Pieces of plastic in chocolate bars, bacterial contamination of cream cheese, falsely declared ingredients in pasta-based ready meals – a food product may be recalled for any number of reasons. As well as damaging the manufacturer’s reputation, these situations often come at tremendous expense, with costs rising as the whereabouts of the end products become less clear. 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 situation 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 depending on whether they are 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 involved. For example, a barcode can be printed onto an egg, while the cartons holding six or 10 eggs can be labelled up with 2D codes and additional plain text, such as the best-before date. 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 company 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 – which will ideally be interconnected – via standard software.
Food contamination: eliminating residual risks using track and trace
Making every effort to ensure process reliability, hygiene and quality is sure to 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. In addition, 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.
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 track-and-trace applications. 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.
2D codes are a very popular type of labelling for food and drug packaging. They are useful when space is 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 (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. Plus, 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, for instance, 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 in a reliable manner and 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, opens 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 – 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. Another part of the AppSpace hardware is the SIM4000 Sensor Integration Machine, a high-performance multi-camera and sensor processor for multi-technology image processing, sensor fusion and data collection. On the software side, the eco-system offers both the AppStudio module for application development and the AppManager for implementing and managing apps in the field. The community of AppSpace Developers Club forms the third pillar of the concept. This is where developers from SICK and its 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 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 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, inter-connectable technologies with standardised configuration and user interfaces, fully compatible electrical and mechanical connectivity and identical fieldbus components.
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 in order 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 situation 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.
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