Track & Trace Becomes a Critical Operations Tool for Manufacturing

Originally deployed for incident mitigation or avoidance, track-and-trace applications are now essential tools for achieving operational excellence.

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Companies operating in industries regulated by governments look to track–and-trace systems comprised of software and various sensor inputs help them stay compliant. Consumer-facing companies have also adopted these systems in order to mitigate the extent of product recalls through being able to track from raw material to the store shelf just which lots have been affected by a defect or problem. Companies are now discovering that track-and-trace can be critical for control and operational excellence.

The BAMES Group, located near Milan, Italy, was looking not only to track products and their components, but was also looking into track-and-trace applications in order to gain more control over its processes. Information Technology (IT) Manager Walter Gnocchi explains that the Group is composed of Bartolini After Markedustomt Electronic Services (BAMES) and Services for Electronics Manufacturing (SEM). Revenues for the combined companies are about $140 million with total employment of about 600. BAMES focuses on aftermarket electronics product repairs, while SEM designs and contract-manufactures electronic products.

With all of this in-house expertise, BAMES has undertaken two initiatives to design, manufacture and market its own products. One is a WiMAX (for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) base station targeted initially at the European market. The other initiative, dubbed SPIM (for Solar Photovoltaic Integrated Management), targets the solar market with a product that will measure productivity of photovoltaic modules.

BAMES’ traceability project was undertaken with a Visiprise application. That company was subsequently acquired by SAP AG, the Walldorf, Germany-based enterprise software vendor, a fact that fit nicely, given that BAMES was already using SAP’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) application. According to Gnocchi, “The main reason we started the traceability project was to identify products with part defects. If the defect is found by internal quality control, we need to change production quickly. If the defect is found by our customer’s quality control, we need the information immediately so that we can determine the extent of the problem. Even if the part makes it all the way to the consumer before a defect is found, we need to know in order to check the design and see if a change is necessary.”

Managers wanted to apply traceability to critical components of a new mobile GPS (Global Positioning System) track-and-locater product, called Ghostway, in order to minimize the extent of any potential recall and take immediate steps to correct the problem. “While we have not experienced a recall, we have tested the system with 100 products and found the ultimate users [of each of the individual GPS products] within one day.”

What makes this significant is that in the past, BAMES maintained a number of databases. Each database was structured differently from the others, and each was prone to operator input errors. Tracing a product to its end-user was a long and arduous process. “We are now able to prevent one of the worst scenarios—a total recall of the products,” Gnocchi adds.

Automate process

The second problem the company undertook was to automate another process involving disparate databases that traditionally required significant labor to find products in the field. This case involved a customer using the company’s machine-to-machine (M2M) modules who wanted to upgrade some of them. Now that BAMES can identify serial numbers, the recall for upgrade program works much more efficiently.

Gnocchi’s team also wanted to gain better control of the manufacturing process. Through an automatic identification system and single database, they are able to identify where critical components are installed and prevent assembly of additional products if a problem in a component is found. They can also speed up re-work activities because of the additional real-time information.

The company has also gained better control of its components, both for inventory control as well as for version control. This improves inventory planning, reduces inventory overall and reduces scrap through obsolescence.

System architecture includes SAP ERP and manufacturing execution system (MES) products running on a server. Web-based thin clients provide a view into the system for operations managers and operators. Using auto-scanning bar code and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies reduces the chance for data input error while speeding up the process.

Summing up the benefits, Gnocchi notes, “In a dynamic market, we need good control over the process in case of unexpected issues with our customers. Over the past two to three years, we have seen an increase in customer information requests. Even the products are not static anymore. We have some bill-of-material changes every two to three weeks. Traceability is a must now if you want to supply your customers with the ability to query all their products.”

Another company employing new uses for track-and-trace is in the custom blended lubricant market. Idemitsu Lubricants America Corp., in Jeffersonville, Ind., is a manufacturer of finished lubricants for a variety of applications in the automotive and industrial markets. It blends a variety of petroleum products and additives to provide products such as transmission fluid, engine oils and industrial metalworking fluids. A Yokogawa distributed control systems (DCS) customer, it is using the new system to get a little more out of its track-and-trace application than usual. According to Don Hartman, process blending specialist, the DCS acts like a subsystem of the ERP system at times, in that it pulls recipes from the ERP system where they are housed. It then has the day’s production run queued up and ready to go.

