints, corrective action, and auditing. FlexQ's Device History Record management capabilities are mandated by industries such as medical and automotive to ensure regulatory compliance.

Previously, Flextronics managed manufacturing quality site by site, using a hodgepodge of spreadsheets, emails, and other tools. It was difficult to share information and analyze it in a coordinated way, Smoley says. Quality engineers now can access the data from their smartphones and iPads, for example, whereas before the data was available only on local PCs.

CIO Smoley (right, with general manager Zahid Hussain) takes a hands-on approach to quality control
CIO Smoley (right, with general manager Zahid Hussain) takes a hands-on approach to quality control

With its quality assurance and compliance benefits, FlexQ also provides some peace of mind for highly regulated, safety-conscious customers that might otherwise be leery of outsourcing their manufacturing, Smoley says. For example, FlexQ was instrumental in Flextronics' landing Insulet as a customer for the contract manufacture of insulin pumps, he says. The software's workflow and document management features chronicle each step of the manufacturing process and dictate preventive and corrective actions where necessary. That's not just a health and safety issue for Insulet--it's also a financial one, to avoid stiff fines for noncompliance with FDA regulations.

In 2007, Flextronics had six customer product recalls that cost the company more than $6 million, says Manny Nyakako, VP of global quality. Last year, thanks to FlexQ, it had only one customer product recall, costing the company less than $500,000.

All in all, there are more than 6,000 users on the system, compared with a few hundred users on the multiple silo systems used previously. And now Flextronics has only one quality system (built on Microsoft .NET and SQL Server) to support and update (about four times a year). FlexQ is run internally, but Smoley says his team will eventually move the Web app into Microsoft's Azure cloud.

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