Making connections that work for a variety of conveyance needs is what keeps FlexLink moving, reports Lorie Russo.
There’s just one way to convey a message at FlexLink: You build it, and they will come. And what FlexLink builds best is an array of automation solutions. Through a combination of specialist knowledge, customer-oriented product development and outsourcing of non-core competencies, FlexLink has established itself as a market leader in the materials handling of lightweight goods.
From its beginnings more than 20 years ago, FlexLink has developed into a global company with more than 400 employees. It now supplies automation solutions to an array of industries including pharmaceutical, electronics, food and packaging. FlexLink also supplies industrial automation in support of lightweight conveyors.
FlexLink’s pioneering phase occurred between 1979 and 1982. For the first several years of its existence, all of its sales were to SKF, the bearings manufacturer. FlexLink added breadth to the line with its rapid development of a conveyor system and a business plan that gave the company a substantial lead over the competition. In these four years, FlexLink redefined its niche: planning, selling and manufacturing materials-handling equipment for lightweight goods in the production process. The business plan in the beginning of the 1980s laid the foundation for FlexLink’s development: FlexLink’s system would be the standard conveyor system in all of SKF’s factories. FlexLink then set up a sales organization for Sweden and Scandinavia.
Linking to Success
Its first project was PC 80, the biggest automation effort in Swedish history — and it pushed FlexLink to develop a unique chain product. In designing an internal chain guide, FlexLink was the first company in the world to produce a universal joint chain that also worked vertically. Just 2 inches wide, the new XL chain-and-guide system gave FlexLink well-deserved distinction. Car manufacturers in Italy soon began to demand FlexLink’s conveyor. In the United States, the Buick plant in Flint, Mich., installed the first FlexLink conveyor system for seat belts.
In a very short time, FlexLink became an established supplier to GM, Volkswagen, Peugeot-Citroen and Fiat. With the best plastic chain conveyor in the world and several successful installations to its credit, FlexLink launched a major full-scale marketing initiative in 1983. The company was incorporated into SKF’s Component Systems division in 1986. In 1994, FlexLink was established as an independent business under the SKF umbrella. Three years later, EQT Scandinavia I purchased 90 percent of FlexLink’s share capital from SKF (which still owns the remaining 10 percent). Since then, FlexLink has operated as an independent, privately held company.
Leif Lachonius, former chief executive officer and general manager, recalled that the philosophy that guided FlexLink’s success was thriving on change. “Our customers’ manufacturing processes change, factories move, new products supersede old ones, companies change owners, customs barriers are removed,” Lachonius said. “If only the old remains, there is no need for FlexLink’s products. There must be successful product and business development and nurturing the mature core business while developing a new one alongside.” Go for it wholeheartedly or not at all, was Lachonius’ motto — and outsource everything that does not create customer value and nurture relations.
Lachonius considered his most important accomplishments to be that of building a FlexLink culture, reducing central costs and investing in sales units. He stepped down as CEO in 1997 and was succeeded by Fredrik Johnsson at the outset of the EQT purchase.
With the EQT purchase came the establishment of three distinct subdivisions in the industrial automation business area: modules, systems and integration. In the modules area, FlexLink develops and designs products and is responsible for the logistics flow worldwide. The company is also continually finding new sales and distribution channels and modifying existing channels. Recently, for example, sales on the Web have opened up new areas of possibility.
In systems, FlexLink searches out market segments it deems to be particularly well suited for these products, and establishes “Centres of Excellence” within these segments (i.e., hygiene paper, the food and beverage industry, and mass flow). The Centres of Excellence are globally responsible for the systems’ business and application development, in cooperation with local sales units. FlexLink’s global presence enables the company to provide the same services across the world. Says Johnsson, “Every system is a major one.” David A. Clark, president and area director of North and South America, adds that what makes each FlexLink system unique is that it can be assembled with simple hand tools.
Integration projects are fast becoming a more prominent portion of FlexLink’s sales, and are anticipated to grow in the future. In this field, FlexLink offers complete custom integration solutions, including the control of robots and other machines in the production process. Integration projects are run and coordinated on the global level, with the support of sales companies.
In its current incarnation, FlexLink delivers complete assembly lines primarily to the electronics industry. Its keystone product is the Dynamic Assembly System (DAS), built on a concept that combines both hardware and software. DAS’ standardized software controls the entire assembly process and communicates directly with customers’ orders and product systems. This system enables FlexLink to offer product lines for customers that have high demands for flexibility and reliability. The company’s products provide complete solutions for assembly, packaging and testing, and include software for controlling the entire production process.
FlexLink currently is in an expansion phase. The company acquired the IHT technology department from Ericsson with the aim of strengthening its expertise in robotic applications. To further broaden its role as a major supplier to the fast-growing global electronics industry, FlexLink acquired both Flexible Technologies Inc. and PCT Automation, both based in the United States, in 2001. Their product ranges within printed circuit board (PCB) handling represent powerful additions to the company’s existing product offering to the electronics industry. Today, with offices in 18 countries and representation in 50, FlexLink has become “truly a global company,” Clark says.
FlexLink anticipates that it will reach $120 million in 2001 sales. What helps the company to continue its drive to be the first choice for easier automation is the fragmented market — in which roughly 10 companies supply to a specialized niche, Clark says. In addition, the company’s ability to outsource areas beyond its core competencies frees up capital and allows it to focus on equipment design and its network of customers.
As demand grows for FlexLink products, its engineers are constantly facing new challenges. Through modifications to existing products, new designs and smart solutions, they constantly find new ways of satisfying customers’ needs, Clark says. FlexLink also grows into different segments — as with the development of a new twin-track conveyor (XT) that, during its first year, has found many new applications. Also, FlexLink has recently launched a new line of stainless steel conveyors and a Centre of Excellence in support of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) industry.
FlexLink’s future offerings will continue to cover the whole spectrum — from single components and modules via systems, to complete production lines that include hardware, software, project management and integration with the external customer’s hardware. Keeping in sync with a fast-paced and ever-expanding global electronics market, FlexLink continues to push the envelope with products that are increasingly focused on achieving holistic solutions.