TE Connectivity puts manufacturing automation into practice on its digital transformation journey

TE Connectivity puts manufacturing automation into practice on its digital transformation journey

Back in 1941, Aircraft Marine Products (AMP) was founded, as so many companies were, as part of the technical leap forward catalyzed by war. The need for rapid development and deployment of new ships and aircraft spelt the death of labor intensive manufacturing practices such as manual soldering of electrical connections, and AMP – which would later become TE Connectivity – established itself on its ability to develop solderless connectors that could be changed quickly but without losing the ability to pass current reliably in demanding conditions.

78 years on, this market has transformed very much to TE Connectivity’s advantage. The company is still adding value at the interface between devices and solving the problems presented at those interfaces. Electronics are ubiquitous. Domestic appliances, automotive, aerospace, energy, manufacturing, medical devices and more all call for specialized and smart connectors to enable transformations through the internet of things (IoT), machine learning (ML), automation and robotics.

This places TE Connectivity firmly among the essential global companies that most people haven’t heard of, sitting behind the label on your smartphone, your transportation, all of your internet activity and every experience you have. It develops and manufactures switches, cable assemblies, relays, antennae and many more product categories as well as critical connection solutions for fiber optics. Today the company employs 80,000 people, makes 220bn products a year, achieved sales of $14bn in 2018 and has 130 manufacturing and engineering centers around the world.

AMP was acquired by Tyco International in 1999, becoming part of Tyco Electronics in a 2007 restructure. In 2011, however, it rebranded itself as TE Connectivity partly to reflect its approach to the market and partly to avoid confusion with other Tyco companies. This happened under the leadership of Tom Lynch, CEO from 2006 until 2017 and now Chair of the Board. Attracting talent was an important part of the former Motorola CFO’s strategy, as was shown in 2011 when he reached out to a high-flying Boeing executive to fill the newly created job of Vice President – Technology: Automation Manufacturing, Global Operations.

Captivated by connectivity

What persuaded Roberto Lu to take on this challenge? “Tom had brought in Rob Shaddock as CTO from Motorola: they saw they needed someone to run manufacturing technology so they created my job. I hadn’t planned to leave Boeing, but I was really captivated by TE, though I didn’t know much about the company at the time. I was attracted by the breadth of TE’s global reach and the realization that it is present wherever there is a signal – whenever you call someone you are going through TE products!”

Having no predecessors, at first Lu worked on his own and without a budget. “I travelled extensively in the first weeks and I was amazed at the number of opportunities that I saw to contribute on the manufacturing technology side,” he explains. As a part of the global corporate headquarters organization, reporting to the CEO through the head of operations, Lu’s responsibility covers all the TE segments: Communications, Transportation and Industrial. Today he has a team of 50 engineers located in the USA, Mexico, Europe and China but his organization had to be built from scratch. “In March 2012 I inherited a small team and was allocated a budget – my boss asked me what I wanted to call it, so I said AMT. At the time that stood for advanced manufacturing technology but we rethought that, taking into account the rapid growth of automation, and now the A in the acronym stands for automation!”

This nimble approach typifies the company and its leadership, he continues. “Back in 2012 it was quite visionary of the company to see that automation was going to be such a big deal. We have to give this credit to our leaders because who can estimate what is going to happen a few years down the road? That is another reason that I really like this company: the leaders are not only interested in this quarter’s performance on the stock exchange market but also looking forward years down the road to see where we’ll be in the long term.”

You can buy TE products across the counter or even online through distributors or the company’s website. However, most of TE’s business comes from engagement with OEMs with whom the company works closely to develop solutions for next-generation products, right from the concept stage to solve connectivity issues before the product is made. Team members from TE Connectivity work full time at the engineering and production facilities of nearly all of the world’s global auto and aircraft makers. There’s also a high percentage of TE content within the critical control functions that maintain the speed and stability of the 350+ kph Beijing to Shanghai high speed train link, Lu says. It’s worth noting that TE Connectivity is among the biggest foreign employers in China, where it has more than 2,000 engineers working on product research and manufacturing development.

The competitive advantage of vertical integration can’t be overstressed.  A major transportation organization, for example, wanted connectivity solutions to deliver fast streaming of media content. Weight reduction and efficient operation were key criteria. “They came to me with the next question: what about manufacturing technology and were we going to manufacture in a low cost location with a lot of manual labor? I could assure them that we have 11 patents on this product family manufacturing technology. We own it. Our production today is all about flexible precision automation and semi-automation. Our customer can rest assured that TE can not only produce the parts to the satisfaction of the customer but that we have our manufacturing technology in-house and they have access to our technical team members including myself!”

