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Industry 4.0 and the importance of reliable product marking

16 April 2018

A combination of high quality coding and improved data capture is transforming the traceability of manufactured parts - and that is proving to be an essential step on the road to full Industry 4.0 implementation, as Pryor’s Alastair Morris explains.

Handheld data matrix

It’s every manufacturer’s nightmare: a fault or weakness has been identified in a manufactured component, the quality manager subsequently reports to the board and a full-scale product recall is set in motion. The extent of the recall will, of course, depend on the particular manufacturing defect; it will also depend on whether or not the company has an effective traceability system in place. A comprehensive traceability system will determine whether an entire batch, or just a few components from a particular batch, needs to be recalled.

Most of us will view traceability as being a vital aspect of pharmaceutical manufacturing, the supply of military or critical aerospace and automotive components which carry some risk of harm to end users should a product have been compromised during the manufacturing process. But traceability has now become increasingly important to more mainstream manufacturing, as efficient production methodologies demand an unbroken, fully connected supply chain along which participating organisations are able to track not just the movement of parts and materials in real time, but the history of their manufacture, the processes involved and the sources of the raw materials used in that manufacture.

Hitherto, the complexity and cost of tracing parts has seen this activity confined to a few sectors such as those mentioned above. Now, with the evolution of Industry 4.0 and its requirements for the efficient collection and dissemination of manufacturing data, traceability is becoming an essential element of the manufacturing process. Fortunately, the development of better product coding and data capture systems has made traceability more widely accessible, and while smaller suppliers may think it is still beyond their resources, introducing tracking systems is actually getting easier and more affordable.

With effective tracking, data is easily captured, networked and shared between geographically widespread manufacturing sites, and careful monitoring at every stage of the manufacturing process improves quality control and inventory management, while reducing costs and the incidences of downtime. Tracking systems are aids to process control optimisation and the improvement of manufacturing efficiencies; their existence can also provide that persuasive factor in a contract award negotiation where a client may be seeking an ‘edge’ over the offerings of competing parties.

Trace elements

High quality, readable coding and efficient data capture are essential elements of parts traceability. The process starts with a marking device that applies a unique and permanent identification (ID) tag to the part, such as a barcode or readable serial number. Once the part enters a sequence of machining or other processing stages its ID is captured in real time by a machine vision system and recorded on a centrally located server. This data is correlated with production planning systems, process by process to ensure no steps are missed, and that they are completed in the right order, thus accumulating a manufacturing ‘history’ for the part.

When a part reaches the assembly cell it is scanned and checked against a bill of materials to confirm that it has arrived at the correct location, and that the appropriate assembly process is followed. At this stage, the part can be said to have full traceability thanks to the tracking of its unique identifier through various stages of manufacturing, enabling quality issues to be identified ahead of further assembly or finishing operations.

While the sophisticated traceability systems of the past were costly to install and maintain, smaller systems like that described above can prove particularly cost effective. Moreover, the security and peace of mind that a manufacturer will gain from ensuring traceability of parts through the whole manufacturing process will likely overcome any reticence that manufacturer may have investing in such a system.

One such system that marks components with a unique ID, then tracks them using advanced traceability software is available from the marking, identification and traceability solutions specialist, Pryor Marking Technology. Manufacturing information, such as the timed progress of a component as it moves along the line, can be ‘logged’ against this unique ID to reveal process bottlenecks, for example, in addition to the standard tracking data. Such information can be used to improve process flows and maximise productivity.

This approach was originally developed for a large multi-national manufacturer who needed to track multiple components, but has since been scaled appropriately for use by smaller companies, such as those using manual processes or spreadsheet based batch production methods. And where larger manufacturing organisations are likely to gather huge amounts of data from multiple sensor locations in order to identify production bottlenecks, the same can be achieved, albeit on a smaller scale, with the data provided by a more modestly sized system. Thus companies of any size taking their first steps towards the Industry 4.0 manufacturing paradigm, can make full use of the data that is generated by their manufacturing processes and by doing so, improve them.

As discussed at the beginning of this article, traceability offers significant advantages to production engineers tasked with analysing the events that ultimately led to a product recall. By tracking individual parts and storing a variety of production related parameters, it is possible to identify exactly how, when and where a problem occurred at the earliest opportunity. The issue can then be investigated and quickly fixed to avoid reputational damage. Such speedy identification spots issues before they turn into major problems that are far more difficult to tackle; it can also mean the difference between recalling an entire month’s production and simply changing individual faulty parts.

Industry 4.0 is a prime driver for the wider adoption of component tracking, data capture and networking, and as the technology is now more affordable it has become more accessible for smaller scale enterprises, and there is every advantage to gain from adopting these new ways of working, whatever the product and regardless of the size of the manufacturing operation.

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