August 11, 2021
I recently had the opportunity to interview Zohair Mehkri, Director of Engineering at Flex, about driving and executing worldwide strategies for augmented reality, virtual reality and other next-generation technologies in manufacturing. Don't miss Zohair speaking at this year's EWTS taking place online in October!
Emily: To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career? What does your job entail and what was your first encounter with AR/VR?
Zohair: I am currently a Director of Engineering at Flex, and my current scope of responsibilities includes managing an organization that works on AR/VR, Simulation, Application Development, and AI/ML as well as working with functions across the company on our Digital Twin strategy.
My first encounter with AR/VR was many years back at our annual Leadership Summit when our BOD presented AR/VR to us as one of our focus areas of technology. Shortly thereafter, our CEO and COO put together a 'tiger team' to focus on this technology, of which I was named the lead.
Emily: When did it become apparent to you that AR/VR could benefit Flex's operations and/or customers?
Zohair: Flex has always been a pioneer in technology and especially in recognizing which technologies should be focused on and implemented. AR/VR is one of those technologies that has numerous benefits in manufacturing environments and Flex began utilizing it before a lot of other players entered the market.
Emily: How is Flex currently using immersive tech, for what applications and where?
Zohair: Flex currently uses a variety of immersive technologies across its functions. Augmented and virtual reality are used for applications like Remote Assistance, Work Instructions, Logistics, Design Collaboration, Training, and others. In addition, Flex uses advanced simulation technologies to not only optimize production systems but also immerse users into virtual manufacturing environments with Digital Twins.
Emily: What did it take to adopt AR/VR at Flex and what was/is your role in implementing the tech? What was your first use case? Did you seek out partners? How did employees react? Customers?
Zohair: It was a big undertaking to start the journey at Flex, and the biggest achievement in the beginning was executive sponsorship and buy-in. My role was / is worldwide leader and owner of the technology and strategy. The first use case was remote assistance due to the financial benefits and seemingly simpler development. I say seemingly because we quickly learned it wasn't so easy.
When we started development, we conducted very large-scale market studies and did a lot of collaboration with vendors and suppliers to understand the best path forward. Our employees at first had mixed reactions and to this day the biggest pain point is the hardware. But as we continue to improve, we're seeing that acceptance is growing. Luckily, our customers have always been supportive, in part due to the fact that our team has consistently stayed ahead of our competitors in this space and continues to do so.
Emily: Did you encounter any major challenges or early missteps in adopting AR/VR? How do you overcome these?
Zohair: There were constant challenges during early adoption, which can be said for any emerging technology. To name a few challenges for AR/VR: Hardware maturity, hardware comfort, field of view, battery life, graphics, processing power and UX/UI. The software had many challenges, as well, including tracking, localization, overlaying, OCR (optical character recognition), object recognition, IDE (integrated development environment) features, and OS compatibility. There are more, of course, but we consider these to be the major ones.
We overcame some of these challenges, mostly in the software space, and for some we had to desperately and quickly find alternatives, especially in the case of hardware. For instance, our hardware strategy ended up shifting to mobile in the beginning due to the lack of wearable hardware that could deliver what we needed.
Emily: What was it like introducing AR/VR to Flex's customers?
Zohair: In a word, fun. It was very motivating to learn from our customers that our work was not only appreciated but admired. Since we were the first in our space to tackle this difficult technology, we found that we were leading in a space we hadn't fully mastered ourselves mainly due to the fact that we were involving ourselves so deeply into it. We quickly became thought and market leaders and ended up being seen as SMEs due to the sheer breadth and depth of our team's activities.
Emily: How has the pandemic impacted Flex's use of AR/VR?
Zohair: The pandemic has had a huge impact; we have seen groups and teams we would never have imagined wanting to use the technology, each with their own needs and requirements. It taught us that AR/VR is a widey applicable technology; it just depends on how you develop it.
Emily: Did the fact that you were already using AR/VR pre-pandemic help in adapting to the challenges of no travel, WFH, etc.?
Zohair: Yes, greatly. Since we were so well-versed, we were able to jump in and provide solutions and tools that we had already developed to teams that needed it at the most severe times during the height of Covid.
Emily: How do you measure the success of new technologies like AR/VR at Flex?
Zohair: That depends on the application. It's not always about users and where they are. That's metadata for us. For Flex, it's about how have we positively affected the business and how have we quantifiably improved our operations? The metrics therefore can be anything from cost savings to revenue and all the way down to how many seconds were saved by using this technology and how that translates to a financial benefit.
Emily: What's next for AR/VR at Flex?
Zohair: Our team is aggressively driving towards the next generation of AR/VR by addressing new applications and, most of all, we are now taking a very bullish role in pursuing the next generation of AR/VR hardware and actively looking for the market movers in this space.
Emily: In your opinion, what is the future of immersive technologies in manufacturing?
Zohair: Immersive tech is the future of computing. We are seeing many use cases and technologies focused on providing a user with the right content, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason, and in the right way. This indicates that we're just at a cusp. For years, industry members have held a stance that this market has passed its hype. It's my belief that the inflection point is yet to come.