Tracing at item level using identification technology

A food product may be recalled for any number of reasons – pieces
of plastic in chocolate bars, bacterial contamination of cream cheese, falsely
declared ingredients in pasta-based ready meals. As well as damaging the
manufacturer’s reputation, these circumstances often come at tremendous expense, with costs rising when the
whereabouts of the end products are unknown. Not to mention that time is of the
essence when it comes to product recalls. With identification systems and
integration technology from SICK, foodstuffs can be identified at any point as
they make their way from the producer to the end customer, providing the option
of tracing them in real time and at item
level, with the click of a mouse should a critical error arise.

Barcode scanners in the CLV
product families, Lector image-based code readers, ultra-high-frequency RFID
systems, and 4Dpro (the auto-ID integration platform from SICK) are all
technologies that can be relied upon when setting up track-and-trace solutions
within the food industry. Barcodes, 2D codes, or electronic transponders are
used to identify objects including individual items, primary and secondary
packaging, pallets, trucks, or swap bodies. When it comes to deciding on which
technology to use, it is important to take financial factors into account, as
well as considering the objects and processes that are involved. For instance,
a barcode can be printed onto an egg, while the cartons holding six or ten eggs
can be labelled with 2D codes with the
best-before date in plain text. A transponder, on the other hand, can be added
to shipping cartons, pallets, and other aggregated containers. It is often the
case that several of these different forms of labelling will be in place within
a single line along the supply chain. This
is where the 4Dpro integration platform comes in, as it can be used not only to
manage the range of identification technologies that are physically different
from one another but also to enter data
into databases. These databases will then be ideally interconnected – via
standard software. SICK allows producers, contract packagers, and distributors
to procure all of the identification and integration technology they need from
a single source. What’s more, the technology is perfectly coordinated, boasts
high levels of availability at all stages of the logistics chain, and removes
the need for interfaces, cutting out any risk.

Food contamination: Eliminating residual risks using track and trace

Making every effort to ensure
process reliability, hygiene, and quality will minimise
the risk of contamination during industrial production, packaging, and
distribution processes within the food industry, but it can never rule it out
entirely. On this basis, Regulation EC 178/2002 requires manufacturers within the food industry
to establish systems that enable traceability of foodstuffs across all stages
of production, processing, and distribution. Also,
manufacturers have been given
responsibility for promptly recalling unsafe products in order to avoid potential health risks.

Product recalls have
a detrimental effect on a company’s reputation and finances as well as the
brand promise for the product in question. They are a sure-fire way to lose
consumers’ trust and constitute a major challenge for the entire supply chain,
with repercussions for producers, processors, packagers, distributors, freight
forwarders, supermarkets, and retailers. All parties have to work closely
together if a product recall is to run smoothly.

To
allow them to assess the causes of a contamination, companies must be able to trace back the
trajectory of their products from the producer, through the processing stages,
to retailers. This means that products
and the containers they come in need to be
labelled consistently and identified at every stage of the process that may
prove relevant in the event of a recall, with data being entered automatically
into interconnected databases. This is
the only way to minimise residual health
risks for consumers, with a system in place that allows the affected products
to be tracked down and removed from circulation as quickly as possible.

Taking proactive measures to limit damage

By fulfilling the legal
obligation to trace foodstuffs using the appropriate track-and-trace
technology, companies can minimise the
negative impact on their image and brand, and limit the financial damage caused
by the loss of sales and costs involved in recalling a product. The key point
to remember here is that the more information available to the manufacturer
about the exact serial numbers, batches, production facilities, or best-before
dates affected by a product recall, the easier it will be to retrieve these
items or in extreme cases a single item. Through this targeted and proactive approach, there is less chance for a consumer
to suffer from any potential health issues caused by the product. It is a
question of looking for a needle in a haystack – and being able to find it as
quickly as possible. This is all possible
thanks to modern track-and-trace solutions featuring state-of-the-art
technology, which can be used to narrow products down to those affected and
then pinpoint their location within the supply chain. All of the information
needed during a product recall can also be retrieved from interconnected
databases in real time with more or less the click of a mouse, making reaction
times incredibly quick.

Identification systems recording information needed during a product
recall

Information recorded by
automated identification systems is fed
into the databases. Barcode readers in the various CLV product families from
SICK can be used in a broad range of
applications within track-and-trace set-ups. They can read compact codes on
labels and item packaging as well as barcodes with large module widths, such as
those used to label shipping cartons and pallets. Offering a variety of scanning ranges, auto-focus, ambient light immunity,
and smart code reconstruction technology, these readers make for versatile and
reliable solutions. They can be used to accurately identify barcodes even when
faced with varying container sizes, working distances, and lighting conditions,
or labels and prints that have been partially destroyed. The CLV barcode
scanners are also available in a hygienic design if required for applications
involving the identification of foodstuffs and beverages within humid and wet
areas in packaging and bottling plants.

