Tracing Quality Improvement Shows Manufacturing’s Value

June 29, 2011
Manufacturing executives are under tremendous pressure to justify their relevance to their corporate overseers.

Some corporate managers see manufacturing as a black box with little value for the company. In a Wall Street Journal piece on June 12, retired auto executive Bob Lutz maintains, “A car company, on the other hand, is one enormous, hugely complicated organism that has many moving parts, all closely interrelated and interdependent.

“Many of the company’s activities are day-to-day: running the plants to produce components and assemble cars, procuring supplier parts, moving the finished vehicles to the dealers, billing same and booking the revenue. The operations portion of the automobile business has been thoroughly optimized over many decades, doesn’t vary much from one automobile company to another, and can be managed with a focus on repetitive process. It is the ‘hard’ part of the car business and requires little in the way of creativity, vision or imagination. Almost all car companies do this very well, and there is little or no competitive advantage to be gained by ‘trying even harder’ in procurement, manufacturing or wholesale.”

Most, if not all, manufacturing executives would cringe at these remarks. And many people in the United States would argue that the auto companies have done a great job of managing their manufacturing. Companies not only can gain competitive advantage from manufacturing, they can lose competitive advantage in a heartbeat through shoddy manufacturing—just ask Toyota.

A software application often called “track and trace” has been used to maintain a database of product lot numbers and destinations in order to reduce the scope of a potential product recall. Much like other technologies developed for industry for one purpose only to find its true meaning in another, track and trace applications have found more utility in closing the product quality loop within the manufacturing system. The goal now is reduced scrap, fewer bad products and improved customer satisfaction with the product.

Michael Lyle, chief executive officer of Software as a Service (SaaS) supplier InfinityQS ( in Chantilly, Va., goes so far as to call the track and trace application strategic. “Typically, ProFicient on Demand is implemented as part of a strategic initiative to control quality within a single facility, global enterprise, and/or supply chain. The product contains many technologies to simplify data collection. Real-time visibility of supplier quality data allows manufacturers to collaborate with suppliers and ensure product quality before the product is shipped. By preventing supplier quality issues, business save time and money, and can prevent supplier related recalls. Data can be entered from mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablet computers. The ability to collect data in such a fashion allows for complete traceability of components across the supply chain.”

>> Read this application story on how a major nutraceutical manufacturer addressed labeling errors.

Phoenix Contact ( is not only an automation supplier, but is a manufacturer as well. Chris McLean, Ph.D., group leader for global electronics (hardware & firmware) development, discusses the company’s printed circuit board manufacturing. “We have processes in our own products, from raw materials to the end product. The goal is to take products in the field and when a customer calls with a serial number, we can trace all the way through the system—when tested, where, how, what raw material, particular batch of components traced to lot number. So, if one of our suppliers would call and say ‘we have a risk,’ we could take that into our system and figure out which products were produced and find the final product.”

So-called “infant mortality” in electronics manufacturing is a term for the situation when a product fails upon power up. Dr. McLean notes that another value of traceability in manufacturing is for customers who need to be 100 percent certain on products—such as products that will be used on an offshore oil rig. “For those customers, we go to a higher level,” he says. “We take the product through considerably more testing than normal—extreme hot/cold, full range, and not just burn-in, but a combination of burn-in and also electrical performance verification at temperatures. We can certify to the customer that they won’t have to go back to repair.”

While these applications provide an obvious marketing benefit to Phoenix Contact, McLean says, “Feedback from the process is good. Anything that would be a fall-out, say fails a stress test, goes through a process of learning and understanding why it failed. That is fed back into the system for process refinement. Over time, much better information gets into the manufacturing process than just a customer return. Sometimes customer information is sketchy, or we don’t even get the product back sometimes. With these we get very good information. We can do real root-cause analysis. We trend the data. If we detect a trend, it will generate much activity.”

