The Manufacturer’s Guide To Traceability

Last Updated: September 30, 2022

As a manufacturer, your products are critical to the modern way of life in one way or another, including to the economy. In fact, it contributes $2.77 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, with an impact of $2.68 to the economy for every $1.00 spent in manufacturing. But errors do happen during manufacturing, and the consequences are almost always costly. With consumers demanding more transparency from the companies they buy from, manufacturers are under a lot of pressure to boost their visibility.

You need insight into where your raw materials come from, how goods route through your plant, and how they end up in customers’ hands. Regardless of your industry, you need manufacturing traceability. We’ve created this guide to give manufacturers an understanding of traceability, why it matters, and best practices to help you succeed at traceability. We’ll discuss:

First, let’s take a closer look at what traceability is.

What is Traceability?

Manufacturing traceability includes the processes, systems, and tools you use to track where your goods are. This includes everything from the moment you receive raw materials to when you either sell them to the customer or dispose of them. It’s an established practice in certain industries, such as food production and medical device manufacturing. As more industries realize the benefits of traceability, it’s becoming a widely implemented practice across the entire manufacturing sector.

While your exact processes will likely differ, manufacturing traceability usually happens with a few simple steps:

  1. Components or raw materials arrive at your factory. You assign an ID number or serial number to each product, batch, or lot and stamp them with a barcode label, QR code, or another identifying asset tag.
  2. Your team or automated scanning software scans the codes into the system.
  3. As the products route through the plant, your system will pick up on critical data and tie it back to the unique identifier you assigned to that product. You can then track the condition, use, inspection results, packers, and other important notes you might need later.
  4. Every time the products or materials are scanned, they send data back to your traceability system in real-time. This helps you see where products are at any given time, making it easier to track goods through your plant to the moment they arrive on shelves.

With traceability, you get eyes on every part of your processes. You collect and manage data on your materials and products during the manufacturing process — and even upstream and downstream stages of the product journey, too. Traceability solutions make it a cinch to verify if your shipments made it to the customer or if there are issues with a specific lot number.

Juice Bottles in a Factory Production

The 3 Types of Traceability

Manufacturing traceability is a must for modern manufacturers, but there are actually several ways to conduct traceability, including:

  • Internal traceability: This is a more limited type of traceability. Instead of doing traceability for your entire business, you’re only tracking assets within one location or plant. With internal traceability, you track the movement of raw goods on their journey to becoming a finished product within your plant. This is ideal if you have multiple facilities and you want to pinpoint problems with a specific plant, component, or employee.
  • Forward traceability: With forward traceability, you track your components until they reach the customer or the end-user. This is the best way to ensure high-quality goods are hitting the shelves, but it also gives you a lot of valuable data. Know who is using your products, where they’re buying them, and even if they return them. This does require digitized tracking as well as retailer collaboration, but forward traceability can be a real boon to your operations.
  • Backward traceability: Is there an issue with a certain product or lot number? Use backward traceability to look upstream to find where a product came from. With this approach, you can take a finished product and track its journey back to its origins as raw materials. This is incredibly common for food manufacturers who need to issue recalls.

The Benefits of Traceability for Manufacturers

Once you can track ingredients, parts, and products during the manufacturing process, you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of your business. While traceability has been practiced by some industries for years, such as medical device manufacturing, defense, and food production, it’s becoming a valuable tool for automotive, electronics, and other industries, too.

Regardless of your customer base, traceability helps manufacturers:

  • Improve safety: If there’s an issue with a certain product, traceability helps you quickly identify and locate the affected lot numbers. This ensures that nothing falls through the cracks and keeps the public safe.
  • Track better data: Traceability systems give you so much more data to play with. Get real-time information on where your products are — as well as how long they take to route through your plant from start to finish.
  • Identify problems faster: Is a certain machine, material, or employee causing downstream breakdowns? Traceability will help you quickly spot the problem before more damage is done and revisit the design process if necessary.
  • Protect your reputation: Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. If you have to issue frequent recalls for your products, shoppers just aren’t going to trust your brand anymore. Protect your reputation (and the future of your business) with traceability that ensures quality at every turn.
  • Increase speed: If there’s a problem in your factory, traceability helps you pinpoint the exact point of failure, as well as everything affected by the issue. This makes it easier to respond ASAP and stop issues before they escalate.
  • Stay compliant: Depending on your industry, you might need to comply with regulatory requirements. In some cases, such as medical device manufacturing, traceability is mandatory, and the defense industry has developed an entire UID program to improve traceability. If you have to complete regular audits, traceability helps you report on your assets’ condition, location, and history. That makes compliance much less of a headache for your team.
  • Prevent errors: Traceability makes it easier to determine if a product has a defect. You can pull other items in the affected lot number and either dispose of them or put them through additional rounds of quality assurance. By catching errors quickly, you can prevent defects from hitting the market.
  • Improve your business: Get deeper insights into your manufacturing processes with traceability. Traceability highlights previously invisible problems in your business that you might not have caught. This jolt of visibility makes root-cause analysis much more accurate and effective.
  • Make data-centered decisions: You can see your entire supply chain with traceability. That’s going to not only give you insights into your own business but the entire ecosystem around your business too. Better, smarter data will empower you to make quantitatively-backed decisions that strengthen your business.

