Flex: AI & Machine Learning can Streamline Operations

Murad Kurwa, Vice President of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering at Flex, explains how AI & Machine Learning systems can streamline product inspections

Advanced manufacturing technologies, such as AI and IoT, are continually optimising manufacturing processes, increasing the speed of production and improving quality, while conferring other benefits. 

According to Murad Kurwa, Vice President of Advanced Manufacturing Engineering at Flex, one area that is particularly primed for improvement, is in the inspection of products as they move along the line.

“The traditional manufacturing inspection process involves human workers examining products as they move down the production line,” says Kurwa. “But automation, robotics and other advancements that come with advanced manufacturing technologies have increased production speeds to the point that quality inspections are difficult for humans alone to perform consistently.” 

After performing inspections for many hours, visual fatigue can lead to human errors, but that’s not a challenge for these technologies. 


Manufacturers leverage AI and Machine Learning to address challenges

Vision detection and inspection systems using AI and ML can further streamline operations, minimising human error and increasing accuracy. 

“To start the process, engineers need to label and train the models based on the products and systems they are analysing. From here, the engineers should display and generate the inspection based on photos sent to the AI model,” says Kurwa. “Finally, before deployment, teams must evaluate the results to ensure there are no false calls or errors caused by poor data or training.”

Once confidence levels are high and the capabilities are programmed, the solution can be leveraged for key error groups like image classification, anomaly detection, object detection and segmentation.

To combat some of the common challenges with product inspections, Flex developed two options for AI/ML-based detection and inspection systems purpose-built to improve quality checks on the factory floor. 

“The system is trained neural networks can detect defects that are difficult for human inspectors or conventional vision systems to find,” says Kurwa. “The AI/ML systems also learn on the job, steadily improving performance. Even if a system doesn’t appear to improve efficiency immediately, its capacity to learn will pay off over time.”

As Flex found out when the company implemented AI/ML inspection processes at multiple Flex sites in 2022, the technology helped greatly reduce inspection time, improve quality and, as a result, increase production efficiency. 

The systems also delivered significant cost savings, reducing scrap by identifying issues before sending a part to another step in the line. 


The wider impact of in AI and ML across the manufacturing industry

Once rolled out on the shop floor, the results are promising. At one Flex site inspecting the production of hardware, the customer saw: 

  • 30% improvement in efficiency 
  • 97% payback on its initial investment in less than a month. 

At another location, involving the production of products with sheet metal components, the customer saw an efficiency gain of 28% and a triple digit return on investment.

In addition to increased production and cost savings, an AI/ML inspection system delivers other benefits, perhaps the most important being the impact it has on the employees. 

“Rather than replacing workers, the AI/ML system also creates opportunities for the inspection staff to up-level their skills to manage the new technology instead of continuing to perform onerous inspections,” says Kurwa. “Workers are also freed up to focus on more strategic manufacturing operations. This can boost morale while enhancing employees’ career paths.”

The debate regarding the implications and risks of AI to society is ongoing, but in manufacturing, AI and ML are finding their place in practical optimisations.

“Companies that don’t take advantage of these technologies risk being left behind. What Flex has found with its implementations is that AI/ML systems not only increase efficiency and reduce costs, but they create new career opportunities for workers.”

AI and ML are at the forefront of Industry 4.0 efforts to transform operations. As proven by Flex, using AI and ML inspection tools is an effective way to improve results and increase production across an entire enterprise.


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