Mauricio Blanc
Director Mexico
Omron México
Expert Contributor

Traceability 4.0

By Mauricio Blanc | Thu, 09/22/2022 - 11:00

As manufacturing has evolved with increased complexity, speed, and automation, the need to control and have visibility into the process has also increased. An average car has 20,000 parts that must be marked and traced. So let us start by defining what traceability is and how it has evolved over the years. 

Wikipedia has an excellent definition: Traceability is the capability to trace something, to verify the history, location, or application of an item by means of documented recorded identification. Also, there are traceability applications that refer to "Track, Trace, and Control," where the value proposition is "Enhancing Productivity Through Data." Data that can help you tell where a part is tracked, where a part has been traced and where the part needs to go, control.

Let us also talk about the biggest issues or drivers that industries face regarding the need for traceability. The first issue is to maintain visibility through the supply chain and to gain real-time work-in-process visibility. One of the most important is to comply with industry regulations. Whether you are in the automotive industry, food and beverage, or pharmaceutical sectors, almost every industry needs to comply with its own regulations. 

Finally, you need to protect your brand. The way traceability helps you in this important task is by identifying contaminated or non-conforming products before they reach the market. It also helps you by identifying possible counterfeit products. Moreover, in the worst-case scenario in which you may need to conduct a recall of your products, traceability may help you narrow it down to the affected products and perform this quickly and accurately, thus reducing the market impact. It also helps you to improve quality and to perform according to market trends like mass customization.

Traceability and its need have been in the market for a long time. Its evolution and development started in the earlies '70s; with the advent of the bar code, it started to be used in retail. The usage was for individual products and the intention was for centralized product control. That is what we call Traceability 1.0. One decade later, it was introduced to the supply chain and it was considered Traceability 2.0. In the late '90s and early 2000, Traceability 3.0 began in industrial applications with unit-level traceability and serialization in a wide variety of industries. 

Today many industrial customers are migrating to what we define as Traceability 4.0, in which, together with the part ID, process information is also stored and used for process optimization. 

The early stages of inventory tracking, as we all know, was enabled by bar codes printed on labels or directly on the package or cases. These early applications allowed tracking of inventory levels, monitoring of reordering points and triggered respective stock orders as well ascharging customers for products. 

As solutions evolved and by assigning a serial number to every single part and to every assembly part in the manufacturing process, it was then possible for us to track every piece and assembly throughout the entire process. We were then able to track which parts went  into which assembly and what parts and assemblies went into what processes, and at what time throughout the production. This was possible by the advent of the 2D  Data Matrix Codes or QR Codes, which were first adopted by the auto industry in Japan and the only ones that accept Kanji and Kana characters. However, Data Matrix Codes are more widely accepted by most international standards in many industries. Data Matrix Codes have high information density, are readable in any orientation, and have built-in error correction. Due to the way they are built, they can be easily readable even in low contrast. Those codes can be directly marked on each individual part through a process that is referred to as DPM (Direct Part Marking).

In cases where there is a  lack of a line of sight, an alternative that can be used is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). In this technology, the information is stored in "tags" that are passive. The information and power are passed by reading and writing devices, in many cases called antennas, through an air gap.

The process of implementing traceability consists of four steps, which are Mark, Verify, Read and Communicate. The process starts by marking each individual part, and there are many methods of marking parts. The most common used in automotive are label printing and laser marking. Needless to say, it's critical that you select the best marking methodology that includes all parameters for your application. The second and critical step in the process is to verify your codes. Many people may ask why not use a normal reader in this step. The answer is that a specific device to verify your codes will be able to detect the quality of your codes, not only if your code is readable, but how close it is to the edge of readability and this through its entire life, which a reader will not be able to do. 

The third process is to read the codes through the process, and this is done through the different readers that can be mounted on the line for speed or with manual readers in case there is manual intervention. The fourth and most important step is communication, which will allow us to send all the information to our different systems. It could be an MES or ERP. This is the key to Traceability 4.0. Once you have all the data (unit, assembly, final product, and process information), then that data can be used to improve your productivity, quality, or any other KPIs you use, as well as perform high-level data analysis using AI.

Photo by:   Mauricio Blanc