In order to mitigate recalls and ensure product quality, food manufacturers and distributors are turning to automation. A warehouse execution system (WES) utilizing an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) is one of the chief technologies making waves in efforts to reduce, if not prevent, recalls, through sophisticated track-and-trace capabilities. Further, integrating a WES into a manufacturer’s supply chain management operations—connecting it to systems both upstream and downstream—is the key to tracking and tracing products end to end, from production to point of sale. This allows manufacturers to respond to problems within the production process more quickly, ensure that they are meeting regulation standards, and make adjustments to manufacturing schedules in order to meet consumer demand.
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Straight from the Source
For most consumer packaged goods, ingredients may be sourced from multiple suppliers, who in turn work with multiple sources. Whether it is corn directly from a farm or flour from a bulk supplier, it is important to be able to trace these ingredients back to its source to ensure product quality and safety. Tracing ingredients back to their source also gives manufacturers in-depth insight into their supply chain—where the best ingredients are coming from and which suppliers always deliver on time.
The first step to traceability is labeling. While most farms are not required to label each piece of produce they sell per the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, manufacturers should work with farms that label each container that leaves the farm. In addition, if the farm uses barcoding technology in its labeling process, it makes traceability more effective and efficient.
Once these materials arrive at the facility and are used to manufacture the products, they can be scanned and documented. This information, along with information that is gathered during the manufacturing process, is then imported into the manufacturer’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system where data is viewable in near real-time.
Meeting in the Middle
Historically, manufacturers would use a warehouse management system and/or a separate warehouse control system to manage warehouse inventories. These two separate systems make it difficult for manufacturers to integrate warehouse inventory tracking with the supply chain activities they were already tracking, including product delivery and on-shelf availability at the store level. By connecting a single WES to systems both upstream and downstream, manufacturers are able to obtain a complete view of their supply chain.
With a WES and integrated AS/RS, manufacturers have the ability to obtain real-time insight into their inbound and outbound inventory, including when a shipment arrives, when it departs, and where it is going. Therefore, if a product is recalled, it is easy to look into the system and quickly identify the batch that contained the faulty goods, pinpoint their departure time and destination, and pull all items from that batch off the shelves. By identifying and pulling the exact batch, manufacturers do not waste valuable time and money removing every product from stores in an attempt to remove all contaminated items. And, with reliable data, manufacturers can prove compliance with any relevant safety regulations and confidently assure consumers that they have taken fast and thorough action to withdraw all affected products.
By providing a high-degree of product traceability, an integrated WES can help manufacturers discover and act upon issues that have caused the recall sooner. Earlier detection often allows manufacturers to better understand what product needs to be recalled, thus potentially reducing the scope of the recall effort by targeting only affected inventory.
For example, if a manufacturer ran a lot of a single product on a production line at midnight and later determined that there was a problem with those products. The manufacturing system can communicate to the WES and locate all of the products that were produced from that particular line during the specified timeframe. The quicker the response time, the greater the chance that contaminated or unmet products never leave the facility and reach store shelves.
Using barcode labeling, manufacturers can track products as they are leaving the warehouse as each pallet is scanned and placed onto a truck for delivery. Advances in RFID technology and telematics systems allow manufacturers to record every movement of each product. Combined with the information gathered by the WES, manufacturers are able to trace:
- What time the product went into/out of specific controlled environments;
- What time and for how many minutes the product was out of the controlled environment;
- What time the product was loaded onto the vehicle for delivery;
- How many minutes the product was on the vehicle and at what temperature it was stored;
- What time the product reached its destination;
- How long the product sat in a particular location; and
- What time the product was put back into a controlled environment at delivery location.
Tracking products during the delivery phase is important not only to ensure products are delivered on time, but tracing these additional variables help eliminate potential product damage or food spoilage in transit—preventing recalls and lost revenue.
At the Checkout Counter
In order for complete end-to-end traceability, ERP and WES solutions must be paired with supply chain management (SCM) systems downstream, including retail store systems. These systems keep track of on-shelf availability and point-of-sales (POS) data, which not only offer real-time insight into inventory but also into consumer demand.
With an integrated WES, a cloud-based SCM system that is keeping track of inventory on the store level can trigger replenishment events at the warehouse. Moreover, by tying manufacturing data to a retailer’s POS system, a recall might just entail an automated phone call to everyone who purchased an item, requesting it be returned to the store—instead of broadcasting it on the national news.
Online and Door-to-Door
As e-commerce continues to grow and selling centers change from brick-and-mortar stores to having a product delivered to the consumer’s door, tracking and tracing products through to the consumer is even more important.
While there are always some products that are sold at super high volumes, such as coffee, most of the items at these retail distribution centers will not be high volume. In addition, the retail distributer is buying from hundreds of manufacturers. An integrated WES can help manage the inventory and as well as confirm that orders had been picked and upload the data into an ERP system. The ERP then might directly communicate with customers and print out the shipping label for shipment. While the delivery destination is not a brick and mortar store, these integrated systems allow manufacturers to continue to trace products all the way through to the consumer.
The Future of Traceability
In the future, we will continue to see an increase in the number of product offerings in terms of flavors and package sizing as well as greater demand for organic, gluten-free, vegan, and locally-grown products. With more products on the market, it is imperative that manufacturers take food and beverage traceability matters into their own hands by investing in automation technology to help manage their inventories and keep consumers safe.
WESs and AS/RSs will continue to advance in sophisticated track-and-trace capabilities, as well as supply chain connectivity. By implementing a tightly integrated WES into the supply chain process, manufacturers will be able to implement traceability and control requirements throughout their supply chains to respond quickly to issues both upstream and downstream—saving time, money, and, in some cases, their reputation.
Williams is the vice president of software development for Westfalia Technologies Inc., a provider of logistics solutions for plants, warehouses, and distribution centers. Reach him at DWilliams@westfaliausa.com.