Traceability Through Integration


September 25, 2014

Every year we see product recalls in the news. Food is contaminated with salmonella. A certain toy is found to have unsafe levels of lead. No matter whether it concerns forty pallets of product or a twenty-five state outbreak that hits the evening news, a recall is never a good thing for manufacturing. How do we get better at catching lapses in quality before it impacts consumers, or (if it reaches the market) how do we pinpoint who is affected?

Conceptually, building traceability systems is simple. Track raw materials through the production process to finished goods and into the supply chain. But when it comes to actually implementing a robust traceability system, there are a couple challenges. The first challenge is the number of different systems in manufacturing plants. Testing labs use LIMS (Lab Information Management System) systems to ensure quality product. Control systems are used to automate the production of finished goods. Warehouses use tracking systems to track finished goods inventory, automate order processing, and improve transportation timelines. Unless these systems are integrated, tracking a product through a single product line is more often a matter of time consuming guesswork. This is a luxury manufacturing cannot afford any longer. Specifically in the food industry, the FDA?s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) made our ability to provide accurate information in a timely manner a legislative mandate.

The second challenge is the human element in some systems. I often see warehouse pallets marked with red paper to signal a product hold. But what happens when the paper falls off or the pallet is incorrectly oriented? What about the time lapse that keeps products from promptly being marked as ?on test? or ?on hold?? What about pallets that went out the door before an issue was found or before they were marked on hold? If a flag arises, how narrowly can you limit your window of recall?

The solution is to design traceability systems that are both integrated and automated. Remove the separation between systems and remove the human element. This integration needs to span from receiving raw materials to testing, production, inventory storage, and shipping finished products. In a facility with traceability from front to back, employees who spot concerns at any point in the process can alert the rest of the system. If a routine quality check in the lab finds contamination in a load of source material, flagging the system could prevent affected products from ever leaving the warehouse. We would not have to directly contact product line managers, warehouse managers, or shipping managers and trust that the communication would be seen in time. Traceability throughout a plant gives us the ability to prevent questionable product from ever leaving the facility. With an integrated environment, we can pinpoint how many product lines, how many pallets of product, or how many customers need to be alerted because of a contaminated material or product.

Quality controls that we already use help identify potential product concerns. However, traceability through the whole facility decreases product waste, increases efficiencies, improves data accuracy, streamlines planning, minimizes loss of consumer confidence, and proves our ability to provide critical information in a timely manner. An integrated plant will provide the complete traceability we need in manufacturing today.