For an $18 billion manufacturer that has been around for more than 45 years, Jabil Circuit has a remarkably low profile. But the St. Petersburg, Fla. company has played a major role in producing high-profile products from both startups and long-established companies. Unlike most contract manufacturers, it ups the ante with end-to-end services: swanky product design, materials creation, optics, miniaturization, and much more.
The upshot is that Jabil wants customers to commit during the inception phase to cut down on design blunders and speed products to market, ultimately saving time and costs. From Honeywell to NetApp–with many other big-name partners it’s not at liberty to divulge along the way–Jabil is “the name behind 250 of the best brands on the planet,” says CEO Mark Mondello.
And now the company is coming out of the shadows. At its first-ever press gala in April, it unveiled Blue Sky Center, a 100,000-square-foot, design and demo facility in San Jose, Calif.. so dazzling that it puts a Star Trek set to shame. Filled with PhDs, scientists, and engineers of every type, Blue Sky provides everything from design to rapid prototype manufacturing all under one roof. Someone who approached Jabil with an idea on a napkin could leave with a working prototype in hand as well as an understanding of how much it would cost to manufacture millions of units.
Jabil has thrived for years without promoting itself. Now it wants to drum up more partnerships with smaller outfits that might be intimidated by working with an enormous, faceless manufacturer. The company already has a presence in Silicon Valley, but Blue Sky should help raise its profile among the tech startups it wants to reach.
“This place makes manufacturing sexy,” chuckled Erich Hoch, Jabil’s executive vice president of engineering and technology services. In the lobby is the colorful Jabil Capabilities Wall, a touch-screen grid that dramatically details the company’’s vision in all of its multimedia glory. Next to that is an open floor with vibrant kiosks highlighting products from household names. On display is a box of Disney MagicBands, sensor-based wristbands that allow Disney World visitors to do such magical things as access hotel rooms, board rides, and pay for meals by tapping their wristbands to a mouse-logo reader. (Jabil won’t disclose the exact nature of its involvement in the MagicBand project.)
The company’s efforts are hardly all fun and games. On the show-and-tell walking tour, Joanne Moretti, senior vice president of sales enablement and marketing, held up a Jabil-designed miniature camera affixed to the end of a feeding tube that helps technicians see what is happening inside a patient’s throat. Jabil also created the camera materials and adhesives, which are unaffected by stomach acid. “The race is on to innovate, differentiate, and connect,” she stressed. “With an aging population, we see remote health monitoring as a trend. By 2020, the number of connected devices will be up 30-fold.”
Outside the clean room, Dan Gamota, senior director of engineering and technology services, showed a display of memory chips getting smaller and smaller. At the end was a blank box that looked as if nothing was there. He reassured the audience that a multigigabyte speck was indeed mounted on the board. “Today’s chips are so tiny they are invisible to the eye, and can only be handled by robotic fingers for assembly,” he said.
That natural segue brought the group to a voluminous space coined the Factory of the Future. Visitors gawked at Baxter, a robot with a red torso and digital face. It’s designed to work collaboratively with humans. The demo factory also showcased 3-D printers that can work with materials ranging from plastics to metals.
In the IoT (Internet of Things) room, an employee wearing sensor-equipped gym shorts from Jabil client Athos was doing squats. An adjacent video screen featured a real-time scan depicting muscle exertion in the user’s thighs and calves. According to David Wahl, general manager of Blue Sky, customers will be able to use the IoT room to test wearables and other objects that will be part of the connected-device industry estimated to grow to $4 trillion by 2020.
And delivering the “sexy” in manufacturing, company executives led reporters and analysts to the Supply Chain Command Center, a war room with tables arranged in a vast circle with small microphones. A 15-foot-high by 21-foot-wide interactive wall displayed the Jabil supply chain as a Spirograph-esque web.
Using the recent Nepal earthquake as an example, Jabil staff re-created the scene, clicked on regions of the web graphic, and identified 106 suppliers that existed within 500 miles of the epicenter. At the time of the tremor, no one in the Jabil network was injured, and none of its manufacturing facilities were affected. According to Moretti, “Other vendors tell us it would take days or weeks to identify the source of problems on the supply chain.” Jabil’s own inControl software visualizes the entire chain and can drill down to the component level within minutes. Because of that, Jabil has won over $100 million in new business, said Moretti.
“We want to be the brand behind the brand,” said CEO Mondello by way of explaining Jabil’s historic tendency to avoid promoting its partnerships. “We are low-key and need to protect their IP (intellectual property).” And yet on this coming-out day, some of its customers were pretty outspoken.
San Mateo, Calif.-based Tile is a startup that produces a plastic square that can help locate keys, purses, and other easily lost items. “What Jabil did was help us fine-tune the design for high-volume mass production,” said Tile CEO Mike Farley. “It’s a cooperative effort between both companies. We keep Jabil informed at every stage as we work through our design iterations.”
Redwood City, Calif. Athos, which produces the athletic garments with embedded sensors, sought out Jabil’s materials expertise for electronics that would withstand heat and water in the washing machine. And Whistle Labs of San Francisco wanted advice on how to create a pet-tracking device tough enough to withstand dog bites and also be non-toxic in the event that animals ate it. In addition to offering scientific and engineering smarts, Jabil staffers “were able to give us ideas on how to evolve our product line,” said Kevin Lloyd, Whistle’s cofounder and CTO.
Seasoned players in the industry are coming forth as well. Honeywell’s Tim Clark, VP of procurement and automation and control solutions, lauded the company’s ability to work as a team in prototyping Honeywell’s latest thermostat with an emphasis on ease of use and elegant design.
Hugh Gagnier, senior VP of operations at Agoura Hills, Calif.-based Zebra Technologies, was quick to point out that when the company switched business from a smaller manufacturer to Jabil, things changed for the better. According to Gagnier, Jabil redefined the manufacturing process so it could ramp up production of the wireless sensor tags used for tracking NFL football players on the field during games. Said Gagnier, “The NFL is constantly challenging us to make player-tracking tags smaller, lighter, and more accurate. Our development teams work very well together to constantly improve these attributes.”
His take on Blue Sky? “The lab itself is a great start, but at the end of the day creativity is started by merging great minds with a true customer need. I’m sure over time this will happen, and the facility will just help.”