When the pandemic struck and the world fell into disarray, Western Digital found itself in a strong position. Under the direction of Senior Vice President Global Flash Backend Operations KL Bock, the firm had adopted a model of lights-out manufacturing – a transition that was already maturing by the time COVID-19 swept the globe.
The shift to this methodology in which the manufacturing process becomes fully automated meant that the company could continue production with minimal people onsite. “We still have people, but the way we have implemented our Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) journey is with end-to-end automation and connectivity in mind,” KL tells The CEO Magazine. “And we can still be fully operational even in the midst of a lockdown, by leveraging on real-time data and insights from our system and dashboards.”
Having grown increasingly reliant on solutions incorporating robotics and artificial intelligence, the company’s China operations initially fared well because it was the only country affected at first, according to KL. “But when it hit the rest of the global sites, inclusive of Malaysia, it became vulnerable,” he admits. “We had all of these supply chains that were suddenly affected.”
KL says that most challenging was managing the human side of its operations, namely its factory workers. “We had to communicate much more diligently to uplift the morale and ensure the emotional and physical needs of all our employees were addressed. Fortunately for the company, it managed through the difficulties,” he says.
“As the world is learning to live with the virus and transition to endemicity, we are confident that we have found the right balance between meeting business objectives and maintaining worker wellbeing.”
KL agrees that going down to the grass roots and communicating face to face is always beneficial. “No matter the challenge, employees will always feel comforted and reassured when they see their leaders communicating personally with them.”
From the Start
KL started his career with Motorola in Malaysia, Seremban in 1988. It was a great training ground for the fresh graduate, proving the perfect place to transfer knowledge and learn the industry’s nuts and bolts. Then, in 1994, Motorola decided to start a joint venture in China’s Sichuan Province and he was selected as one of five leaders to oversee it. It turned out to be a three-and-a-half-year project, after which he returned to Seremban.
“The so-called monsoon of my career took off when Motorola spun off its semiconductor sector to onsemi,” he explains. “So I gave myself two years to continue with onsemi and gained all that knowledge base and exposure.”
But his years in China had given KL a taste of the country’s dynamism, and he was keen for more.
“Back in those days, the semiconductor industry was very labour intensive using humans to do the majority of work ... it was easy to look at the young guy and say: ‘Go back to work and forget about robots, it’s too futuristic.”
During his early years as a young engineer, KL was motivated to make a difference. While working in the quality department at Motorola, he had become convinced that lights-out manufacturing was the future – a realisation he now describes as his “defining moment”.
“Back in those days, the semiconductor industry was very labour intensive using people to do the majority of work, limiting productivity and predictability,” he recalls. The idea of lights-out manufacturing via robotics automation came to mind and he spoke about it with management. “It was easy to look at the young guy and say: ‘Go back to work and forget about robots, it’s too futuristic’.”
But rather than toe the line, KL decided to turn the “no” answer given to him into his next opportunity; sticking to his guns, he decided to pursue a new path elsewhere. He had a strong desire to return to China, and when ChipPAC approached him with a job offer he couldn’t turn it down. “China is a country that is full of youngsters who are really, really hungry for success,” he reflects, having now spent half of his career working in the country.
Based in Shanghai, KL worked with ChipPAC for nine years, with flash memory manufacturer SanDisk one of his clients. Eventually, impressed by his talent and leadership skills, the company put a job offer on the table. “SanDisk originated as a design house and then came up with the long-term strategy that they wanted to continue to expand, knowing then that flash was going to grow,” he says. “So they decided to start their own manufacturing plant in Shanghai. That’s when they asked me to join them four years into the startup, and I’ve been there since.”
Finding himself in a leadership role, KL began helping the company chart its course into the future. “So that’s where I started system solutions, orchestrating that eventual lights-out journey when I joined SanDisk,” he recalls.
Western Digital officially acquired SanDisk in 2016 in a deal worth nearly US$19 billion. The acquisition made Western Digital Corporation a comprehensive storage solutions provider with global reach, creating an extensive product and technology platform with deep expertise in both rotating magnetic storage and non-volatile memory.
After a whirlwind few years in China, KL repatriated to Malaysia in 2018. “Now I’m back here, I still run the whole Global Flash Backend operations,” he says.
A Leadership Stance
KL’s commitment to the lights-out journey has played an important role in his career success. “To be a great leader, you need to be a visionary,” he stresses. “You should not be short-sighted, try to fix or do things today for tomorrow.
“Targets of 10 per cent improvement or 10 per cent change belong in history books, they belong to yesteryear. Twenty per cent or more is what is needed today just to survive in this competitive market. But everybody should strive for more than 30 per cent improvement, which will help us to map ourselves to continue to exist for the future, otherwise we will go out of business.
“Maximising productivity and having a predictable process are always part of the playbook. We need to do more with less and the benefits gained will enable better compensation for our employees, rewarding them for all the good work that they do.”
On top of that, he believes leaders must be decisive and people-oriented while, of course, delivering results. “You also have to be very innovative, because technology evolves,” he continues. “A better solution is always out there, and the current market is very, very competitive.
