Video: The Future of Additive Manufacturing: A Profitable Lot Size of One

John Dulchinos, Jabil VP of Digital Manufacturing, talks about his optimism for the disruptive potential of 3D printing.


James Anderton: Everyone talks about digital manufacturing today, and it seems to be the way of the future. The term ‘digital’ can of course refer to the way we handle information, but these days it also refers to how we physically assemble the atoms, the molecules, the building blocks of a product. I’m with John Dulchinos, he’s VP of Digital Manufacturing at Jabil Inc. John, we’re standing in front of an HP jet fusion machine, a rather unique way of printing parts. Your company is well known to be a leading proponent of digital manufacturing. I understand you’re using this technology in an expanded way to achieve your goal. Tell me about it!

John Dulchinos: Yes, we just put six additional printers on the ground in Singapore, and it’s our first Asia operation that’s got 3D printing production machines.  It’s really kind of a funny thing. One of the real value propositions of additive manufacturing is that you can bring production closer to where the end-user application is. In this particular case, we’re making parts for our factory that was actually producing the printers, and so moving the production of the parts there made a lot of sense. It made it much more economical for us.

JA: Now in the old days of manufacturing, vertical integration was assumed to be the holy grail. Ford’s River Rouge plant is an example: iron ore and coke in one end, and motor vehicles out the other! Since then we’ve gone the opposite way, and firms like yours lead the way in having global supply chains and units. But 3D printing means you can almost go back to that vertical way, where you make the part where you consume the part.

JD: Well, I think that 3D printing will allow you to do both. The way we’re using it in this particular application, on the third floor of this factory in Singapore we’re making the printers, and on the first floor we’re using the MJF printers to print the parts. What’s really great about that is that we print the parts, we clean them off, we inspect them, we put them in a cart, we move into the third floor and we put them into a printer. That’s just-in-time. So, it’s really the ultimate just-in-time operation.

JA: It sounds a bit like an M.C. Escher print, you know, drawing yourself, oddly recursive.

JD: Exactly, the printers printing itself. Exactly!

JA: Now, that’s unique application of course. Most applications are not making more of yourself.

JD: Yes.

JA: Now, we’ve got a range of multiple polymers available for 3D printing, metals, ceramics, cermets for high-temperature materials—we’re seeing an increasing range of materials at this point. Is this going to replace the punch press, the machining center, the pick-and-place robot?

JD: Well, you’ve got to look pretty far out for that to happen. But I think that what’s happening in 3D printing is every year it’s cumulatively getting better, and so the break-even points this year are ten, twenty, thirty percent better than last year, and we’re going to continue to see that kind of compounded annual growth rate in terms of the capabilities. You do that over five or ten years and it’s profound the impact that can have on manufacturing.

JA: Now, John, the dirty secret of mass production that few people outside the industry really understand is that tooling and fixturing is a major component of the cost. It’s like a giant flywheel of inertia that makes it very difficult to do changeovers. Is this a technology that could address that problem?

JD: Oh, absolutely. One of the really exciting parts about 3D printing is the ability to create parts without custom fixtures, custom tooling and custom molds. That’s so powerful because that allows us, using essentially the exact same manufacturing tool, to produce a wide range of parts. That means we can move production from one location to another simply by moving digital files around. That becomes extremely powerful as we think about distributed manufacturing.

JA: Now, we talked also about flexible manufacturing, where in that world, a plant could potentially make a wide range of products. Does that give you advantages in the supply chain side? I mean, there was a time when a fire in a factory halfway around the world could materially affect your ability to hit your delivery time.

JD: Yes, I think that one of the really exciting parts about 3D printing is that by eliminating the tooling, you’re not worrying about having to move that tool from one production site to another. So, for us, every place we put an MJF HP printer on the ground, we can produce the same parts. So, we have them in five various locations, and we can move manufacturing from each of the locations simply by moving the files back and forth.

JA: Now, Jabil, as we often joke, is the biggest company no one’s ever heard of.

JD: Yes.

JA:  The majority of people in this continent have something manufactured by your firm in their possession. What do you consider to be ‘volume?’ is it millions of units? Hundreds of thousands of units? Just give a sense of what you consider to be a long run or a high-volume part.

JD: Well, that’s the interesting thing about Jabil. Jabil has products that we produce in hundreds of millions of units a year, and we have products we produce in less than ten a year. So, we run a very wide disparity of different manufacturing volumes that we produce across our company. For us, it’s really more about the value we deliver to our customers. Ultimately, what additive manufacturing allows us to do is bring down the break-even points where manufacturing and volume makes sense.

JA: Now, conventional wisdom says you can’t do both. You can’t be a custom house and do low-cost mass production at the same time.  Will this technology change that?

JD: Yes it will. I think one of the real benefits around additive manufacturing is the ability to produce a thousand parts that are all the same, or a thousand different parts at really the same efficiency and same cost as doing it at high volume. So, that’s the power of digital.

JA: Will we see a lot size of one as profitable as a lot size of a thousand?

JD: Yes. I think once the digital thread is built out, we will.

JA: John Dulchinos, very optimistic about the future of digital manufacturing with additive.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.