Double check recipe

Idemitsu receives bulk products from vendors. Receiving information is manually entered into the ERP system and a bar code is applied to the drum or other container containing the lot and item numbers. As the material is used, the operator scans the bar code. If the material matches the stored recipe in the DCS, then the transaction is recorded. After the batch is produced, the ERP system is notified and updates its inventory records. So in this case, the tracking system not only records all the usual information, but it also serves as a quality check on the batch process. Meanwhile, the record keeping has helped the company track down lots on several occasions.

That companies are discovering additional uses for track-and-trace applications is not surprising to analysts. According to Senior Research Analyst Matthew Littlefield and Research Analyst Mehul Shah, at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston, there has been a significant shift in the pressures driving the market regarding compliance and traceability in the last few years.

“The number-one pressure driving the market at the end of 2007 was to reduce the cost of quality, non-compliance and recall events. Now there is a two-fold strategy,” say Littlefield and Shah said in a recent report. “First, it involves gaining understanding and control of the production processes themselves. Compliance and traceability can not be tested into a production process. Rather, it must be assured through continuous monitoring of the process itself. The first step to accomplishing this is in identifying those process-critical control points that can be measured and are predictive in regard to final product quality. Then, threshold levels for these critical control point metrics must be established. The final piece is then to measure these critical control points in real or near real-time, which will allow for in-process adjustments and ultimately the assurance of finished product quality and compliance.”

There are still more examples of companies using these connectivity applications in order to gain many benefits beyond traditional track-and-trace.

Gunnar Dafgård AB, a major producer of frozen food in Källby, Sweden, implemented an ABB Enterprise Connectivity Solutions (ECS) link between SAP and ABB’s System 800xA Batch Management DCS. ABB is a major automation and power systems supplier based in Zurich, Switzerland. Enterprise Connectivity Solutions are built to the latest plant-to-business ISA95 standards, providing an open and flexible way of building and extending enterprise communication.

“ECS-based connectivity offers Dafgård many benefits” said Anders Dafgård, chief technology officer of Gunnar Dafgård AB. “By providing seamless connection between DCS and SAP systems at Dafgård, ABB’s ECS shortened order-to-cash cycle, lowered the cost of inventory for finished goods and allowed immediate transportation planning,” Dafgård says. “In addition, information about produced products and consumption per ingredient is available in SAP as soon as the product is produced, which provides instant knowledge of inventory levels. This is the base for schedule and production-planning optimization, and for lowering the cost of inventory on the supply side, by ordering what is needed based on actual levels.”

Needed granularity

Bob Lenich, director of the Syncade product platform at Emerson Process Management, an Austin, Texas-based automation supplier, says, “Even when a company has an ERP system, it may still need a tracking system because the ERP may not have the granularity of materials required for effective tracking. It may just track 10,000 kilograms (kg) of a product and not be concerned that there are ten 1,000 kg containers.”

Track-and-trace is becoming more basic to the process, according to Lenich. “Regulated industries start with dispensing. But the next step is to start adding the information to the complete workflow and work processes. One customer tracks all this, then feeds the information into a modeling program to answer questions such as,  ‘Given this set of raw materials from this set of suppliers, how should we run our process,’ ” Lenich says. “We’ll begin to see more and more connection with the labs and with history to predict how to operate the process,” he predicts.

According to Maryann Steidinger, marketing manager for MES/EMI (for enterprise manufacturing intelligence) at the Wonderware unit of Invensys Operations Management (IOM), in Lake Forest, Calif., a resurgence in software investing has begun. Companies have invested in foundational products and technologies, but now they need more contextualization and visibility in order to get the most out of their systems, Steidinger says. She also points out that the systems must get to the level where small and mid-size companies can invest. “In the food industry, smaller companies who provide the bulk of foods need to be able to identify sub-components and follow them through the chain to final product, much like happened in the semiconductor industry years ago.”

Mention track-and-trace to many people in the industry and the word that pops back instantly in most cases is RFID. This is a technology that has been around for a long time and enjoyed a brief flurry of attention a few years back when Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense were interested in suppliers using the technology for their receiving applications. Interest waned a little when it appeared that these initiatives would not propel the huge numbers in sales that RFID component suppliers hoped for.

