Additive manufacturing’s role in the digital thread

Jabil is a manufacturing provider, and the company goal is to be the most technologically advanced manufacturing solutions provider in the world. To that end, the company continually weaves a digital thread across its 100 facilities in 29 countries to connect people, processes and plants with suppliers, partners and customers in new ways. Recently, it is using additive manufacturing in its digital thread.

At Jabil’s Auburn Hills, Mich.-based facility, in addition to healthcare, the facility supports the specialized manufacturing requirements of transportation, IoT and analytical instrumentation customers. Says Rush LaSelle, Senior Director of Business Development, Jabil Additive Manufacturing, “New technologies, such as 3D printing, completely change the economic value equation because now we can produce a lot size of one as affordably as much larger volumes.”

Rethinking traditional manufacturing methods

To better address smaller batch sizes and reduced product lifecycles, the Auburn Hills team was early to evaluate and validate the use of additive manufacturing.

Reducing time constraints was one of the most appealing aspects of additive manufacturing with its ability to tailor products without requiring multiple engineering cycles in the manufacturing process.

For example, Jabil’s design engineers often dealt with different cost models as the prices to produce one-offs were significantly higher than producing tooling in larger volumes. The engineers also had to work with customer intellectual property concerns. And finally, conveying designs without much detail about the end product often led to extra design cycles.

Assembly Fixture: Assembly fixture used in production manufacturing at Jabil’s Auburn Hills facility.

Overall, the traditional tooling process often impeded Jabil’s ability to streamline new product introductions because of the multiple iterations needed to finalize fixtures. “We were challenged to get what we needed, when we needed it,” says Karin Alcorn, Operations Manager for Auburn Hills. “We decided to take control of our destiny and develop our own tooling capabilities to better support our customers.”

From months to weeks: Speeding time to market

Thus, the Auburn Hills team explored 3D printing for producing tooling, fixtures and jigs in-house. The team received training from Jabil Additive’s specialists on 3D printing hardware, software and Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) principles.

“We realized benefits almost immediately,” John Wahl VI, Tooling and Manufacturing Engineer for Jabil Auburn Hills says. “Within three hours of setting up the first Ultimaker 3D printer, we had a job to print spare parts. The alternative was to stop manufacturing until the parts could be produced, but we made them that day using 3D printing.”

Ultimaker Print Rack & Ultimaker Print Rack2: Ultimaker print racks used to produced tooling, fixtures and manufacturing aids at Jabil’s Auburn Hills facility.

Following that success, Auburn Hills rapidly ramped 3D printing for a variety of use cases.

“With 3D printing, there is no minimum quantity, and one-offs are no longer a cost constraint,” adds Wahl. “By locating machines within Auburn Hills, we could dictate the priority, timeliness and printing method ourselves.”

Streamlining production

One of Auburn Hills’ early additive manufacturing successes involved a medical technologies customer seeking to streamline production of an innovative mobile imaging system. Jabil engineers saw room for improvement in both fixture aesthetics and product function, as well as simplify and speed production while making the line move easier for the operator.

After brainstorming and white boarding the process, the team modeled and produced 3D-printed fixtures and tools overnight, followed by rigorous testing to qualify and validate performance. The ability to quickly turn around revision changes had the largest impact on the project’s success. “We verified a design change and then printed a full working unit in hours,” says Wahl. “Previously, a typical timeframe to go from problem discovery to final solution could take months. With 3D printing, we completed that entire process in weeks.”

In fact, Auburn Hills can now produce tooling based on customer product CAD models prior to receiving the actual parts, which gives them a jump on production. As 3D printing has become an integral part of the production process, the list of real-world successes continues to grow.

“3D printing has saved the day on numerous accounts,” Wahl says. “There were several times when something broke or malfunctioned on the production line, but we could quickly replicate the broken part or implement another tool or fixture using 3D printing. Before people even knew the line was down, we got them back up and running again.”

Cost reductions

Auburn Hills is achieving upward of 30% price reductions in the cost of tooling and an 80% decrease in the time to produce final tools and fixtures. Early customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “They love everything about it,” says Alcorn. “The fact that it’s flexible, and there’s a faster turnaround time, enables us to deliver better results because we can react immediately to manufacturing opportunities.”

Customers appreciate the freedom to iterate quickly and frequently so tools and the manufacturing machines they support can be optimized to produce higher yields. Equally impressive is the product design freedom. “If you can think it, we can print it,” says Wahl. “It’s amazing to take someone’s idea and 3D print it overnight. We’ve been surprised with all that can be accomplished with greater freedom on the creative side.”

This ability to take any design and produce a 3D-printed solution impacts both ends of the product lifecycle, including Maintenance, Repair and Obsolescence (MRO).

“3D printing is a critical pillar in the overarching digital manufacturing umbrella as we’ll start to see spare parts made in the field from a digital file,” asserts LaSelle. “This alleviates a lot of pain on the back-end of a product’s lifecycle. It’s a case where the network effect of the digital thread is connecting our design community around the world. The idea of design democratization is emerging from Jabil’s strong design competency for additive manufacturing, which will result in a global repository of great engineering, designs and parts.”



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