Automatic data capture: Motorola is keeping track of assets in the supply chain

Data collection has undergone something of a revolution. I think of it as a dimensional change. Not so long ago, we captured one-dimensional information about a product. A barcode scan at the dock identified the product that arrived and maybe when it arrived. A scan or spoken check digit at a pick face confirmed a pick. But the information didn’t tell much of a story unless you brought it all into one place.

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Data collection has undergone something of a revolution. I think of it as a dimensional change. Not so long ago, we captured one-dimensional information about a product. A barcode scan at the dock identified the product that arrived and maybe when it arrived. A scan or spoken check digit at a pick face confirmed a pick. But the information didn’t tell much of a story unless you brought it all into one place.

Data collection is evolving in a multi-dimensional practice today. Processes like asset management, or track and trace solutions, are able to provide more than a simple snapshot of information, says June Ruby, director, industrial solutions group, for Motorola. “I think of track and trace as a one step backward and one step forward process,” she says. “You’re able to say where something came from and where it went.”

But, you’re able to say more than that because you’re also collecting additional information about a product that may be useful later, including the history, application or location of the items being tracked. That may be the genealogy of the parts, components and materials that went into a product – which have a genealogy associated with them. For a product with a cradle-to-grave management requirement, like commercial aviation or the medical device industry, track and trace solutions enable a user to track all of the changes made to a product throughout its lifecycle. A food manufacturer can track the lot of every product that goes into a particular batch being manufactured.

The most common benefit of traceability is to minimize the impact of a recall: If a manufacturer, for instance, can identify just the products affected by a problem, they can limit the extent of a recall. But there are other factors driving the interest in traceability, says Ruby:

Government compliance: Quite simply, government requires that manufacturers in key industries record data about their processes. Chemical companies, for instance, want to know what inventories they have in their facilities, where those chemicals are located and how they’re being handled. While a small company may do that work by hand, automating it with a track and trace solution is more efficient and accurate.

Customer satisfaction/brand protection: Along with minimizing the extent of a recall, a traceability solution allows a manufacturer or distributor to handle a recall much faster than is otherwise possible, limiting the amount of time the substandard product is in the market.

Error-proofing: In addition to tracing the lot of material that goes into a manufacturing process, a track and trace solution can be tied to a manufacturing system to insure that the right product goes into the process. “If I’m making muffins that call for flour, I’ll scan the barcode label on the container of flour,” says Ruby. “That will not only capture the information, but it will tell me that I wasn’t supposed to use whole wheat flour for this recipe.”

Warranty compliance: By tracking product failures and repairs, a manufacturer can identify trends that might indicate that the parts or components from a particular supplier are failing more frequently or sooner than planned. It also ensures that warranty agreements with suppliers are honored.

Product rotation: Traceability can insure that the oldest product, or product nearest an expiration date, is shipped out first, limiting waste. 

Competitive advantage: Customers are increasing the reporting requirements on their suppliers, especially in the food industry. “The manufacturer that can meet those requirements is going to be ahead of the game,” says Ruby.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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