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6 Ways Manufacturers Can Improve Product Traceability

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Product traceability, or the ability to track manufactured products throughout their journey from raw materials to finished goods, has always had its place in the industrial sector. Yet the importance of traceability has expanded well beyond the most highly regulated segments of the economy – it’s now a staple of the modern manufacturing playbook.

As the practice increases in scope, supply chain managers need to know the most cost-effective and efficient ways to perform, verify, and document asset and materials tracing. A successful traceability program should seamlessly fit into a firm’s production process without bottlenecking throughput or output.

To help you better achieve your traceability goals, we’ve compiled several tips and best practices below. Check them out to discover what opportunities make sense for your operations.

In this article:

Laptop graphic with icons surrounding it, traceability concept
Image by ZinetroN via Shutterstock

1. Utilize Traceability Software

Digitization is impacting nearly every facet of manufacturing, and product traceability is no exception. Now integral to the process is highly advanced traceability software, which is essentially an online repository of data that collects and compiles real-time product or part updates.

Beyond storing this information in an easily accessible format, this software can dramatically simplify running reports, performing analysis, issuing recalls, or identifying the source of defective parts.

Since every industry is subject to different product traceability compliance requirements, it’s no surprise that there are several software options on the market tailored to different business verticals.

Food traceability software is one such example; another is aerospace traceability software. We recommend researching to see if there’s a niche-specific option tailored to your industry. These software solutions integrate with product identification and tracking mechanisms such as barcode labels and tags to create a product identification system that supports precise product tracking and traceability.

2. Enact Supplier Traceability Controls

Many manufacturing operations now rely on external suppliers, known as Original Equipment Manufacturers or OEMs, to machine or produce specific parts for use in their final products.

The automotive industry is an excellent example of this: for any given car, hundreds of ancillary car parts may be built by suppliers, which are then sold and shipped to the automotive manufacturer and installed at the automaker’s assembly plants.

However, the industry’s infamous Takata airbag recall proves why tracking supplier-produced componentry is so critical.

Establishing traceability requirements with external suppliers begins with data transparency. This can be done in several ways: batch numbers, certificates of compliance, and production records are just some examples. Labeling parts with durable product identification tags is one of the most reliable methods to identify and validate supplier-sourced components.

You can also proactively monitor supplier performance by performing audits, conducting rigorous quality control checks, and using electronic data interchange communication technology for timely sharing of key traceability data.

Person scanning a barcode on a package
Photo by RDNE Stock project via Pexels

3. Implement Barcoding

The most foundational traceability technology may well be barcoding. A barcode provides each part or batch of parts with a unique identifier that links directly to an online database; this could be nested within dedicated traceability software, or be integrated into an enterprise asset management or similar system.

Either way, barcoding allows the database to capture each stage of the manufacturing process in real-time. Updating records, verifying job completion, or time-stamping production milestones can often be done with just a quick scan by an autonomous machine or workstation operator while hardly affecting production efficiency.

And because quality asset tags use highly durable materials like Metalphoto® anodized aluminum, you can trust these labels to hold up even in the most extreme manufacturing conditions.

4. Incorporate RFID Technology

Similar to barcoding is RFID technology, another data-sharing solution that bridges physical assets and parts with digital software and databases.

RFID is short for Radio-Frequency Identification, and it works by transmitting data stored on a microchip via radio waves. For data to be collected from an RFID system, the chip needs to come within proximity of the scanner, at which point it will trigger recognition.

There are several benefits to using RFID for track and trace purposes.

For example, several RFID chips can be read simultaneously, and chips can be written over and reused. RFID technology can even enable smart packaging solutions. However, RFID tags are subject to signal interference and potential security issues, and sometimes, RFID scanners are too sensitive and can accidentally scan assets through a wall in another room.

Additionally, RFID tag configuration must be in a grid in order to triangulate them to scan the correct asset locations. That means a scanner may not scan all assets, and it may give the last known location of assets that were not found, completely corrupting the asset management database. For these reasons, barcodes are a more reliable and proven option in many cases.

Check out the video below to learn more about RFID technology:

5. Provide Employee Training

Those working on the shop floor are the closest to your product. Their compliance with manual tracking processes – such as scanning a barcode or signing a bill of lading – is often what the success of a traceability system hinges on.

Educating employees upfront about the purpose of traceability can emphasize their responsibility in this aspect of the supply chain, and help them feel more invested in their role.

Not only can proactive training like this improve compliance, but done right, it may even boost overall morale and empower employees to find a greater sense of purpose about what they do.

6. Incorporate Lean Manufacturing Processes

Tracing material sources can often be simplified by streamlining the overall manufacturing process. A great example of this is lean manufacturing, a strategy first developed by Toyota and widely copied since.

And while the product shortages that were commonplace during the pandemic have raised questions about just how lean a production facility should run, there are clear benefits to slimming down surplus materials and parts inventories, including for tracing purposes.

With fewer raw materials onsite, any recalls or defects can be more easily pinpointed to specific suppliers and source batches. Similarly, more precisely sized output batches can help quality control teams better analyze the fit and finish of completed goods.

Should there be an issue, the smaller batch sizes can lead to more timely recalls, process corrections, or supplier audits. In short, lean manufacturing makes your firm more nimble and transparent – important qualities when tracking and tracing materials.

Final Thoughts

Traceability has become critical to nearly all manufacturing industries, from cars to food to pharmaceuticals. To succeed at it, managers need to understand the importance of the materials tracing process and how to best optimize their operations for supply chain visibility.

Doing so can help lay the foundation for an efficient, reliable production system.

The tips shared here offer a roadmap to implementing successful product traceability systems. By investing in the right tools, technologies, and trainings, you’ll soon be enjoying a newfound level of insight into the movement and origins of your firm’s work-in-process manufacturing.

Warehouse workers moving boxes in a warehouse
Photo by Tiger Lily via Pexels

Frequently Asked Questions

How can we implement a robust product traceability system?

To establish a robust product traceability system, you need to invest in appropriate software solutions for data capture and management. Implement technologies like barcodes or RFID tags, create clear tracking protocols, and train staff. Regularly audit and update the system for optimal performance.

What are the regulatory requirements for product traceability in our industry?

Regulatory requirements for product traceability vary by industry and region. Consult relevant government agencies and industry associations for specific guidelines. Ensure compliance with record-keeping, labeling, and reporting regulations to avoid legal issues and maintain consumer safety.

How can we improve traceability in our supply chain?

Improving traceability in the supply chain involves enhancing data sharing, standardizing communication protocols, and fostering collaboration with suppliers. Implement technologies like blockchain or cloud-based platforms for real-time visibility into product movement. Establish clear documentation and traceability protocols throughout the supply chain network.

Questions about the article? Let us help!

Our sales engineers are experts in automatic asset tracking, tagging and identification,a nd can answer all your questions. Get in touch now.

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