How one small business is adapting to Industry 4.0

The adoption of Industry 4.0 (I4.0) is uneven: Large-scale manufacturers are far ahead of small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) when it comes to implementation of even the most basic I4.0 technologies.

OptiPro Systems, LLC, a small business with about 100 employees in Ontario, New York, is an exception. For more than 35 years, OptiPro has provided precision optics for the metalworking industry in the shape of patented-design computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines and related software. High-quality optical lenses are essential to companies that utilize advance manufacturing technologies like metrology and machine vision. OptiPro’s machines need to be I4.0-ready—many of the company’s corporate customers are far along in “the fourth industrial revolution,” as I4.0 is sometimes known.

One strategy that OptiPro has employed to move forward on I4.0 as a small business is collaboration. Since its beginnings in the 1990s, the company has taken advantage of funding and research partnership opportunities offered by government agencies and research universities.

OptiPro lab

In 2019, the precision-optics manufacturer partnered with the Center of Excellence in Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing (COE-ASM) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to improve ultrasonic grinding outcomes for its customers. Acoustic and electric current signal characteristics were used to anticipate extreme events that could stall operation or damage assets. OptiPro then engaged COE-ASM in a second project to define and better understand the parameters utilized by the company’s patented UltraForm® Finishing (UFF™) CNC machine. The COE-ASM team designed a study to determine what variables were most important to successful UFF™ performance.

We sat down with Rob Bechtold, OptiPro’s chief technology officer, to learn how the company’s work with RIT and other partners has supported efforts to strategically position it within the Industry 4.0 (I4.0) space.  

Q: OptiPro has seen incredible growth in recent years. How do you meet manufacturer needs in a sector as fast-changing as optics?

A: One way we stay relevant within the industry and make sure that we’re providing what the industry needs is by doing a lot of different grant programs or working on joint projects, like we did with RIT.

The demands and tolerance requirement continue to get more stringent every day. With manufacturing, you have to be able to not just make the part, but also measure it and qualify that you’ve made it to the tight specifications you’re given. Thanks to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant program and by working jointly on initiatives with RIT, we can ensure that we’re working on things that can be very challenging for a small business to fund on its own. When you can get funding from outside, whether from government agencies or through shared funding like we did with RIT, it helps us develop the products that, ultimately, are needed for the next generation of precision optics for military, aerospace, and medical components.  

Optipro has pursued SBIR grants and joint-work with universities like RIT since the early nineties. It started with a project with the former Center for Optics Manufacturing at the University of Rochester that was funded by a U.S. Department of Defense grant. We developed an affordable CNC grinding machine through that project that ended up being used by Kodak for many years even though it was only a prototype.

Working with different universities and government agencies has helped us understand what the industry need is. The experience exposed us to incredible talent and, I would also say, to a mentality of being willing to take some highly technical risks early on. This propelled us. If you're not willing to take risks as a small business, then you're going to miss opportunities. These ventures are risky; you're not certain that the outcome is going to be something that you can either commercialize or somebody else can take and run with, so having that outside support is essential.

Q: How would you describe your experience working with RIT? What would you say to a company that is on the fence about partnering with a university?

A: Our company lives by a slogan: “Do what you do best and let other people do what they do best.”

We’re a small business, even though we’ve grown over the years. Huge engineering tasks are still a challenge to handle internally. Knowing that there are resources and experts in areas where we may not have expertise is invaluable. We’ve learned how to use the talent available through RIT in a way that helps us move forward. I also think it’s helpful to the university, too, because RIT gets an opportunity to “flex their muscles” in the field and show what they're capable of.

I know there’s some hesitation about working with universities out there, that it’s a waste of time or isn’t tied to results. But, honestly, that’s not been our experience at all.

We’ve worked with the research staff and faculty at COE-ASM as well as a few student employees they supervise. We like this mix of skillsets and perspectives we get access to. Someone on our side can be very intelligent in one area, but not know everything. RIT’s team is very hands on and brings many perspectives to what we’re doing. They don’t have the limitations that we sometimes have working internally; they never say things like “I’ve already thought of that.” 

I understand that there are some preconceived notions about working with a university, but I think, at the end of the day, it's also the company's responsibility to manage expectations and make sure that the university knows what you’re trying to get out of the project up front. Like any project, you need to make sure that the scope of the project is clearly defined.

RIT delivered the report that they said they were going to deliver at the end of the project, which was extremely helpful and very well organized. Working with RIT is like working with an extension of my engineering department. There is a lot of communication back and forth.

