June 8, 2017

Supply chain visibility writ large

Supply chain visibility writ large

Flex's unique "collaboration wall" makes real-time supply chain data from multiple sources visible at a glance.

By DC Velocity Staff

For companies with complex global supply chains, keeping track of supply, manufacturing, orders, inventory, and logistics—simultaneously, and in real or near-real time—is a monumental challenge. One company that has made impressive advances in this regard is Flex (formerly Flextronics), a U.S.-based contract manufacturer and provider of supply chain services to clients such as Nike, Apple Inc., Ford Motor Co., and Microsoft Corp.

With some 14,000 suppliers in 30 countries, Flex was looking for a better way to track their activities and monitor and manage supply chain risk, such as materials shortages, natural disasters, and transportation disruptions. It also wanted to make collaboration easier for its employees, regardless of their location. Toward that end, the company developed software called Flex Pulse that gathers real-time supply chain data from multiple sources and makes it available to users on any device, including computer, tablet, or smartphone.

To support Flex Pulse, the company needed a hardware/software platform that would make it easy for multiple users to view, share, and manipulate data, and would support video conferencing. Supply chain leadership also wanted to get away from the traditional collaboration and decision-making experience, with individuals viewing different information on their own computers and flipping through screens to access various applications and reports.

To design its new platform, Flex chose MultiTaction, a developer of interactive touchscreen display systems and software. MultiTaction installed a 22-screen floor-to-ceiling touchscreen display called an iWall at the Flex Pulse Center, one of Flex's supply chain "nerve centers" located in Milpitas, Calif. The screens don't simply display information; they incorporate software applications that visualize, aggregate, and interpret live streaming data from multiple sources, such as real-time video feeds of production facilities.

The iWall allows users to view relevant applications and information simultaneously. Because the screens are curved, viewers can see everything on the wall at the same time. Users can touch the display to drill down to more information. For example, they can tap on interactive maps to open up more detail about a location, inventory, and the supplier. They can also move windows around, bringing relevant information closer together; one user at Flex compared it with a newspaper, "with all the pages open in front of you, [so] you can read all the news in one glance and then tie it all together." This approach facilitates creativity and decision-making, the supply chain manager said. "The thought process changes because the data is staring you in the face; you don't have to go looking for it."

Work being done on the screen in Milpitas can be broadcast live to other sites. Furthermore, users anywhere in the world can access, share, and manipulate Flex Pulse information, either on smaller display screens at their own facilities or on their computer, tablet, or smartphone. The live data helps them identify and respond to developments, problems, and opportunities that could impact or disrupt their own operations. For example, information about a typhoon threatening a manufacturing site in Taiwan would alert managers in other countries that they could have trouble getting components from that location, allowing them to proactively line up alternative sources and shipping routes.

According to Flex, the data-visualization and collaboration system has helped it to speed decision-making and reduce costs.

Watch a video demonstration of the iWall below.

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