Building a traceability 4.0 foundation for automation

Traceability has a large role in the world of automation, and Industry 4.0 concepts and technologies make it possible for companies to glean more insights.

By Eric Henefield April 2, 2023
Courtesy: Omron Automation

Traceability 4.0 insights

  • Easier traceability results from advances in technologies such as machine vision combining with the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to make manufacturing more flexible.
  • While manufacturing is more flexible, traceability still depends on the mark, read, verify and communicate (MVRC) model to help ensure the traceability process is a smooth one.

Traceability is widely used in the world of automation, and for good reason. The ability to gather and record data on the whereabouts and timing of works-in-process undergoing a specific manufacturing operation or finished products making their way through the supply chain is essential for ensuring quality, identifying bottlenecks and minimizing product waste during recalls.

For example, in the food and beverage industry, traceability consumes the entire supply chain from farmers to packagers and producers to retailers and consumers at the other end.

With advancements in technologies like machine vision and those that fall under the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) umbrella, traceability is now intertwined with next-generation solutions for flexible manufacturing, leading to an era called “Traceability 4.0.”

The case for more traceability, more easily

Another term often used for traceability is “track, trace and control.” Manufacturers want to know where a product is located within the wider production or distribution context. Manufacturers also want to know what happened to the product prior to its current production point. If there’s information on component assemblies, system checks and quality testing available, manufacturers can determine next steps more effectively.

Traceability is one of the most critical strategies for bringing true transparency to the manufacturing environment.

The reasons for implementing traceability involve internal and external factors. Internal drivers include manufacturing flexibility, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and product compatibility, whereas external ones include regulatory compliance, industry standards and customer requirements. Traceability lets business make decisions using real-time data from the production line and supply chain.

Understanding the makings of a complete traceability solution

Building an end-to-end traceability solution can seem daunting. Manufacturers are often dealing with marking large numbers of parts and components and reading these markings at every key step in the manufacturing process. Industry 4.0 has brought new trends such as predictive maintenance, remote monitoring, communication technology and 5G networking, all of which need to connect with the traceability system to effectively function. Although this improves capability, it also can make things more complex.

To maximize the benefits of Industry 4.0 solutions, it can help to think of traceability as a parallel process that has evolved to match the automation world’s expansive capabilities.

Today, many manufacturers that implement traceability solutions are compelled to do so  to comply with specific industry regulatory requirements. Many industries require track-and-trace control and documentation. Food and beverage (Food Safety Modernization Act), life sciences (Unique Device Identification) and automotive (Automotive Industry Action Group) all mandate that manufacturers are able to correctly identify every component within an assembly. They also require manufacturers to keep records of these goods in case of any future product safety recall issues.

In most cases, manufacturers that initiate traceability journeys for compliance purposes tend to satisfy those specific requirements and stop there. This stage is known as traceability 3.0, which includes the marking of goods and the storing of manufacturing and assembly data for future reference. However, ending the traceability journey at this point would limit the potential to realize increased manufacturing transparency through data aggregation and analytics.

Traceability 4.0: Mark, verify, read, communicate

This next stage is the traceability 4.0 phase.

Traceability 4.0 builds upon traceability 3.0, but with an increased focus on data being used in real-time for improved factory decisions. Traceability 4.0 improves visibility into processes and points the way toward optimization.

Although traceability 4.0 involves a greater variety of data than previous stages, it still can be boiled down to a few concrete implementation steps, which is outlined in the “MVRC” concept. MVRC stands for “mark, verify, read and communicate.”

Mark, verify, read and communicate (MVRC) are critical in making a traceability projectsuccessful. Courtesy: Omron Automation

Mark, verify, read and communicate (MVRC) are critical in making a traceability project
successful. Courtesy: Omron Automation

Mark: Giving every part and component a unique identifier

The basis for traceability is identifying parts. Manufacturers need to select the right marking/printing process and process parameters for the application. To ensure the markings themselves are inseparable from the objects that carry them, manufacturers often use what are known as direct part marks (DPMs) — barcodes that are etched, printed or otherwise marked directly on a given part.

Although ink jet printing is sometimes used for DPMs, those expected to last years or even decades should be applied using a more permanent method. Laser marking is a method that combines high resolution with high permanence. The focused light from a laser interacts with a part’s surface material to create a mark that is durable enough to resist abrasion, heat, and acidity, but also delicate enough to produce legible letters in 1-point font. Laser marking is cost-effective because it is fast and uses no consumables like ink or electrolytic solution.

Verify: Ensuring that the markings are accurate, readable

After marking, it is important to make sure the information is correct, all requisite regulatory standards are met and the markings are robust and long-lasting. To make sure barcodes start off with a high level of quality, a traceability system should include a step that vets them according to standards developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Barcode verification is more than validating that scanners and images can read a code. It is a complex process that grades each individual code against several key ISO standards (like ISO/IEC 29158 for DPMs).

A few of the many criteria for grading two dimensional barcodes are symbol contrast (the intensity difference between light and dark cells), modulation (the degree to which contrast varies throughout the symbol) and print growth (the degree to which one cell type is larger or smaller than the other). Thanks to today’s laser marking technology capabilities, providing resolutions of just a couple micrometers, manufacturers have more options for code placement than ever.

Read: Get data on works-in-process at every step of the way

Once parts are marked, and the codes are verified to be of good quality, manufacturers need to make sure their systems can read these codes at key points throughout production. The benefits provided by this tracking are immense. Code capture and subsequent data analysis helps optimize manufacturing, identify problems with specific machines and ensure all parts have gone through each manufacturing step.

More code reading means comprehensive, real-time traceability and more data to use in optimizing processes. In some industries, assembly information is included in DPMs, so barcode reading technology becomes an essential component of the overall manufacturing process.

Communicate: Send meaningful data to systems that need it

The ultimate goal of implementing a complete traceability 4.0 solution is to leverage data to make informed decisions in real time. A common manufacturing operation includes four levels:

  • Level 1 – Plant floor level (equipment/hardware/devices)
  • Level 2 – Monitoring and control level (SCADA/PLC, supervisory control and data acquisition/programmable logic controller)
  • Level 3 – Manufacturing operations level (MES, manufacturing execution system)
  • Level 4 – Enterprise level (ERP, enterprise resource planning, cloud).

Just collecting traceability data isn’t enough — it needs to be communicated between relevant systems using compatible formats. Manufacturers need to find ways to communicate data between all levels of their manufacturing enterprise. With the ability to share and communicate data to multiple system, manufacturers can find new opportunities to make informed decision and predict future trends. Controllers and gateways can be used on the production floor as data aggregators, collecting traceability data and communicating this data to multiple consumers using various data protocols. Message queuing telemetry transport (MQTT), OPC UA and structured query language (SQL) are examples of secure data protocols that can be communicated using gateways today. Merging this data with other information within the manufacturing ecosystem can help provide a more holistic view, and lead to more informed decisions.

Combining production floor manufacturing data with other data from quality, procurement, planning and supply chain can enhance workflow and flexibility. The ability to share this data with consumers using compatible protocols is vital for speed of success in any digital transformation journey.

How traceability 4.0 helps raise quality consciousness

As machine vision, data communication and DPM technologies continue to advance, manufacturers will have a flexible toolkit for building a true Industry 4.0 traceability solution. The bundling of these technologies into a system will help manufacturers raise their quality consciousness and respond to issues in real time. The aggregation of product, machine and process data provides the raw digital material required to improve manufacturing operations.

Eric Henefield is global director, traceability solutions business for Omron Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,