Knowing the source of everything you manufacture and where it ends up is increasingly important.
In some sectors, it is vital and subject to strict regulatory scrutiny. But it is also playing a key role in other industries, and traceability can lead to benefits for manufacturers in terms of quality, costs and, ultimately, to brand reputation and customer loyalty.
What is traceability in manufacturing?
Traceability is all about having the processes in place to be able to track every stage of production. It is a well-established practice within certain industries, such as in food production, but the concept is now being embraced more diversely, and all manufacturers can benefit from having clear traceability in place.
If your business has an effective system, you will be able to track every part of everything you produce, from the components that arrive at your factory to an up-to-the-minute inventory of what is happening on-site, and all the finished products that you ultimately distribute.
If a problem arises at any stage during the production process – or if a problem is identified further down the line following distribution – the traceability of the product will show where the problem emanated.
Production efficiency, costs, quality control and, in worst-case scenarios, dealing with product recalls all benefit from traceability.
In a nutshell, you can find out where every raw material has come from, who did what to it while you had it, and how and when it left you – all in real-time.
What is the importance of traceability?
Some problems are simple and easy to remedy – but without traceability, solutions are often going to be harder to find.
It might all be down to the same machine, or the same new member of staff, or the same component, and so on. All these possible problems can be addressed. But not being able to tell exactly where, when or why the problem is occurring can lead to a lot of resources being wasted on unnecessary detective work, a halt to production and collapsing customer confidence.
The benefits of traceability might be most starkly felt when it comes to product recalls. It will help identify if the problem happened in your factory as opposed to somewhere else within the production process. It will also indicate how widespread the problem is.
Take the automotive industry, for example. If there is a problem with a car, it’s important all affected vehicles are recalled as soon as possible. But it’s also important that only those vehicles that are affected are recalled. Traceability will pinpoint what is wrong and why – and, therefore, what needs to be done to rectify the situation. In other words, it can show what doesn’t need to be addressed as well as what does.
Traceability in itself won’t necessarily stop you taking a reputational hit if things go wrong, but being able to address the problem swiftly and take quick action – as well as being able to identify any possible future problems – can help to maintain confidence, both within the production process and with end-users.
How does traceability work?
Advances in traceability systems mean the process is easier to manage (and afford) today than in the past.
Typically, components are tagged on arrival at your factory, whether via barcodes, 2D codes or other ID systems, and the codes are tracked throughout their time with you.
The information is fed to a database in real-time, meaning that when the component leaves your premises, you can see exactly where it was at any given time and for how long. You can check that it went through every assembly and quality-control process that it should have done.
What is forward traceability?
Also known as ‘downstream traceability’, this is the idea of tracing components and raw materials all the way to the finished product and the consumer.
In some cases – such as in the automotive and electronics industries, for example – it can mean that the manufacturer knows who is using the product and where, but often the traceability information ends with details of where the product was sold.
As well as assisting with quality control, forward traceability is important for products that carry warranties, and it can be useful when it comes to developing brand loyalty and future marketing.
What is backward traceability?
This involves taking a finished product and being able to follow its journey all the way back to the original sources of the raw materials.
Also known as ‘upstream traceability’, food manufacturing is one industry in which this plays an especially vital role. In the event of a public health scare, for example, backward traceability can identify where the product originally came from and all the factories, distributors and processes it went through before reaching the consumer.
What is internal traceability?
This refers to the traceability within a specific part of the production process, and is most commonly associated with large businesses.
Some companies have multiple sites – often in different countries – so being able to trace components and materials within a single company can be vital.
Again, it can help pinpoint where any problems have occurred, as well as whether there are potential inefficiencies within that particular stage of the manufacturing process.
Other benefits of traceability
Having real-time visibility of every part of the production process – from the delivery of components and raw materials to the shipment of the final product – can help you improve your processes and become more efficient.
Bottlenecks in production can be more easily spotted, issues with sub-standard components can be identified early in the process, and machines that are becoming less efficient can be fixed or replaced before they completely fail.
But there are other benefits, too, including when it comes to environmental, social and ethical standards. With these standards varying hugely in different parts of the world, knowing exactly what comes from where – and how it got to you – is crucial.
Ensuring that your entire production process meets the highest standards – and being able to prove it to an ever-more aware consumer base – is made much easier by having an effective system of traceability in place.
If improving your traceability is on your business agenda, explore our manufacturing software tailored to small and medium-sized operations.