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ResourcesSupplier Shop TipsWhat is Traceability in Manufacturing?
A serial number on a metal gear. Serial numbers are used for traceability. Image credit: Funnycreature/Shutterstock

What is Traceability in Manufacturing?

The Definition and Types of Traceability

Catalin-Daniel Neagu
By Catalin-Daniel Neagu
 8 min read
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Traceability in manufacturing is a critical concept that encompasses multiple practices, generally referring to identifying and tracking an item or information about said item throughout its life cycle.

This article will go over the traceability definition in depth, why it is necessary, and what benefits you could expect from engaging in this process. We will also include details about the different types of traceability processes and the typical uses cases for each of them.

Traceability goes hand-in-hand with part markings, so for more information on part markings, feel free to check out our article on the subject through the link for more information.

Traceability Meaning

Traceability in the manufacturing process rests on the use of unique identifiable tags or marks and data recording at each step of the product cycle, from manufacturing to delivery.

Generally, traceability is a system that offers the capability to access any or all information of interest (which can refer to anything from automobile parts, electric components, medicine, and food) during the entire life cycle using recorded data.

Traceability has quickly become an indispensable management tool for companies operating in different industries including food, medical, aerospace, and electronics. It has been used in various processes for centuries, but the ‘modern’ (i.e. digital) version that we would recognize today can be said started in the 1950s through the invention of the barcode. The automotive industry is one of the first that has seen huge benefits with the introduction of traceability in the manufacturing process, mainly in reduced numbers of recalls and insurance claims.

Ultimately, traceability is a risk management tool that ensures faults can be easily identified within any manufacturing system. The term ‘fault’ here could be related to anything from product quality to machine effectiveness and even prediction of issues before they come to fruition.

There are multiple ways to classify manufacturing traceability processes, depending on various factors like intrusiveness, tools used, purpose, and scale. We will be covering them in more detail in the following sections.

Why Traceability is Important

By keeping a record of the entire production line and distribution process, manufacturers or suppliers gain the ability to predict or react quickly to issues, reducing operation downtimes. For example, if a vital problem is noticed with the product in question, its source can easily be identified by looking at the manufacturing traceability data. Then a decision can be taken in the form of a product recall, for example, which protects both the company from legal action and the customers from using a potentially dangerous product.

Besides the convenience it provides on the manufacturer’s side, traceability has also become a tool for customers to become more aware of the products they buy in the last few years. This can include ethical aspects of products or even the companies themselves. For example, eco-friendly labels have become a significant concern for some customers interested in a company’s environmentally friendly practices.

Traceability can, therefore, boost a company’s brand by offering transparency to their customers.

There are 4 primary reasons why this concept is useful, which we will also be covering in more detail farther on:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Operational efficiency – reducing waste and optimizing production
  • Enables fast product recall
  • Quality control

Benefits of Traceability in Manufacturing

Any product life cycle benefits from an increase in oversight since it provides a way to avoid issues in manufacturing and distribution, as well as quick damage control. Generally, you can expect the following benefits after the implementation of well-designed traceability systems in a production process:

  • Increased flexibility for the company, as information is available on different product series. In two words: continuous improvement. This means managers are presented with information that can enable them to make educated decisions on moving forward. Since a traceability system is applied to different series of products, they can also notice the difference in how well a series performs in relation to another and pinpoint the exact changes that were made from one to the another. This results in a method that can be used to continuously improve the company’s products.
  • Value stream mapping (VSM) is made easier. This way a manager can identify what works and what doesn’t, or what makes their product popular or what doesn’t. VSM is a technique used in manufacturing that focuses on the value a part or item can bring to the customer after it has been distributed. Any addition (or removal) in the supply chain is therefore weighted by the value it can provide at the end of the chain.
  • Meeting regulations in different parts of the world. For a product to be distributed in various parts of the globe, it must meet strict traceability standards. For example, the standards in the European Union are notoriously strict.
  • Efficient global outreach. There is a lot that could go wrong when distributing parts in different countries. A manufacturing part number can easily save thousands of miles wasted on return trips. For food production, it can also reduce the danger of spoiled supplies.
  • Avoidance of additional costs. Even if traceability systems represent a cost themselves, the price is often offset by the damage prevention such a system could provide.

Types of Traceability

Considering the benefits listed above and the importance of traceability in the manufacturing industry, we can identify various traceability methods.

Supply Chain Traceability

Supply chain traceability refers to the tracking of products from their origin (raw materials), to their end-use. Besides the benefits we mentioned, companies in certain industries, such as pharmaceutical and food, turn traceability into a critical process used to ensure safety.

Material traceability in manufacturing is especially vital for large-scale (or even global) operations, therefore monitoring raw materials provides a way to pinpoint issues as they arise.

Forward Traceability

Forward traceability refers to the action of tracing a product, components, or a batch of materials through the processes they will be subjected to, from the raw material state, up to the finished product.

This process can simply be summarized as “follow the timeline/roadmap,” to identify a defect that might or will occur (depending on the information gained after an analysis) down the supply chain.

Backward Traceability

On the opposite end, backward traceability refers to the practice of taking a finished product and tracking its journey across the supply chain in order to identify the exact moment or process that has led to the defect in the shipped part.

This is usually part of an investigation to determine where the defect might have come from, and in what form. Is it caused by a shipment accident? Was there an issue within the assembly? Did the part leave the factory in good condition? This process involves a lot of record reading and analysis.

Internal Traceability

Internal traceability refers to the keeping of records necessary only in a single production process. Let’s say one company supplies the engine of a car and another the frame. Each of the two would conduct internal traceability processes to ensure the journey of the respective parts is fully recorded within the company.

Sending the parts to either each other or another manufacturer would constitute what’s called ‘external traceability.’ Both external and internal traceability processes are vital to ensure chain traceability.

What is Global Batch Traceability?

Global batch traceability involves the monitoring and tracking of multiple products (batches) throughout their respective supply chains. It encompasses both internal and external traceability systems.

In practice, special software is used for material traceability in manufacturing that allows for all the data on a specific batch to be displayed on a screen with just a few clicks. Data can include material balances, transport dates, batches distribution timelines, and serial numbers.

Lot Traceability in Manufacturing

Lot traceability, also referred to as lot tracking, is a practice that involves the use of labels on multiple products within the same production run (usually called lots). This is done to trace lot movement throughout the supply chain. This method is convenient due to its ability to provide and store information (location in the warehouse, time of departure/delivery, etc.) to company personnel.

Lot traceability is commonly seen in any large-scale manufacturing process and it is a vital part of inventory management. You can find out about its benefits and use cases in more depth in our upcoming article on lot traceability.

Conclusion

Traceability in manufacturing is a process that can save a lot of headaches in the long term. It can streamline production processes and ensure regulatory compliance and customer satisfaction. A thorough analysis of the supply chain can provide better insight into which type of traceability would bring the most significant benefits for a given project.

It is important to remember that traceability in manufacturing can be approached from the end product (i.e., backward traceability) or at the start of production (forward traceability).

At Xometry, we offer options to help meet the traceability needs of businesses of all sizes. We offer material traceability options for raw materials as well as many different methods of part marking. Get a hassle-free instant quote today to see how we can help you keep better track of your parts.

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Catalin-Daniel Neagu
Catalin-Daniel Neagu
Catalin is a writer and translator with a background in aerospace engineering. He has a passion for space technology and is actively pursuing a Master's Degree in Space Science and Technology in Sweden. He also took part in the design of a VTOL aircraft and the reconstruction project of a World War II era plane. Catalin also has a passion for writing technical content related to engineering topics, as he takes every new topic as an opportunity to learn.