SVLuma - Fotolia

Why Jabil is ramping up its 3D printing and additive manufacturing

In a Q&A, John Dulchinos of Jabil, the world's third largest contract manufacturer, explains why it is increasingly using 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies.

Founded 50 years ago as a circuit board assembly company, Jabil Circuit Inc. (pronounced jay-bill) has grown to become the third largest contract manufacturer in the world. It produces products and parts for some of the world's most recognized brands, using more than 100 factories worldwide. The company uses traditional manufacturing systems, like circuit board assembly lines, computer numerical control machines and injection molding machines in its processes, but in recent years, has begun to introduce more 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies.

In this Q&A from the Rapid + TCT additive manufacturing trade show held in Pittsburgh, John Dulchinos, Jabil vice president of global automation and 3D printing, discusses how Jabil uses additive manufacturing, and why it's becoming an increasingly vital part of the manufacturing process.

What were some of the manufacturing processes Jabil used in the past, and how have these changed over the past few years?

John Dulchinos: Jabil originally built its core capability around circuit board assembly and, in the mid-1980s, we were one of the first companies to jump into automated circuit board assembly lines using a new technology called SMT [surface-mount technology]. In the early days, through the 90s, most products that we built were handed to us with a full set of documentation on product design, manufacturing processes, test instructions, work instructions and [a] full bill of materials, and all we needed to do was absorb the product and produce it.

John DulchinosJohn Dulchinos

Over the last decade or so, we've shifted from being a manufacturing company to being an engineering company, because more and more, we're codeveloping products with our customers. We're helping to develop the processes for them, we're helping to refine the product, do DFA [design for assembly] or DFM [design for manufacturing] for improving the cost models in the manufacturing. So we bring a lot of know-how now to making products.

One thing that's very consistent with our customers is that they want to get products to market faster. They also want to produce closer to their customers, and they want to be able to drive as low a cost and as high a quality as they can.

Our interest in 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies started on the prototyping side at first, helping to go through faster design processes that allowed us to get products through the innovation phase faster. We then started to find use cases in our fixtures and tooling [and] in our molding operations. We designed conformal cooling chambers around the parts in the mold cavities.

So these were not parts for the finished products, but parts that were used in the manufacturing process?

Dulchinos: Yes. We started with prototyping, then we moved to the fixture tooling, and things like the conformal cooling chambers inside molds that allowed us to produce products at a more efficient level.

More recently, we've been using additive manufacturing technologies to produce functional, production-grade parts that are going into finished products.

What are some of the reasons to use 3D printing and additive manufacturing rather than more traditional manufacturing methods?

Dulchinos: There are usually three primary reasons why additive manufacturing technologies get selected. First, it either allows a level of customization or personalization, or the Holy Grail of lot size of one.

Second, it gets used because of its design freedom that allows you to consolidate full geometries, such as a dozen-part assembly [consolidated] into a single printing, which makes it more efficient. In both of those cases it may not be cheaper; it depends on the performance.

The third reason is because of moldless manufacturing, or the ability to take lower volume parts and not have to tool up the production process to produce those parts. For example, if you have a $100,000 mold, and you can produce 100 parts, the mold's going to cost you $1,000 a part, which is a lot. But if you're going to produce 10 million parts, then the mold costs fractions of a penny. So it's in that lower volume -- typically thousands or tens of thousands -- where the fact that you're not producing a mold makes additive manufacturing technologies cheaper.

How much of your manufacturing is done by 3D printing and additive manufacturing now, and how do you see that changing in the next few years?

Dulchinos: I think in Jabil and the industry at large, we're in the first batter of the first inning of this transition. So it's the very early stages. We're producing functional parts today, we're producing thousands of 3D printed parts that are going into end-user applications, but it's a scratch in the surface of where this is going to go in our business.

This appears to make manufacturing a much more interesting and challenging practice than it has been traditionally. Do you think manufacturing will be a cool career choice in a few years?

Dulchinos: This is not your father's or your grandfather's manufacturing. The expansion in the U.S. manufacturing sector of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s was very labor-intensive and very low tech, and was centered on bringing brawn to the manufacturing process. In the 80s and 90s and through the last decade and a half, there's been a big push to outsource, to lower and lower labor costs because that was critical to manufacturing.

You come back around to today and look to the future of these new technologies, like additive manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning; this is thinking manufacturing. The kinds of people we need to make these factories succeed are engineers -- highly educated, very agile in their thinking and creative problem solvers.

The additive manufacturing technologies are so fun to work on that it is going to attract some of our best and brightest to go into manufacturing now.

Back-end systems like ERP and procurement are increasingly important in managing additive manufacturing technologies. How is Jabil integrating 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies with back-end systems?

Dulchinos: We've been using SAP to run large portions of our business for the last 20 years, and we run the single largest instance of SAP in the world inside Jabil, so we've had a very deep and long-lasting partnership with SAP. We have both identified that there's a strong need now to build out the digital thread for additive manufacturing, and we've partnered with SAP to help build elements of it.

There isn't an end-to-end solution yet, but I think our interest is to work closely with SAP, since we use SAP as our ERP system, and [to] be able to tie it very closely to our supply chain, and then link it to the print service solutions. This will allow us to get relatively end-to-end visibility on 3D printing.

Next Steps

Read how global contract manufacturer Jabil developed and used a supply chain visibility system

See how Jabil uses the HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing system in manufacturing

SAP Distributed Manufacturing is a new network that enables on-demand 3D printing

The Netherlands is teeming with 3D printing projects, with the technology being applied to canal bridges, bicycles, ship components and buildings

Dig Deeper on 3D printing and software