R&D Lab Channels Wonka for Sweet Manufacturing Innovations

Oct. 2, 2017
Jabil Circuit might not be a household name, but the hundreds of brands it provides manufacturing solutions for are. We toured the company's Blue Sky Center in San Jose to fill you in on the latest equipment and trends they are using to make your job easier.

Come with me
  and you'll be
in a wooooorld of pure imagination...

On a recent quest searching for the best in innovation, it was these gooey lyrics that dripped into mind. I wasn't strolling into Willy Wonka's eponymous chocolate factory, but I was in the midst of pure industrial imagination: Jabil Circuit's Blue Sky Center in San Jose, Calif.

The nearly 50-year-old Fortune 500 company is deeply entrenched in every level of manufacturing, from design to iteration to supply chain. It has more than 100 factories spread out over 23 countries to fulfill manufacturing needs for 250 of the top global brands.

More growth, more problems, though.

Customer engagement and custom solutions are crucial to Jabil's success, but an account executive can't exactly box up and mail out a sample of innovation, or carry it around in a brief case. Showing manufacturing customers just what Jabil can do for them involved a lot of long flights and several factory tours showing off different plants with altogether different foci.

"It became more and more difficult for us as we've grown to be able to share with new companies what do we do without getting on an airplane and flying all over the world," explains John Dulchinos, Jabil's Vice President of Digital Manufacturing. "So that's why we built Blue Sky as a tactical center."

Officially, Jabil says the innovation lab exists to "help our customers engineer growth and establish market leadership in an environment of rapid change."

Putting the corporate jargon aside, Blue Sky is the place you go to make the future. It's the help desk for the folks that don't usually need help—the Lucius Fox to your Bruce Wayne.

Here the product is the manufacturing process itself.

"If we can't deploy and scale into a factory then we really haven't created anything because if you can't impact at a reasonable scale, it doesn't have much meaning to the company," Dulchinos says.

He says it's completely shifted how customers view Jabil.

"In the past, they may have come to us with a design and asked us to build it," Dulchinos says. "Now they come to us with an idea and they ask us to help develop it, refine it, and upscale it."

Jabil is also scaling Blue Sky. This 102,000-square-foot facility is the first of the three centers. There's one an hour west of Boston that employs a holographic "wearable man" to highlight healthcare products, and another on the Mediterranean coast of Spain that inspires packaging solutions.

The place itself is certainly upscale.

My colleague Emily and I entered the 2-year-old facility from an outdoor eating area that could have passed as one of the Bay Area's swanky restaurant's patios. On the other side of the open garage door lay a spacious coffee bar, and beyond that was an entire wall made up of  20-ft interactive HD touch screens. The airy, inviting lobby isn't groundbreaking here in the cradle of Silicon Valley, but for Tampa-based Jabil, it's a brand new look.

This interactive screen in Blue Sky's lobby reacts when people approach.

Jabil, which employs 175,000 people worldwide, knows that manufacturing the right work environment was crucial to attracting the people doing the actual innovating. The 300 employees here aren't doing Oompa Loompa work; they are each in their own right a Wonka, a techno savant intent on maxing out what the latest industrial equipment can achieve.

And Blue Sky opened a few years ago, while over in neighboring Cupertino, Apple (also a major customer of Jabil's) has a 40-year head start.

"The reality is when you're in Silicon Valley you need to compete with other Silicon Valley companies for talent and for mind share," Dulchinos says. "So it was really important for us to create an environment that really exuded the technical leadership, and level of innovation that would not only show off our capabilities, but attract the kind of employees we're looking for and really push that technology forward."

Past the café, you can see a lot of this technology in small exhibits. At first, these stations look like loose collections of dioramas and random consumer tech. Having Dulchinos as our personal guide certainly corrected this supposition. In fact, every display was edible, and tasted just like snozzberries.

Ok, maybe not. But everything was embedded with sensors and connectivity, portending a future where our homes will be as reliant on the Internet of Things as our factories. Even a pocket pill dispenser for asthma can be part of the IoT, registering when you eject a pill and sending that data to an app so you and your doctor know you're complying. Someday, it could be used by the government to ensure everyone is taking their soma, a la Brave New World.

Dulchinos also showed off an augmented reality laser gun that illuminates in green where your veins are. Or that Emily is an alien.

In another display, ordinary electric toothbrushes in whiskey glasses was in fact a subtle use of wireless charging.

This was only the beginning. Blue Sky has seven different labs we explored.

This slideshow walks through a little on each lab:

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).