The pandemic has also highlighted the need for empathetic leadership, according to KL. “It has provided me with an opportunity to reflect more deeply as a leader. In challenging times like this where we face so many uncertainties, it is important that we take a proactive approach and look at how we can further help manage and assuage our employees’ fears and expectations.”
“To be a great leader, you need to be a visionary.”
With each family having different needs during this difficult time, perhaps in terms of caring for elderly parents, homeschooling their children or living with someone working on the front line, a flexible approach was essential.
“All these things need to be looked at holistically, so we can support not just our employees but also their families and extended families, which is the community,” he explains. It’s a responsibility that continues as workers return to the factories and the “new normal” kicks in. That’s why delivering on promises is another important area of leadership, according to KL. “You have to walk the talk so your people can see you doing what you say you’re going to do.”
A Different Approach
Ensuring Western Digital is at the forefront of the industry’s environmental efforts is another priority for KL. In April this year, Western Digital’s factory at Batu Kawan in Penang, Malaysia was named Asia’s first Sustainability Lighthouse by the World Economic Forum. This is in addition to being the first in Malaysia, Advanced 4IR manufacturing lighthouse designation received in November 2021. These accolades recognise the company’s vertically integrated smart factory model, which harnesses cutting-edge technologies such as digital twin modelling, Internet of Things sensors, analytics-powered plant management system and lights-out automation.
These innovations saw the site achieve a normalised energy reduction of 41 per cent per unit, a water consumption reduction of 45 per cent and a material waste reduction of 16 per cent. Additionally, the 4IR initiatives deployed resulted in a 32 per cent factory cost improvement and a 50 per cent product inventory and order lead-time reduction.
“Western Digital recognises the importance and increasing urgency for a collaborative and united effort to combat climate change, and we are committed to drive sustainability efforts where we operate,” KL says. “This recognition as World Economic Forum’s first Sustainability Lighthouse in Asia is a great testimony to the environmental, social and governance initiatives that we have implemented through adoption of 4IR technologies at our Batu Kawan Penang site, and we will continue to focus and drive momentum in this aspect.”
The Batu Kawan site is equipped with an advanced building monitoring system that is integrated with an optimising model to effectively manage the use of energy throughout the facility. It is also focused on preserving water and recycling wastewater generated from its operations using a multi-layered recycling system that incorporates algorithm-based control models. This means wastewater can be tested in real-time and then converted to reusable water, reducing the water consumed per unit produced.
“To achieve improvements at this level, we will need to look beyond the box and be willing to explore new ideas, processes or even disruptive technologies.”
Renewable energy is another key focus for Western Digital Batu Kawan. The facility’s second building features a rooftop solar farm that generates one megawatt hour of solar energy to supplement the site’s overall energy requirement. These concerted efforts also enabled the site to achieve the Malaysia Green Building Index certification.
The Forward Track
As he fast approaches a decade with Western Digital, KL remains as engaged as ever, thanks in large part to the trust placed in him by his leader. “The empowerment and trust given to me and my team unleashed the full potential in us, to innovate and make business impact. This is made possible with the awesome team we have – credit goes to them,” he shares.
“So far that journey has been a fulfilling partnership with suppliers including Siasun, UBCT, Ruizhang Technology, ViTrox, Sophic Automation and Xlent Innovator,” he says. “Together, we have worked towards the realisation of our 4IR deployment and jointly grown our businesses, technology and talent.”
Looking ahead, Western Digital will strive to accelerate its adoption of 4IR technology, he reveals. “Because going forward, whether it’s COVID-19 or any other disruption, it does help,” he stresses.
For KL, another benefit of 4IR technology is how it can revolutionise and change the way it works – both internally and externally – with its partners and suppliers. The pandemic has also accelerated this pace of change with the larger global community and it now realises new ways of working together remotely, reducing the need for physical presence and unnecessary travel.
With his original vision of becoming lights-out close to being achieved, KL’s focus is now shifting towards how he can further improve efficiency through 4IR while humans take on more analytical work. “Humans should be thinking about how to enable a non-human equipment or process to self-detect, self-predict, self-adjust and then self-navigate,” he says.
It’s about aiming to improve current efforts by ’10x thinking’, which requires some serious outside-the-box thinking, according to KL. “To achieve improvements at this level, we will need to look beyond the box and be willing to explore new ideas, processes or even disruptive technologies,” KL shares. “We did that in the past and it has really changed the end result for us, and that’s something that we will continue to strive to do moving forward.”
A Positive Result
“The journey has been fulfilling with many mountains and valleys to conquer,” KL reflects. “The whole concept is how we can move away from the traditional mode of operations to an advanced mode with the application of 4IR technologies. This is the game-changer that gives us the competitive advantage and it has changed the landscape for us.
“I’m humbled to say that we should never lose sight of our dreams and should continue pursuing each one of them as dreams do come true. Again, this is made possible with the awesome team we have.”