One problem with RFID is the cost of the tags, the devices that attach to the individual products or workpieces to be tracked. But that is changing, according to Mark DiSera, RFID marketing manager for sensor supplier Turck Inc., in Plymouth, Minn. “RFID is gaining a little new traction,” DiSera reports. “Five years ago, the typical price [for an industrial-ready tag] was $50, but now, most are under $10. But even more important than price is the widespread adoption of all the industrial protocols working with RFID. Some of these networking protocols include DeviceNet, EtherNet/IP, Profibus and Profinet. This allows greater connectivity with programmable logic controllers (PLCs),” DiSera points out. “Yet another factor,” he adds, “is new designs for the tags. We can get higher temperatures, for example. And ferroelectric random access memory, or FRAM, offers more space and better performance than older memory types.”

Tracking parts

Turck customer Gefasoft Automatisierung und Software GmbH, in Regensburg, Germany, developed an automated loading and unloading system for the manufacturing of multi-chip modules for a customer in the semiconductor industry. This system links numerous wire bonders and simultaneously handles quality control of the bonded chip modules. The machine has a modular design and consists of one loading and unloading module with three magazine handling stations, transfer paths on the wire bonder, as well as the transverse and reverse transport routes for the parts carrier. Before handlers transfer the processed chip modules to the good parts magazine, they are checked for correct wiring using RFID and image processing. A reject-parts punch marks the defective parts with a hole on a determined position.

The parts carrier and the corresponding stations are equipped with the BL ident RFID system from Turck, which is connected to the plant’s control system via Profibus DP. Overall, six read and write points are currently integrated in the system: one on the ramp of the loading area, one on each in the maintenance positions in front of the three wire bonders, one with the transverse transport and one in front of the reject-parts punch. “In the system expansion phase that is now complete, we could also have handled the identification of the parts carrier with alternative technologies,” explains Harald Grünbauer, Gefasoft Automatisierung und Software’s chief executive officer, “but precisely because of the modularity and expansion capability of the system, we decided in favor of the RFID technology. It means that the system can be easily upgraded.”

Gefasoft uses the RFID technology in order to document all process steps directly on the parts carrier. The first read-write location is located on the outlet of the loading machine. Here, the data carrier receives information as to whether all designated components were successfully mounted and can be further processed. If the four points in the parts carrier are correctly filled, the content of the data carrier is added so it includes the processing release. Information concerning the successful or unsuccessful processing of each component is added on the following processing stations. Finally, on the last RFID station, the data is exported and the individual parts are forwarded by the operator, either to the good parts magazine or the reject-parts punch, depending on their classification on the data carrier. The production data is archived per batch in a report file.

Ed Housler, U.S. business manager for intelligent sensing technology at vendor Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., agrees that technology is helping to increase RFID usefulness. “When retailers began to push for RFID in 2002 and 2003, the current protocols and tags were not quite up to the requirements. But adopting 915 megahertz (MHz) frequency tags and the EPC (for Electronic Product Code) protocol standard really opened things up.”

Housler adds that in this down market, companies are trying to become more lean. “If we can integrate, we can streamline processes through better visibility of raw materials. One of the biggest benefits of RFID over bar code is in the lower potential for data corruption. RFID lends itself to more automation. Sometimes, an operator may not scan a bar code properly or may miss it. This works not only for raw materials, but also for work-in-process or finished goods.”

Bob Neagle, business unit manager for Brand Protection Systems at Wood Dale, Ill., printer manufacturer VideoJet, still points to the cost of RFID at the item level. Printing 2D bar code and reading with vision sensors integrates into a tracking system that integrates with ERP to keep track of products from end-to-end. He mentions that consumer-goods companies are concerned with tracking to the customer for many reasons. Aside from the usual recall situation, he adds, “Multi-level marketing companies are worried about diversion of product and parallel trade where they have different pricing per outlet, but some people try to arbitrage the system.”

One last different look at track-and-trace comes from Stephanie Miles, senior vice president of Commercial Services at Management Dynamics, of East Rutherford, N.J. Her company is focused on global trade and supply chain visibility. Its Global Product Master module consolidates a specification manual, supplier solicitation information and tracks a checklist of subjects such as the suppliers’ quality assurance program, food genealogy, child labor agreements, green capability and the like. It stores the information for later retrieval when needed.

Avoid the recall

Sometimes, despite your best processes, you wind up with a dissatisfied customer. You can limit both the publicity and your exposure to the recall quantity through a well-executed track-and-trace system. In this way, you can identify the culprit and recall only those products that must be brought back.

Track-and-trace systems both make customers happy and provide feedback to control the process.

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