Q: Did the results of your first project with COE-ASM help you visualize next steps for improving process controls for ultrasonic grinding? If so, how? 

A: Definitely. It opened our eyes to just how much of an effect an individual manual operator has on the outcome at any one time. The study results helped us better understand how we can use automation to streamline the overall process and better apply our resources internally and also allow our customers to.

The results helped us to better understand the ways in which a manual operator affects the outcome. This information gave us a better idea of how we can best use automation to streamline the process in a way where we can better apply resources in terms of staff skillsets and technology for a more consistent end product.

Q: Did the second, follow-on investigation into your UFF™ CNC machine uncover any surprises for you? Did the data analysis help you make more informed choices about optimizing it for more reliable performance? 

A: There were surprises, for sure. The investigation helped remove some preconceived notions we had about what was even possible. The report RIT provided showed us that some indicators weren’t as important as we thought, while highlighting others that we hadn’t prioritized at all. The UFF study really challenged some assumptions we didn't even realize we were working off of—it gave us a new perspective. And I think that's what is so valuable about working with a university like RIT: It brings a fresh set of eyes to a problem, a more objective viewpoint.

Q: What’s your perspective on I4.0 when it comes to small businesses? What “dos and don’ts” would you offer a small business that is considering I4.0 for the first time? 

A: I4.0 gets at the fundamental level at which small businesses in the United States will need to be at to compete in the future. It’s about having information and being able to drive production based on what information you’re getting back, whether that comes down to scheduling differently, machine maintenance, or things like that. I think it absolutely is the future of manufacturing and we're very excited to have the ability to already have some I4.0 programs at OptiPro that we are working on.

But it's early on and, again, that's another area where, as a small business, we need to continue to look for opportunities. Whether it's a large prime contractor that's interested in having some technology developed so that they can integrate with a larger system or a government grant looking for more development in that area. It's absolutely something that I think is going to continue to grow and we will definitely be part of that.

For us, it’s very much customer driven. If a bigger company wants to gather that information from their production process and do something with it, we have to figure out what piece of that is ours, what they will need from our machines to do that.

There's different levels of what companies can integrate with right now. So if it's a large prime contractor, they have certain restrictions on what data can be shared. We deal with the littlest shops up to the biggest in the country; being able to tailor solutions to those different companies is what we ultimately have to do. In the end, what's going to drive us is demand. We’re making products that have to slot into systems at different points in a company’s development when it comes to I4.0, and I think that gives us a unique perspective on the industry as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to work in new ways. Most often, this has meant increasing their reliance on digital tools for communicating and getting things done. Some commentators have noted that this trend has accelerated the adoption of I4.0 among manufacturers.

Q: Has the pandemic changed your perspective on I4.0 and the role it will play in your business post-pandemic?

A: As a service-based organization, we install our products on site for our customers and train them on how to use the machines. Up until last year, a hundred percent of that work was done in person at the customer site, which meant that our staff travelled all over the United States, as well as Canada, Japan, and Europe. When the pandemic struck, one of the things that we had to do early on was figure out how we would be able to provide these services remotely.

We have a certain line of equipment called our pro series that is not as demanding when it comes to installation and training. So, for a couple of customers who purchased these machines, we did remote installs using augmented-reality (AR) glasses.

The way it works is that we have a customer on the other end with the AR glasses on who is looking at the equipment we sent while, on our end, we have a trainer or an installer walking them through, step by step, what they have to do. We can see in real-time what they’re doing and make sure they’re doing it safely and correctly. If they're looking at a circuit breaker and somebody on our end tells them to put a specific wire at certain point, we can pause the screen and circle where it goes. Then that pops up on their side and they can see exactly where the wire needs to go. It was something we tried early on with a current customer who was pretty familiar with the equipment and it was very successful. We’ve since successfully used this method with an out-of-country customer that had never installed a piece of our equipment.

There’s always going to be a learning curve and bumps in the road, but I do think in the future we will utilize this method for customers that want it. Ultimately, it’s a cost-saving measure for them because they don’t have to pay for our staff to travel, stay at a hotel, eat meals, and all those expenses, but they can still get the same quality of support that they need.

Looking ahead, this technology is now another tool we have that we can offer to our customers. Maybe it won’t always be for installation and training, but it will be very helpful for simple service calls in terms of being quick and inexpensive.

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About the author

The Center of Excellence in Advanced & Sustainable Manufacturing (COE-ASM) is a partnership between New York state and RIT dedicated to helping state manufacturers develop and apply new technologies that create competitive business advantages. Funding is provided by the New York State Department of Economic Development (DED). Any opinions, findings conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DED.

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