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Columbia Business Monthly

Flex resumes production of state-of-the-art frozen yogurt kiosks and aims to hire 500 new advanced manufacturing workers

By Dustin Waters

Despite being rather tight-lipped about Flex’s future plans in West Columbia, the international design, engineering, and manufacturing company is in the process of welcoming 500 new employees to their Lexington County plant. 

Kicking April off with the announcement of a major recruitment drive, Flex put out a call for engineering and technician professionals. This massive hiring effort remains underway, with the self-described “sketch-to-scale solutions company” scheduled to host a job fair on May 31 at the Holiday Inn Hotel and Suites Columbia-Airport hotel. During that event, Flex had aimed for a variety of positions at their local global operations facility, including assemblers, quality supervisors and control inspectors, facilities and maintenance technician supervisors, production leads, and material handlers. 

Unfortunately, due to customer confidentiality agreements, there is not much else that Flex is willing to reveal about the future of their West Columbia operations.  

“Flex is working with our staffing partner Aerotek to hire an initial 500 people, in a project we started last November. We’re hiring for a range of skill sets, including assembly, quality control, and process technicians,” wrote Flex’s Director of Communications Brian Kemp. “Many of our customers have confidentiality agreements, and so we generally do not comment on specific customers. We can say that Columbia and the Lexington County area have tremendous manufacturing talent and skills, and we’re proud to be hiring in South Carolina.”

With approximately 200,000 employees in 30 countries, Flex’s 460,000-square-foot contract manufacturing facility in West Columbia was originally built in 2000. In 2016, Flex’s local operations were honored by one of their longest-standing customers, beating out more than 3,000 competitors to earn the Supplier Excellence Award from software company Teradata for “outstanding manufacturing, quality, delivery performance, and focus on customer satisfaction.”

The following year in September, it was announced that Flex would serve as the exclusive manufacturing partner for Generation NEXT Franchise Brands’ newly launched Reis & Irvy's Froyo Robot, as well as all future robotic vending technology the company would develop. According to an initial press release from Generation NEXT announcing the partnership, Flex was to “produce and rollout approximately 760 pre-sold vending robots from its Columbia, S.C. plant before June 30, 2018.”

"Kiosks, robotics, and smart, connected products are all key focus areas for Flex. By utilizing our Sketch-To-Scale capabilities, we are helping Generation NEXT Franchise Brands integrate all of these technologies into one product and bring the world's first robotic frozen yogurt vending kiosk to the marketplace," LeJon Alden-Brown Sr., director of business development of Industrial and emerging industries at Flex, said in a press release.

In May 2018, Generation NEXT announced froyo robot presales had topped 1,000 units and $40 million with a mass rollout set to begin the following month and continue throughout the year. Unfortunately for Flex and Generation NEXT, this initial rollout tripped early out of the gates after defects were discovered in the first kiosks shipped. 

In an October 2018 SEC filing, Generation NEXT Chief Financial Officer Art Budman identified the most common problems reported with the kiosks being overheating, robot arm miscalibrations, and weak internet signals, adding, “Transporting 1,500 pounds with over a thousand components, many being susceptible to vibration issues, from South Carolina to (in some cases) Washington state was the root cause of almost all our problems.” 

With these problems identified, Budman said his company was working with Flex to resolve all of these issues. In February, Generation NEXT announced a new interim agreement with Wisconsin-based Stoelting Foodservice to assist with production of the yogurt kiosks and resumed production at Flex’s Columbia plant. 

With April coming to an end, Flex released the company’s fourth quarter earnings report for the 2019 fiscal year. According to the report, Flex’s annual revenues grew by $865 million or 3 percent, reaching $26.3 billion for the fiscal year. The company’s fourth quarter revenue was $6.2 billion, down 3 percent versus the previous fourth quarter’s earnings.

While Lexington County and the Central SC Alliance declined to comment on Flex’s efforts to hire 500 new employees and the growth of advanced manufacturing in the area, S.C. Department of Commerce spokesperson Alex Clark stated, “Advanced manufacturing is certainly a pillar in South Carolina’s economy, and we are always encouraged by potential growth within our borders.”