From smartphones to electric vehicles, digital technologies continue to reshape everyday life at breakneck speed. But one of the most important transformations is happening in a place most consumers will never see: the factory floor.

The use of digital technology in manufacturing has given rise to the “smart factory,” a fundamental shift in how companies work often called the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0 (I4.0). A smart factory depends on highly sensitive analysis, measurement, and control instruments to build near real-time connectivity between process data and decision-making. The increase in data transparency and control can be used to power I4.0 applications like the industrial internet of things (IIOT), machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI).

INFICON Inc. is a publicly traded company that manufactures many of the technologies that a smart factory demands. It supplies a range of sectors, including the refrigeration equipment, automotive, optics, and semiconductor industries, with instrumentation, critical sensors, and advanced process-control software. These products are especially valuable to the manufacture of optical thin-film coatings, flat-panel displays, solar cells, and industrial vacuum coatings.

In 2021, INFICON joined Rochester Institute of Technology’s (RIT) Industry 4.0 Transition Assistance Program to accelerate its own digital transformation. RIT’s program is designed to help small- and medium-sized manufacturers across New York State take advantage of digitalization. Beginning with an in-depth assessment, RIT specialists work with a company to map out how Industry 4.0 can lead to increased efficiency, productivity, and, ultimately, return on investment.

RIT’s assessment identified several opportunities for leveraging I4.0 to increase the overall efficiency and productivity of INFICON’s operations. The company engaged RIT to pursue one of those in February 2022, which was to transition INFICON’s work-instruction system to a digital platform. Modernizing INFICON’s work instructions was one of more than 160 recommendations that RIT made following its digital maturity assessment.

To learn more about the assessment and INFICON’s larger I4.0 journey, we sat down with Scott Walker, who is the vice president of INFICON’s U.S. headquarters in East Syracuse, New York.

Q: How would you describe “digital maturity” to someone who’s never heard of it?

A: Digital maturity is a measure of an organizations ability to both process and track data in real time, and how they use that data for quick, smart decisions to drive improvements. At INFICON we have a digital transformation roadmap as a major initiative to support our I4.0 goals to increase overall productivity. We pair this initiative with our formal Lean continuous improvement program to eliminate waste and drive efficiency gains across the entire organization: R&D, manufacturing, business processes, people, and culture.  

Q: Were you surprised by any results of RIT’s digital-maturity assessment? 

A: We partnered with RIT in early 2021 to undergo a digital-maturity assessment. This consisted of a three-day onsite workshop with a 16-point assessment across our organization, technology, and processes. It generated a comprehensive list of over 100 opportunities to advance our digital transformation and, for the most part, there were not many surprises. The real benefit to me was the holistic approach across multiple business functions to understand the dependencies, effort, and impact of each opportunity. All of the key stakeholders were involved in the workshop, and the process allowed us to collectively prioritize all opportunities. The final deliverable from RIT was the development of a five-year strategic roadmap to boost the planning of our I4.0 journey.   

Q: What challenges in your current system for work instructions do you plan to overcome by shifting to a digital, wireless one?

A: Workforce development is a top initiative for INFICON as we continue our fast growth and scaling up of our manufacturing operations. Our current system for work instructions was dated, using controlled documents with words and pictures showing technicians how to assemble and test our products. These documents took resources to maintain and were disconnected from our other supporting business systems.

By shifting to digital instructions we plan to improve our overall productivity and effectiveness. We want our digital instructions to be able to link directly to CAD (computer-aided design) models, be able to show both pictures and videos of processes, link directly to supporting documents, and interact with our ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.

Q: What immediate benefits do you expect to see once the system is up and running?

A: We expect to see immediate improvements in the effectiveness of our training and workforce development process for technicians. This will allow for faster on-boarding time, more efficient cross training, increased flexibility and adaptability, and improved overall quality of our processes.

“We expect to see immediate improvements in the effectiveness of our training and workforce development process for technicians.”

Q: How do you see the change supporting the company’s longer term business goals?

A: Our digital workforce initiative helps support our longer term business transformation goals to drive efficiency gains on a broader scale. We eliminate waste and become more effective when we can seamlessly link all of our business systems together. This initiative will help us leverage our ERP (SAP) software for bills of materials and routings together with our solid models for components and assemblies into effective digital instructions for our team. These improvements will result in increased training and competency, as well as provide a daily real-time performance feedback loop to support disruption-free manufacturing.

Q: Why did you make work instructions the first priority in your Industry 4.0 strategy?

A: In the last two years our intelligent sensor solutions business unit (ISS) has more than doubled our manufacturing staff. Our growth has led to implementation of multiple shifts and big recruitment efforts to attract and develop talent. To digest this growth and be able to scale up fast and agile, our work-instruction process was a top priority to help with on-boarding and cross training to enable more versatility in production. The quicker we can get our workforce trained and proficient, the better we can meet our customer’s needs.

Q: Are there other recommendations that you plan to implement within the next year? In the next five years?

A: We came away from the workshop with RIT with a comprehensive strategic roadmap for our business unit. Some of the opportunities could and are already being done in parallel across functional groups, while others were prerequisites. In operations, ultimately we want to build off our digital work instruction initiative with an updated MES (manufacturing execution system) to continue and strive for zero-waste and support disruption-free. Longer term we are also increasing our smart-manufacturing initiatives in automation, AI, statistical process control, and OEE tracking to drive continuous improvement.

“We came away from the workshop with RIT with a comprehensive strategic roadmap for our business unit.”

Q: How does INFICON keep up with the lightning-speed pace of innovation in these sectors? How does Industry 4.0 supporting those efforts, if at all?

A: As sensors and customer applications become smarter and more connected, INFICON will be able to collect real time data that can be used to drive our business decisions, make better informed product updates, and service and remotely troubleshoot issues with customers across the globe.

Q: Are INFICON’s I4.0 ambitions informed in any way by efforts to build up domestic production capacity for semiconductors in the U.S.?

A: Yes, as the semiconductor industry builds up in the US we see the need for heavy investment in smart manufacturing. With less students and people entering the STEAM fields it makes it difficult to hire and/or develop talent. Investment in smarter manufacturing will allow us to support the unprecedented growth we see in not only the US, but worldwide semi, as well.


Industry 4.0 Sustainability in Practice


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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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