What Is a Track and Trace System?

Tracking and tracing systems provide greater visibility over a unit’s product lifecycle. The system also helps identify existing or potential bottlenecks that can get in the way of achieving production efficiency. Moreover, for those in the pharmaceuticals or food and beverage industries, tracking and tracing software helps meet industry-specific regulations.

This post explains the meaning of a tracking and tracing system, how it differs from simply monitoring a process, and how to implement tracking and tracing at your facility.

What Is a Tracking and Tracing System?

In the distribution and logistics of products, a tracking and tracing system follows each unit of your product from raw material to the customer. The end-to-end process includes production, packaging, supply chain, and distribution. Tracking and tracing a product’s journey requires permanent or temporary markings on raw materials, work-in-progress inventory, and produced units.

While tracking and tracing are necessary for compliance in some industries, all industries can benefit from this solution. For example, it can tie up loose ends in your workflow and optimize it over time to maximize production efficiency.

Manufacturers have tried to trace and track for decades. However, traditionally, manufacturers relied on paper-based systems. This traditional system took a lot of work to manage, defeating the purpose of using it.

With the Industry 4.0 revolution, modern manufacturers rely on IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) devices. These devices can integrate with software systems, enabling a frictionless flow of information to make tracking and tracing easier. Likewise, connecting IoT devices to software offers greater visibility and control of business data.

“By creating a ‘digital twin’ of their supply chain, combining traceability and digitalization, companies can play a crucial role in increasing the effectiveness of recalls through the swift identification and removal of contaminated foods from the market.”


Who Uses Track & Trace Systems?

Companies can choose to implement track and trace to improve equipment connectivity. Still, it’s vital for those with heavy oversight from government agencies like pharma, food and beverage, and medical device manufacturers. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides extensive guidelines on their use.

Track and Trace in the Pharmaceutical Industry

The FDA requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to label and track each raw material item throughout the product’s life using serialization. In addition, regulators in some jurisdictions may require manufacturers to add even more details.

In the United States, the FDA provides guidelines for drug manufacturers in the form of Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP). Other countries have their own set of guidelines. For example, pharmaceutical manufacturers in the European Union must supply track-and-trace data to a master database called the European Union Hub.

Track and Trace in the Food and Beverage Industry

Similarly, the FDA requires food manufacturers to follow all products even after placement in stores. This tracking allows relevant agencies to trace a food-borne disease to the source of contamination. The FDA has also published a blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food explaining how the software solutions can improve visibility with predictive analytics.

“Executives must be able to see what is happening everywhere in their supply chain and trace any item within it—from field to factory to customer and beyond. Today, the technology exists to turn that need into an operational reality.”


How Can You Trace and Track?

Start by assigning serial numbers to individual units of the item you want to track. For example, you can assign serial numbers to raw material units, completed product units, or batches. Next, you can add serial numbers using QR and barcodes, inscriptions, or lasers so the serial numbers don’t rub off when the material runs through a machine.

Once you’ve put the serial number on relevant items, create a database of serial numbers on a digital platform, such as a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Adding serial numbers to a digital platform simplifies tracking. For example, a robust CMMS, like MaintainX, will automate parts of the tracking and tracing process so that searching through serial numbers is efficient.

Consider tracing products in three phases:

  • Phase 1 (external tracing): Phase 1 involves tracing raw materials back to vendors. Labeling helps identify the manufacturer who sold you the raw material. If a few of the batches were unfit for delivery because of inappropriate raw materials, you should be able to track that raw material inventory back to a distributor.
  • Phase 2 (internal tracing): Once raw materials pass through the production and assembly line, multiple raw materials might merge into one complete product. At this stage, you’ll need to assign serial numbers to each product (or a batch) to trace the product internally during the production process. Companies with plants in multiple locations can use track and trace across facilities.
  • Phase 3 (external tracing): After production, you need to trace the finished units as they move into your warehouse, are shipped, and delivered to the customer. Shippers like FedEx offer track-and-trace capabilities for each order, allowing you to use its order number to view its status.

Best Practices for Tracing and Tracking

If you’re about to implement a tracking and tracing system at your facility, keep these three best practices in mind:

Use a Digital Platform

Paper-based systems are inefficient and prone to human error. Errors can result in expensive recalls and non-compliance penalties. Paper-based systems also make tracing, tracking, and quality management challenging. When you can’t track and trace errors, you can’t resolve the issue as quickly.

Using a digital, cloud-based platform like a CMMS ensures you have access to all the data needed to determine the cause. With MaintainX, for example, your track-and-trace data is searchable from your desktop or mobile device in real time.

Use Barcodes

Serialization requires marking a part with a specific number. However, the method you use for marking also impacts how efficient your tracking and tracing system is. For example, if you inscribe a serial number, you’ll need to record the serial number into your digital platform manually.

Instead, consider applying barcodes. Using 1D linear barcodes or 2D Data Matrix codes enables you to read data without manual effort. In addition, you can scan QR and barcodes to update the information on your digital platform.

For example, you can scan the barcode each time you introduce a unit of raw material into a production process. This allows you to track material quality and trace a defective product back to a specific unit of raw material.

Use Permanent Marking

Permanent marking is almost always the ideal choice. Non-permanent markings like labels and tags might not survive the wear and tear during production or shipping. If the markings become illegible, they won’t work for tracking or tracing.

Permanent markings made using Direct Part Marking (DPM) or pin marking can withstand all types of wear and tear your product might undergo until it reaches the customer. This improves the product’s traceability, especially if there’s a recall when you’ll need to trace the unit back to a specific vendor or manufacturer.

MaintainX: The Best Trace and Track System

MaintainX is a CMMS that provides a real-time database for all serial numbers. The cloud-based CMMS has barcode scanning functionality that enhances tracing and tracking units. The CMMS can auto-track units (in addition to tracking assets, parts, inventory, maintenance, and work order completion) throughout the process to link to a specific batch or work order.

Tracking allows you to monitor and improve key performance indicators (KPIs) across manufacturing and maintenance. The information in your CMMS helps you analyze how efficiently the units are moving through your workflow.

With this data, you can improve efficiency and identify bottlenecks. More importantly, the CMMS organizes and maintains the information you need to comply with regulations in one place.

With MaintainX, you get an easy-to-use system with built-in chat, allowing your teams to trace and track in real time.

author photo
Caroline Eisner

Caroline Eisner is a writer and editor with experience across the profit and nonprofit sectors, government, education, and financial organizations. She has held leadership positions in K16 institutions and has led large-scale digital projects, interactive websites, and a business writing consultancy.

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