Shaping Traceability in Food and Beverage Packaging

Food and beverage manufacturers benefit from real-time data on supplier materials, processes and machinery in production. Image courtesy of Omron

Trends, Challenges and Strategies to Gain Real-time Data

By Laura Studwell, Industry Marketing Manager, Food, Commodities & Packaging at Omron

In the food and beverage packaging industry, authenticity is essential. Since both public health and consumer satisfaction heavily depend on product integrity, the food and beverage packaging industry is highly regulated.

One of the main things mandated by food and beverage regulation is traceability. From raw materials suppliers, to the production line, to the supermarket and the customer — the creation and distribution of a particular food item should be as transparent as possible. Food and beverage manufacturers also benefit directly from traceability protocols that minimize the occurrence and effect of costly issues such as product recalls by providing real-time data on supplier materials, processes and machinery involved in production.

It’s important for manufacturers to work with a solution provider who has extensive knowledge of how traceability works in both the food and beverage industries.

Complying with industry regulations

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires food and beverage manufacturers to maintain records for at least three years and establish reliable traceability systems that meet recall standards outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Rather than setting specific rules for compliance, the FSMA requirements are performance-based, meaning that they focus on outcomes in preventive control, traceability and record keeping, and sanitary equipment design. Although this gives food and beverage manufacturers plenty of leeway in their approach to meeting these requirements, it also means that many companies will need to seek guidance from other organizations to ensure they’re on the right track.

It’s also essential for companies to understand the difference between external versus internal traceability. External traceability involves any data relevant to various parties in the supply chain. Internal traceability deals with the processes that take place within a company. This includes any data related to combining raw materials, processing subcomponents, and reconfiguring or repacking items. To ensure traceability, there must be a clear link between all original raw materials and the finished product.

In the food and beverage packaging industry, internal and external traceability are equally important. Regulatory bodies are usually more concerned with external traceability, but solid internal traceability is what makes it possible to demonstrate the link between the immediate raw materials supplier and the purchasing party.

Combatting counterfeiting, promoting ethical sourcing and minimizing recalls

Counterfeiting has become a major problem in the food and beverage industry as the market becomes more globalized. With the increase in imports coming from developing countries, it’s crucial to have a traceability system in place to confirm that products are authentic.

Errors on labels and packaging are the most common cause of food and beverage recalls. One of the best ways to combat labeling mistakes is to implement an industry-standard label verification system. Print quality inspection systems that are capable of performing a wide variety of verification-related tasks, including optical character recognition (OCR), optical character verification (OCV), master-to-label comparison and data and code matching is ideal for high quality verification. These features help companies ensure accuracy and data integrity, identify defects and avoid liability.

Since recalls can have a catastrophic impact on a company’s reputation as well as its profits, minimizing errors on labels and packaging is essential. Manufacturers that include any sort of repackaging process as part of their operations should be doubly careful to ensure that product identifiers are thoroughly tracked and that labels are comprehensively verified.

According to IBM Consulting, 57% of customers will avoid purchasing brands that have been associated with a recall. This cost comes on top of the expenses that are directly associated with taking all the impacted product off the market.

In addition to helping companies avoid recalls and other disruptions to their profitability, traceability systems are also a great way to optimize processes and evaluate overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Using traceability to analyze and optimize productivity

In addition to helping companies avoid recalls and other disruptions to their profitability, traceability systems are also a great way to optimize processes and evaluate overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). By collecting and analyzing operational data, manufacturers can figure out which machines are under-performing and pinpoint precisely where bottlenecks are occurring in production. In order to gather this data, manufacturers need to set up numerous barcode reading stations at various points across the production line.

Barcoding helps track vital productivity information such as throughput and quality based on package type, machine, shift and product. In many cases, this means that barcode readers need to be embedded within machinery. This poses a challenge, since most manufacturing equipment is designed to take up as little space as possible and therefore doesn’t have much extra room for barcode readers.

This creates the need for ultra-compact readers. This type of industrial barcode readers combined with smart cameras are designed to be highly flexible and configurable within an exceptionally compact casing. This means that they can be easily embedded within machinery while still providing fast and accurate reading. Thanks to the liquid lens auto-focus technology, the ultra-compact readers eliminate constraints on camera positioning. Smart industry camera can be used for machine vision inspection, enabling the expansion of automation as a facility’s needs evolve without investment in new hardware.

Once traceability data is gathered via the barcode readers, it needs to be communicated to the rest of the system. This poses a new challenge – that of using this data without hampering control performance. When traditional controllers are tasked with processing large amounts of traceability data, they are liable to slow down the production cycle time. Implementing controllers that can maintain high-speed control while handling all the information is critical.

Embracing vision systems for complete product integrity

Machine vision technology has been taking on an increasingly important role in traceability because it’s an extremely effective way to maintain complete product integrity. Vision inspection includes a wide variety of functionality such as detecting defective products in real time and performing both OCR and OCV to verify that the data on labels and packages adds up. By functioning as a complete solution for ensuring that non-conforming products don’t go out into the market, vision systems are vital for brand protection.

The hurdle that manufacturers face in implementing a machine vision system is twofold. Such systems are often expensive to implement, and the complexity of the technology can overwhelm operators. Many applications require special programming. However, these challenges are offset by the fact that a single product recall or fine for tainted product – preventable by a vision system – could cost more than the vision system itself.

Manufacturers can consider a camera that has separate user interfaces in order to satisfy both novices and experienced vision professionals alike. In addition to high-performance smart cameras, high-end, full vision systems with the same focus on ease of use is also important. The vision system that enables high-speed, high-accuracy inspection and measurement functionality designed to meet or exceed the need for rapidly growing automation and higher performance requirements in industries like food and beverage packaging. Multiple cameras can be hooked up to enable panoramic shooting and expand the field of view by combining images at high speeds.

Transitioning from manual record keeping to fully automated traceability

The avoidance of unwanted complexity isn’t just a deterrent to using machine vision – it’s often a reason why manufacturers forego upgrading their traceability systems in any way. Because implementing a new system seems inordinately complex. It’s understandable that companies want traceability to be easy. However, failing to upgrade the system with automation actually leads to more work in the long run.

Manual record keeping is far more widespread in the food and beverage packaging industry than it should be, especially when one considers the huge costs associated with certain types of mistakes. Budgetary constraints and the fact that traceability solutions need to be scalable are major barriers to automating the system. It’s important for manufacturers to work with a solution provider who has extensive knowledge of how traceability works in both the food and beverage industries. It is also important to look for a provider that focuses on providing comprehensive solutions with complete line integration so companies can be confident in the functionality of their new or upgraded system.

About the Author

Laura Studwell is the Industry Marketing Manager of Food, Commodities and Packaging at Omron. Omron enables manufacturers to build robust systems that ensure quality while boosting productivity. Learn more online at www.automation.omron.com.

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