8 Traceability Best Practices

Traceability might initially sound overwhelming, but it’s an incredibly beneficial tool for manufacturers in any industry. But how do you get the most value out of your traceability processes? Follow these eight traceability best practices to boost visibility across your factory.

1. Set Goals

What problems should traceability solve?

It’s great to implement traceability, but you need goals to determine if it’s actually effective. That might mean creating KPIs and goals for:

  • Defect or error rates
  • Quality standards
  • Employee safety
  • Production times
  • Inventory loss

It’s a good idea to benchmark against your competitors as well as yourself. This will tell you what’s standard in your business and what, if anything, you need to correct.

2. Streamline with Technology

It’s impossible to conduct traceability without some kind of technology in place. This might mean adding tech to streamline your processes, such as:

  • Asset tags: Label both your products and your machines with durable asset tags that won’t fade after regular use. If you’re in an industry such as aerospace, investing in durable barcode labels and nameplates compliant with industry regulations is key.
  • Automatic scanning: Can you automate the scanning process? Any time you remove human error from the equation, you decrease the odds of defects down the line. If automation isn’t possible, implement a traceability system that won’t allow employees to proceed until they’ve scanned everything on the line.
  • Vision tracking: This technology makes it possible to track, sort, and identify parts on a conveyor belt. It can even detect defects in your products before they cause damage down the line. This not only ensures that you have fewer errors, but vision tracking also double-checks your accuracy, too.
  • Blockchain: It might sound like futuristic technology, but blockchain has a lot of promise for manufacturers. Several industries are already using blockchain to prove ownership and verify authenticity. If you want to ensure your raw materials came from a reputable, authorized seller, the blockchain is the best way to verify authenticity beyond a shadow of a doubt.

3. Always Generate Unique Identifiers

You never want to reuse codes or identifiers, especially within a short time. Every single asset needs a unique identifier. That might mean creating longer, more complex identifiers with numbers and letters, but this is crucial to keeping all of your lot numbers distinct from each other.

Every manufacturer gets to decide how they want to serialize their traceability solutions. You might choose a combination of:

  • Model number
  • Batch number
  • Source
  • Manufacturing date

You can also use QR codes to track your identifiers, which can still work if a piece is missing — and they also allow you to store more information in a small space.

QR Codes in a Warehouse

4. Give Your Workers Quick-Reference Information

It’s not always a good idea to put a QR code on a machine without any other context. What if your employees don’t have a device on hand to scan the code?

Occasionally, the humans in your factory will need to quickly access information by looking at a label or nameplate. They might need quick access to essential operating instructions, for instance, or they might need to access information about a vehicle, compliance informationequipment ratings, and other data. It’s great to give more detailed information upon scanning, but high-level information should also be printed below the code. This way, your team can still access basic information without scanning.

This is essential if you have a time-sensitive issue, like a recall. There’s less of a need to scan every single asset in the factory — just have your team look for assets matching the recall’s parameters and then scan them to verify the information.

5. Train Employees and Create Documentation

Even if you’re using automation and technology in your factory, you rely on your employees to keep your business moving. That’s why it’s a good idea to train your employees on traceability, especially if you have to answer to regulators.

What are your standards? If you’re audited, you need your employees to feel confident that they’re fulfilling regulatory requirements. That’s why every manufacturer should train new employees as well as seasoned veterans on traceability processes. This will stamp out bad habits and ensure that everyone implements your processes with fidelity.

You must also document your processes if traceability systems are new to your organization. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) should systematically detail how your business implements traceability. This document should remove any ambiguity and serve as the go-to for any questions about traceability.

Of course, you’ll also need to update your SOP, so it’s actually useful. Ensure your team reviews SOPs at least twice a year to ensure they’re still accurate.

Teamwork in a Factory

6. Roll Out Traceability on a Small Scale First

You don’t have to completely overhaul your manufacturing processes overnight. When implementing a new process like traceability, it’s better to start small, learn, and then expand from there.

Consider conducting a traceability pilot on a certain part of your production line or at one factory first. This will help your team gather data, learn what works (and what doesn’t), and iron out mistakes. Otherwise, you risk throwing your entire company into chaos by switching all of your processes at the same time.

7. Set Traceability Standards Based on Regulations

Traceability holds so much promise for manufacturers, but if you’re required to satisfy regular audits, your traceability processes must also be compliant. Work with your legal team to look at your audit requirements: how can you ensure compliance with this new system?

Another way to look at this is to audit your current processes without traceability. Where are you falling short? How can traceability improve your business? This will help you get the most value possible from traceability without putting your business at risk.

8. Integrate Your Systems

If you use traceability software, chances are it’s not the only software used to run your business. The good news is that proper traceability software will integrate with all the other software tools you use, including your CRM or ERP. If you’re in a highly regulated industry like defense, choose from software solutions designed with the sector’s unique needs in mind.

Be sure to choose a traceability solution that integrates and pushes data to other software. By combining information from multiple platforms, you can make faster, better, and more informed decisions about your business as a whole.

Optimize with Traceability Tagging Solutions

Traceability has the power to make your manufacturing business more efficient. It might require upfront work to implement, but traceability can save you so many headaches in the long run that it’s well worth the effort.

But your traceability processes need reliable tagging to work properly. MPC’s durable tags and labels make it a cinch to label your equipment, scanners, machines, and other critical components with long-lasting codes that won’t fade. Request a free sample today.

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