Traceability in manufacturing is the tracking of materials and parts as they progress through different stages of the product life cycle.

From the procurement of raw materials to processing and assembly into final products, traceability aims to increase quality control and maintain regulatory specifications.

Key Takeaways

  • End-to-end tracking of components via barcodes, sensors, time logs, etc.

  • Necessary for quality control and regulatory compliance

A good way to think of traceability is the “farm-to-table” (or “farm-to-fork”) restaurant model, where the chef exclusively uses ingredients grown locally or on-site. The theory behind this dining experience is that guests can taste the freshness in every bite as well as be assured that every element of the dish has been “traced” directly from the farm to the plate. In other words, it’s a tale of traceability where the benefit is the satisfaction that the food is organic, sustainable, and ethically sourced.

As a manufacturer, traceability is a necessary element of a successful and lean factory. In addition, it provides many benefits that help to streamline assembly and shipping further down the product life cycle.

Benefits of Traceability

Traceability is important for several critical reasons in a lean manufacturing facility. Some of the most prevalent are:

Health and safety

Food manufacturers aren’t the only ones who need to be aware of toxic elements in their consumable products. All manufacturers should be tracking various parts throughout sub-assembly because of materials that can degrade over time or contain marginal amounts of things that are not safe for certain consumers, like children.

Quality control

Traceability data can be used to pinpoint weak points in quality throughout production, and also help to minimize rejects and defects. You can trace the problem back to a single station or type of part quickly and efficiently with minimal downtime and material waste.

Customer satisfaction

Traceability helps satisfy your customers beyond providing shipping and delivery estimates. It also allows you to address issues like exchanges and replacements quickly and efficiently.

Regulation compliance

When there’s a significant update in governmental regulations for certain items or materials you are able to use, part traceability allows you to see exactly at which point the outdated material has been used, and there is no guesswork over regulatory compliance.

Lower recall risk

Due to traceability, your operators will be able to catch and correct variations in product output, leading to fewer instances of issuing recalls, which frustrate both your customers and your bottom line.

Operational insight

If you’re looking to become more lean and cut operational costs but don’t know where to start, traceability allows you to segment the production process into potential areas for improvement based on their return on costs.

Global industry

When looking to expand your market, tracking codes provide the key to unlocking details about foreign suppliers and distributors, and allow you to vet your points of contact halfway around the world.

How To Implement Traceability

Luckily, traceability is an achievable practice for any manufacturer, and there are many options for implementing a system.

2 Types of Traceability: Chain & Internal

There are two types of traceability:

  • Chain traceability: this is where production cycles are shared among many manufacturers, with different factories contributing to different areas of production
  • Internal traceability: this is where the production process is uninterrupted by external manufacturers; a fully in-house manufacturer

Methods of Traceability Tracking

Okay, so how is traceability actually carried out?

You probably come into contact with tracking codes every day, but they’re meant to be small and indistinguishable so as not to distract the end user’s experience.

For example, take a look at the digitally printed numbers and digits code on the bottom of your seltzer can, or the string of mysterious numbers on the back of your t-shirt’s tag. These are examples of codes used for tracking exactly at what time and at which factory each item was produced.

These codes don’t make complete sense to non-employees because they are monitored in a traceability database which has unique rules for logging production data depending on the company.

Here is the basic traceability cycle:

  1. First, codes are permanently applied to products, using a variety of tools like laser engraving, labels, barcodes, sensors, or Inkjet printing
  2. Any complex machinery (like laser engravers or sensors) that applies tracking codes is connected to the factory IIoT network
  3. Then, the traceability data is uploaded onto the ERP or cloud software for storage and easy access
Lightbulb Pro Tip

Pro Tip

Some people refer to “upstream” traceability versus “downstream” traceability. This is similar to internal vs chain traceability as discussed above, but not exactly the same. Upstream refers to the fabrication and sub-assembly that occurs prior to the current production phase, and can be at the same or a different factory. Downstream traceability refers to the further assembly and production that will occur after the current processing is done.

Tools for Enhanced Traceability

The first step of introducing traceability metrics is to invest in a permanent marking system like a laser engraving machine or whatever best suits your product. But it doesn’t stop there.

Many management frameworks and practical tools can help in consistent tracking efforts:

  • Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a visual diagram that displays the flow of value created through different processes throughout lean production cycles
  • Root Cause Analysis focuses on finding the source of the problem in order to enact effective and long-lasting solutions
  • Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) is the measurement of an industrial operation’s productivity in lean manufacturing, derived from a formula involving performance, quality, and availability of resources
  • Work instruction software such as VKS can provide 100% traceability straight from the source through live KPI tracking and data collection
  • Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a mathematical quality control model that tracks output variations
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