Laser marking traceability boosts a connected factory

Laser marking traceability technology meets increasingly complex supply chain needs.

Nov 1st, 2018
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Technology meets increasingly complex supply chain needs

DAVE SWEET

When I came home from work the other night, a light came on. Literally, I used a smartphone app to activate my smart wall switch, which is connected to a wireless network. This useful gadget is part of the Internet of Things (IoT), just like many of our home devices, from watches to refrigerators—all designed to make our daily lives easier. And even with all these advances, there is still a much broader potential in our connected world.

When we shift that conversation from consumer-based IoT to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), we open the door for new opportunities to not just make our lives easier within our homes, but to make our world safer, more efficient, and more productive.

Whether you call it the IIoT, smart manufacturing, The Connected Factory, or Industry 4.0, this convergence of information and operations technology spells a new era in how we work and how we do business. When we connect the plant floor to high-level software, we are multiplying the value of our manufacturing operations. This is because we are gaining prime insights from collected data that power strategic management decisions and steer companies toward their larger goals.

A new era

As expected, with change comes new challenges as well. In the connected world, technologies are constantly evolving and supply chains are becoming increasingly complex. As consumers and manufacturers demand greater transparency, many industries are finding themselves under more intense scrutiny from various regulatory bodies. Sectors such as automotive, pharmaceutical, and electronics are facing the costly threat of product recalls.

Another issue that has grown in recent years is counterfeit goods. Since 2010, the MSRP value of falsified parts and products has grown by over 500%, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

What we need right now is better traceability. Luckily, the process of identifying, verifying, and tracing parts throughout their lifetime has grown even more sophisticated as technology advances bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.

Traceability begins when we use laser marking equipment to directly mark parts with unique identifiers or other information. The connected factory enables that information to be collected and stored in a secure database, so parts can be tracked throughout the manufacturing process. From point A to point Z, intelligent software records a complete history of the part’s activities, creating a genealogy relative to the main part number and subassemblies (FIGURE 1).

FIGURE 1. Unique identifiers are eternally tied to the part and stored in a secure database, allowing for complete product traceability.

In essence, traceability is making our world safer, more efficient, and more productive, one part at a time.

Connect, mark, trace

More manufacturers are implementing IIoT-enabled track and trace technology to ultimately gain greater control over their operations. In fact, in 2017 more than 50% of industrial professionals had either invested in IIoT technology or planned to do so, according to LNS Research (www.lnsresearch.com). Traceability within the connected factory allows industries to drive efficiency gains in the form of faster access to data, allowing you to stay ahead of industry regulations and technology changes, while continually improving operational efficiencies. Here are five of the benefits you can realize with a connected traceability system.

Improved efficiency through automation. Effective part traceability cannot happen in a vacuum. It requires coordinated communication of complex systems to prevent production bottlenecks, waste, and other costly errors.

A connected factory means that everything is integrated to work together for higher performance and efficiency. This hands-off approach opens the door for automated assembly lines and, when integration is done properly, your data quality improves.

By natively integrating laser marking via a communication protocol such as Ethernet/IP, the result is a faster setup that does not require custom interface software. Data is transferred seamlessly, and information is communicated immediately to all devices.

Many laser marking traceability systems can be configured to meet your specific needs based on your materials, processes, plant layout, and other factors. So even if you are still using the paper-and-pen method, there are entry-level traceability systems available for you to get started, while enabling you to scale up in the future.

Enhanced quality control. An automated smart factory is equipped with the necessary controls to improve your mark quality, accuracy, and ultimately traceability (FIGURE 2).

FIGURE 2. Automated mark grading and verification ensure durability and prevent duplication.

Successful integration results in:

  • Preventing serial number duplication by enforcing text field uniqueness

  • Auto-verifying, thanks to integrated vision interface modules that grade marks

  • Auto-sorting of “pass” and “fail” parts

  • Auto-remarking if a mark fails verification

  • Enhancing overall quality

  • Minimizing faulty part distribution

  • Saving costs long-term

Informed decision-making with real-time manufacturing data. Because information is communicated automatically within the connected factory, you are seeing data in real time. This provides a goldmine of information that can help manufacturing operations’ management to see, analyze, and quickly act upon time-sensitive data coming off the shop floor.

As you are able to collect more information-rich data on inventory and other key performance indicators, you can make more informed decisions on how to improve your performance. Although good intuition cannot be discounted, data-driven decision-making gives you the factual, quantitative insights to answer vital business questions and acquire any stakeholder support.

Protection against counterfeiting. Counterfeit and diverted goods are an expensive problem for manufacturing companies. In fact, each year as much as $500 billion of U.S. trade is lost to counterfeiting, according to the World Customs Organization (www.wcoomd.org). Reproduced, returned, or resold products not only diminish your brand equity, they can also directly impact your bottom line in the form of liability, warranty fraud, and other expenses.

Having an IIoT-based traceability system in place means that you are better protected from these risks. Laser marking equipment is capable of creating permanent, verifiable marks to help manufacturers recognize and isolate fraudulent vs. authentic parts, thus reducing liability.

In the connected factory, the solution is a 2D data matrix or other laser-marked barcode that can be used to link the product back to the rest of your production data. For more advanced applications, a unique, covert identifier can be marked on the part to add an extra layer of security for counterfeit protection.

Prevent or reduce the impact of a recall. Product recalls can happen at any time. How your company responds is critical, and a connected traceability system helps manufacturers react quickly and effectively.

At the moment your company or a third part initiates a recall, affected products can be traced back directly to the original source. Recorded part data minimizes uncertainty during a recall and helps to reduce its scope.

In the end, your immediate action and transparency help to maintain customer and supplier confidence. And since the recall was contained, associated costs are kept at a minimum.

Tying everything together

Many companies understand these benefits but may struggle with how to get started. While the opportunities of the connected factory are exciting, initiating a connected track and trace system in your operation requires many management considerations. Three important factors to consider in your cost-benefit analysis are:

1. How much do you currently spend on wasted or scrapped material?

2. What amount do you invest in recall remediation?

3. Does your company face counterfeiting or gray market risks and liability expenses?

As said, successful traceability within the connected factory requires a complex web of communication. Yet, understand that this integration is not “all or nothing.” Traceability can be scaled based on your business strategy, anywhere from jumping in head first to taking a more phased implementation approach.

Due to its projected growth, we expect to see a significant increase in adoption of IIoT-enabled traceability among manufacturers in the coming years. As technology grows, so will our ability to harness it to improve our productivity and the world around us.

DAVE SWEET(dave.sweet@mecco.com) is president of MECCO, Cranberry Township, PA; www.mecco.com.

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