Innovate and automate

As the leader of a global center of excellence in assembly automation, including manufacture and assembly, innovation is important to Lu. “We must lead with the next ready-to-deploy technology otherwise the innovation pipeline runs dry, and that is bad business. The opportunities presented by IoT are taking us in many directions. At our engineering centers we have top grade engineers developing innovations that will be needed in transportation, for example, as driverless cars and even ships and aircraft become a reality. We have 8,000+ engineers working on those connectivity and sensing solutions. Out in the field their concern is to build customized solutions for major connectivity platforms, and work on the production floor to implement these solutions.” As we have seen, the IP the company possesses aids the customization of solutions – once a successful implementation has been established at one site, it will be rolled out at multiple sites, saving time and money.

On the manufacturing side, his team is constantly working on improving performance and finding new solutions: one of the biggest challenges (and market opportunities) is presented by high-speed communications. In this field alone, he says, TE holds more than 200 global patents. Here automation has been the key. “In many product categories we are achieving over 99% first-time-right pass rates. There’s no way that can be achieved through manual processes, and our customers really appreciate that reliability. We have developed spatial intelligence machine learning capability for a variety of our products, with at least 18 deployments across sites of various business units. We use artificial intelligence to learn what is done right and what is not: there's deep learning behind our processes and our inspections to increase our speed and quality.”

In 2011, Roberto started to draw up technology roadmaps to chart forward development, and today he and his team continue to use this approach. A year later, with the support of Rob Shaddock and Tom Lynch, he introduced TE Connectivity to the global RoboCup competition. With so much talent residing in its engineers, dispersed as they are, it was necessary to find collaborative routes to innovation. “Innovation is a team sport, and it’s everybody’s job,” said Rob Shaddock, former CTO and Lu’s boss at the time. Teams participating in RoboCup use vision-guided robots to improve TE production processes and provide significant ROI. Lu’s AMT team runs robotics courses for the participating team members, training them in working with new applications such as collaborative robotics. The first competition took place in 2012 and it has run annually ever since.

Never-satisfied curiosity

One of Lu’s great strengths is his desire to learn. Since bagging his first degree in 1985 at Taiwan he gained four more advanced degrees from American universities including a doctorate in industrial engineering. There’s continuity from his work at the Boeing Company, where he worked for over 13 years, and his present role in that they both involved manufacturing technology research and development – though the transition was not an obvious one. “I was honored to work alongside so many innovators at Boeing and was one of the first few engineers working on the Boeing 787 in 1999. We had to develop our internal processes because on something like that there’s nobody you can ask!”

Involvement with something as high profile as the 787 Dreamliner, and the experience of working at Boeing, where they say ‘The sky is not the limit – it is Boeing’s playground’ was “awesome”, according to Lu. “In my Boeing days I was very fortunate to have outstanding leaders and managers who inspired me.” The company became his own playground, he admits. Poring over the internal maps of Boeing’s many locations he set himself the task of getting into every building on every manufacturing and fabrication site and finding out what happens there. A tall order, but he managed to do them all bar one. “Insatiable curiosity you may say, but that curiosity became a drive for me to seize every opportunity to contribute to Boeing locations globally.”

He had every expectation of retiring as a senior Boeing Fellow when he was approached by Tom Lynch, who he regards as the model of an inspirational leader. Perhaps he recognizes a kindred drive and curiosity in a corporate finance leader prepared to leave his dream job as CFO at Motorola to turn around the reputation of Tyco electronics. “It’s Tom who has made TE Connectivity the really strong performance company it is today. He likes to inspire everyone, with the message that we have better capabilities than we know.”

In 2015 at a global leadership event for the top echelon of the company Lu was listening to a dinner presentation when he heard a story unfolding that was rather like his own. “I realized that this was actually my story: then my name was announced and I had to quickly gulp down my food and go up on the stage to be presented with a black leather jacket! The jacket is like a pilot’s jacket – it means you are a solo flyer, and it is a great honor, rather like a lifetime achievement.”

Despite this and many more achievements, like the publication of his book on ASCL models in production engineering, Lu is refreshingly ready to admit he doesn’t know it all. Don't be afraid to make mistakes as long as you learn from them, he says. “I am thankful to TE Connectivity because I have made more mistakes than I would like to admit to! The key thing was that I recognized them and accepted they were part of my growth.”

Roberto Lu