With 200,000 employees across 30 countries, Flextronics is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of. The American electronics-manufacturing giant is the second largest manufacturer of any kind in the world, after only Taiwan’s Foxconn. At CES 2015 in Las Vegas, Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick spoke with Flextronics President Mike Dennison about the next phase for manufacturing—it isn’t just for making things, but for driving systemic change in society. As the Internet of Things evolves into a set of systems that will create a new landscape for both business and consumers, the real challenge will be to integrate innovation, networks, and software development. Flextronics partners with its customers not just to build things, but to design and build the systems that those “things” fit into. It has helped develop and build many of the world’s most prominent connected devices, such as those from Fitbit. But it also reaches into automotive, medical, energy, telecoms, and beyond. “We’re on the front end of enabling customers to go from an initial sketch or concept all the way to scaling a new iconic product,” says Dennison. The company grew into its massive scale by building things like TVs, PCs, and phones. But when Kirkpatrick speculates that the Internet of Things is likely to put the company’s innovation output “on steroids,” Dennison slightly demurs. He says that the concept of the Internet of Things is already “standard.” His company is now more focused on what it calls “the intelligence of things.” “We assume now in our lives that everything will be connected, but is it intelligently connected? Does it actually provide data and feedback and actions that you want it to do?” Dennison asks. In other words, how will intelligence give us real efficiencies in life? “I don’t think we’re there yet,” says Kirkpatrick. “Even the way my Fitbit syncs with my iPhone could be improved.”
Going forward, Flextronics aims to evolve the Internet of Things to focus on how sensor technology ties into human interfaces and a software ecosystem that provides seamless, transparent feedback. So what, asks Kirkpatrick, is the “next benchmark for progress of this trend?” Dennison sees an increasing convergence of medical and consumer wearable devices. Devices that “started out on your wrist or on your foot” are “migrating to bandaid type applications…. Those start to converge with medical companies and doctors who want to understand what’s happening on the body” in real time. “What if your doctor is warned when your blood pressure spikes above a certain level?” Here’s another real example now in development—seat belts that can detect from your heart rate that you’re falling asleep and vibrate to wake you up and keep you from crashing. In the future that Dennison envisions, connected consumer electronics will actually save your life.