November 2017 Digital Issue: Bad robot: Will you trust your autonomous vehicle?

The manufacturing plant of the future

I had the opportunity recently to tour Jabil’s Blue Sky Center in Silicon Valley recently, and I came away very impressed. Jabil, sometimes called the $20 billion company that no one’s heard of, is one of the three biggest contract manufacturers in the world—and is the largest such firm that is U.S. based.

“We try to keep a low profile,” said John Dulchinos, VP of Digital Manufacturing. “We try to stay below the radar, not disrupt the supply chain or get in the news.” Jabil has an impressive 101 factories in 30 different countries, and 170,000 employees. But the company realized that they needed a place where they could bring all of their capabilities together and show customers what they can do at their various facilities. So, they opened Blue Sky two years ago.

One of the things that most impressed me was their command center, which looked like a junior version of NASA’s Mission Control. Monitors showed everything from weather to worldwide seismic situations and currency exchange rates to the price of gas. Earthquake in Italy? Maybe that means switching manufacturing for a particular product to the Czech Republic. The yen is spiking? Maybe that means switching suppliers for a project to South Korea. When I think of interconnected systems, I admit that I’ve never thought this big about it.

Jabil is thinking big about 3D printing and how it relates to manufacturing, too— as evidenced by their being a foundational partner with HP for its Multi Jet Fusion technology. While the company realizes that digital manufacturing is mostly prototyping now, that situation is rapidly evolving. Among other things, 3D printing allows for digitalization in many aspects.

“We’re heading to the digital factory,” Dulchinos said. “We’ll be flipping your manufacturing from one part of the world to another with the flip of a digital switch.”

He explained that in some industries, from mining to fighter jets, 3D printing will allow for converting physical inventory into digital inventory, where parts can be produced as needed.

“That would be groundbreaking—and a huge cost savings,” he said. Jabil sees it coming from their customers, as well—the company represents some 250 top brands. Dulchinos said that the leaders in every industry “are looking at 3D printing.”

But it’s not just the 800-lb gorillas of the world that are looking at this technology. Smaller and medium-sized companies are looking at digital manufacturing to disrupt business models and industries. As opposed to traditional manufacturing, complexity can be almost free with 3D printing—for example, it’s no harder to print a more complex manifold. In fact, it could be cheaper, as less material is being used … and the build time would be shorter than building a solid block of material.

Paul HeneyJabil is also seriously getting into—and investing in—printed electronics, which might be thought of as a sister technology to 3D printing.

“We think the two will converge over time,” Dulchinos said.

One thing’s for sure: the manufacturing plant of today, while not going away any time soon, will be undergoing some significant shifts in both processes and operation over the next decade. Plants that turn a blind eye to these changes will soon be so far behind that they won’t be able to compete—or even catch up.

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