2D codes are a very popular type
of labelling for food and drug packaging. They are useful when space is very
restricted given that they can hold a lot more information than barcodes. Plus,
extremely reliable integrated correction processes eliminate errors when codes are read. The image-based code readers in the
Lector620 OCR product family can be relied upon to record barcodes, 2D codes,
and plain text information on food packaging, including best-before dates and batch numbers. Another example of their
functionality is the option to identify Data Matrix codes on carton blanks in
the feed magazines for packaging machines, in
order to check that food packaging does actually
contain the product it should contain according to the text and images printed
onto it. If foodstuffs packaged in folding boxes are put into secondary packaging, the code readers within the Lector650
product family can be used to identify all of the items combined within the
container, thereby allowing for full traceability, even for aggregation units
of this kind.

Reliable identification using RFID technology

With the
exception of containers that are
very large to start with and premium consumer items, product labelling using
RFID technology is opening up an increasingly wide range of applications, primarily, as a result of costs dropping and processor
technologies becoming more efficient. In this case, an electronic data
card, known as a transponder, is attached to an item, a pallet of goods, or a
container of raw material. During the logistics process, reading systems such
as the RFU620 UHF read/write device read
the transponder, which is then written to
– that is, updated – based on the process. This reading and writing process
also happens to be one of the main advantages of RFID over barcodes and 2D
codes. As no visual contact with the transponders is
required during the identification process and given that it is possible for
reading and writing to be performed simultaneously for several transponders in
a group, all items labelled with RFIDs in shipping cartons and then all cartons
labelled with RFIDs on a pallet can be recorded in one go. Attaching an RFID label
to the pallet would then allow for expensive spirits, for example, to be traced
consistently and efficiently.

Industrial image processing moving towards the future

Vision sensors which record 1D
barcodes and 2D codes provide additional food for thought when it comes to
Industry 4.0. Familiar tasks, such as sorting processes or track-and-trace, are
implemented reliably – they are no longer
disruptive or even radical innovations. On the other hand, the link to
additional data, such as the object history, digital fingerprints, and
histogram and attribute data, open up the
possibility for trend and variance analyses, which go way beyond the pure
identification of components and products. Image processing, therefore, forms a
valuable basis for newly conceived applications and services in the context of
Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT).

The combination of
image and barcode recognition such as reading a code while simultaneously checking
against a stored image ensures that the right product goes into the right
package. This rules out the possibility of a product making it onto the shelf
with information, such as the best-before date or details required by labelling
standards, appearing incorrectly on the packaging.

Data is ultimately analysed via the SICK AppSpace
eco-system, which is based on the
approach of integrating in-house ideas
and implementing customer-specific requirements efficiently in the form of customised sensor apps. The platform is split into three areas: Programmable
sensors, such as the vision sensors from the Inspector P63x, P64x, and P65x
product families, are used as sensor hardware; the SIM4000 Sensor Integration
Machine, a high-performance multi-camera and sensor processor for multi-technology
image processing, sensor fusion, and data collection in conjunction with the SICK
AppStudio module for application development and the SICK AppManager for
implementing and managing apps in the field; and lastly, the community of SICK
AppSpace Developers Club. This is where
developers from SICK and our customers exchange information and define further
development steps for the eco-system.

Turning a problematic product recall
into a positive?

SICK offers all of
this track-and-trace technology for the food industry from a single source.
Extensive experience in the food industry teamed with exceptional expertise
when it comes to implementing auto-ID solutions ensures that food products are reliably identified along the entire supply
chain. The technology-independent 4Dpro platform from SICK is then added into
the mix to manage the (combined) use of barcode scanners, code readers, and
RFID systems, and to enable the professional integration of all identification
systems into the IT and database landscapes of every party involved in the
supply chain. All of these 4Dpro
devices have Ethernet on board and are ready for connection, and they can be
connected, configured, parameterised, and integrated into fieldbus environments
in exactly the same way. These devices,
therefore, offer fully compatible, interconnectable
technologies with standardised configuration and user interfaces, fully
compatible electrical and mechanical connectivity, and identical fieldbus
components. All parties along the supply chain are in a position to address
their track-and-trace requirements with these cost-effective and reliable
solutions that can be easily integrated and also make for a safe investment.

The overall result
is a transparent, seamless, and inherently consistent flow of material and
data, extending from the producer all the way to the end customer. This provides the conditions required for the right decisions to be made quickly in
the event of product recalls, also taking into account a potential estimate of
the logistical effort and overall costs involved. Should a critical error
arise, the risks can be quickly identified and safely averted. Companies with
the capability to minimise the scope of
product recalls using a track-and-trace
concept of this kind are sure to see a swift return on their investment.

Even the possibilities now
afforded by innovative identification and integration technology cannot prevent
product recalls from happening, but they can seriously limit their negative
repercussions regarding reputation, brand
image, sales, and costs. Some companies may even seize the concept of product
safety through proactive recall management – and turn what was once a
challenging problem into a way to give themselves a competitive edge.

Written by Matthias Mezger, Head of
Industry Cluster Consumer Goods, SICK AG,
Waldkirch

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