Distillery gains batch uniformity

Beam Global Wine & Spirits (, based in Clermont, Ky., is the largest spirits company based in the United States and the fourth largest in the world. Its roots trace back to 1775. But the distiller has not reached its current success by relying solely on age-old production methods. Jim Beam stays at the forefront of automation and information software solutions through its long-standing partnership with Invensys Operations Management’s Wonderware (—a 19-year collaboration.

One of the exciting challenges facing Jim Beam in the early ‘90s was the need to accommodate growth. The distiller called upon Wonderware Cincinnati, the local distributor, for a solution that would meet current needs for automation, but also provide for future expansion—without compromising the high quality standards of the product.

Nathan Crosley, operations manager for bottling, says, “We’re finding that Wonderware is easy to use and is providing us with the data and information that we need. We’re able to control our processes consistently, and we continue to implement and integrate it throughout our entire system.”

The goal of the project was to help Beam gain greater control of the production process leading to increased uniformity of the product. The foundation of the system is the Wonderware Industrial Application Server. This application is a uniform environment for visualization, device communications, application integration and reporting, plus an infrastructure for simplifying the development, launch, maintenance and administration of future deployments. This ability to replicate systems would be a major strength for Jim Beam moving forward.

“Prior to Wonderware, a lot of the processes were manual. We would have to manually turn on valves, switches and pumps. (Wonderware) allows the operators to control the process from one location. And that gives us a lot of consistency,” says Crosley. Beam also utilizes Wonderware’s batch management and reporting applications.

Crosley puts these capabilities into perspective, “In regards to metrics, what we’re seeing is a consistency in throughput. Through the trending information, we’re able to tell when problematic areas arise. And by having that information readily available and having it automated, we’re able to take preventative action and maintain a consistent operation.”

One of the most important attributes of the solution has been its ability to make a positive impact on Jim Beam’s bottom line. Harry Crigler, distillery operations manager, says, “At the end of each week, we struggle to get our mashes out on time. With InBatch, we’re able to do at least two more fermenters per week. So it’s a big measurement factor for us—if we can produce more product in the same amount of time, it’s a very big cost savings.”

Smart printing keeps line running

Business performance can be continually improved in many ways. Karl Perry, senior product manager for printer software at Intermec ( in Everett, Wash., says, “Printing operations provide an excellent—and often overlooked—opportunity. One growing trend among companies with bar code printing operations is to leverage the capabilities of “smart” printers, which are printers that integrate the power of a personal computer. Smart printers enable businesses to change the way their printing operations are structured, to streamline and improve processes in ways that reduce operating costs while improving reliability.”

Intermec designs and manufactures rugged mobile computers, smart printers, bar code and RFID systems. One application of smart printing saving a manufacturer money and grief is the case of Webasto Roof Systems ( This manufacturer of sunroofs for cars faced a challenge of tracking products through its manufacturing process so that it will ship products in the correct order to its car assembly customers.

In the automotive industry, it is extremely important that parts are labeled correctly prior to reaching a manufacturer’s assembly line. For Webasto, if its sunroofs are mislabeled, a black sunroof could end up in a white car. To ensure this does not occur, Webasto labels its sunroofs so that the right sequence of roofs matches an assembly line order. Proper sequencing assures that the right sunroof is installed in the assigned vehicle. The incorrect sequencing of one sunroof can cause assembly lines to shut down for hours at a time, which translates into lost time, money and penalties. “Proper labeling is a big issue for automotive suppliers,” says Mike Thibideau, chief information officer of Webasto. “Misidentified parts get very costly when it forces lines to shut down. It can also prevent suppliers from quoting on new business, so you can understand why it is a high priority for us.”

In order to assure the sunroofs are always dispatched in the correct order, Webasto turned to ToolWorx (, a systems integrator specializing in automated data collection applications for lot/part traceability and error proofing, and Intermec Technologies. ToolWorx implemented their ToolWorx SmartPack system that helped Webasto sequence the sunroofs in the proper order using Intermec’s printers.

Prior to implementing the new solution, there were three levels of quality control to assure the right products were being sequenced according to customer requirements. The first inspection occurred at the end of the production line. Using a set of preprinted module and rack labels, an operator manually applied labels to each module and to the completed shipping container. The second inspection occurred after the product left the warehouse. Another worker visually examined the sunroofs in the container and verified that they were in the correct rack position according to a sequence print out. The final quality control checkpoint occurred prior to shipment. Before the container was loaded onto the truck, someone else checked the roofs against the ordered sequence.

Even with multiple inspection points to assure the right sunroofs were placed in the right order, errors still occurred. “It was a manual process that was high cost, high effort and prone to human error,” Thibideau said. “We needed a system that reduced the amount of labor and the potential of errors made during the proofing process. In addition, we needed a system that was independent of our existing labeling software and had availability 24/7. We couldn’t afford to stop production should our network or ERP system be unavailable.”

Under the new system, only one auditor is needed for the quality assurance check, which takes place at the end of the production line. A number of automated tests are performed on the sunroof to ensure that it meets all quality standards. After successful testing, an approval bar code label is automatically printed and applied to the sunroof. Once a rack is filled, all of the sunroofs are scanned in position order into the Intermec PM4i printer to validate their part number, color, and sequence.

Tracking back to be proactive

Certainly bar code systems are not new in manufacturing, but Marc Leroux, manager for collaborative production management for automation supplier ABB ( in Columbus, Ohio, says, “How we use bar codes is much different—including such applications as remote access and data warehouses.”

Leroux relates the case of a paper company using track and trace applications for handling problems related to a customer complaint. “When they get a customer complaint, they use the product identification down at ream-of-paper level. This traces back to the box it was packed in to the skid it was shipped on to the manufacturing location to the paper rolls (actually combining anywhere from 6-12 rolls of paper) to raw materials. They can check quality all the way along, but knowing there is a complaint, they can trace to unit and roll, and determine whether there is a problem, say, something with composition of the material, and roll forward to see what other customers might be impacted. These customers can be contacted ahead of time as the company takes proactive steps to handle a complaint even before it happens. The amount of data sifting through is incredible. Once it took three to four people a couple of weeks, now it’s one person for part of an afternoon. The cost savings are real, but real savings is providing the next level of customer service. Particularly if you’re in a commodity market you can’t afford to lose a single customer.”

Mike Gay, industry manager for consumer packaged goods (CPG) at Rockwell Automation ( in Milwaukee, says, “Using track and trace and product genealogy for recalls was a great story five years ago. The bottom line for the larger companies is that they are not going to chance having a potentially hazardous product on the shelf. Rather than target specifically, they’ll go back several days of manufacture dates just to be sure.”

Like many technologies used in automation, engineers have found added benefits to using track and trace applications. “We look generally in CPG at track and trace as a value add thing,” says Gay. “If I go through the process and track materials, manpower, machinery and the like, I can look for ways to improve because of the contextualization—how the differences relate, for example. It’s more of a “golden batch” scenario. You can affect change faster because you know things sooner. You can actually go to the batch operator right away to affect change.”

Mary Burgoon, market development manager, sustainable production, power and energy at Rockwell, adds, “We’re using the technology also for energy track and trace. It’s also good for assuring compliance to certain regulations such as “conflict minerals” or European Union regulations to identify certain amounts of hazardous materials.”

Jeff Snyder, product manager for code reading with Siemens Industry Automation ( in Alpharetta, Ga., considers some of the other foundational technology. “If we think about barcode readers and their peripherals, that’s older news. But, as we look at evolving readers, one thing we see is the greater resolution of CCD sensors [Charge-Coupled Device] following digital camera technology. That’ll let you do two things. First, you can have Datamatrix code not presented accurately to the camera. The higher resolution helps so you don’t need more material handling to present the code to the camera. This also helps in applications where there are multiple parts in a tray or box. Rather than requiring multiple cameras, you can focus better and reduce the number cameras required.”

July 2011, Related Feature – More Benefits found for Track and Trace
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InfinityQS  (

Phoenix Contact (

Beam Global Wine & Spirits (

Invensys Operations Management’s Wonderware  (

Intermec (

Rockwell Automation (

Siemens Industry Automation (

Webasto Roof Systems  (

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