Blog : The future of product traceability
The past decade has seen the rapid development of multiple technologies that make track and trace accessible for all manufacturers.
A multi-layered approach offers the best way forward, writes Phil Biggs.
BACK in early 2010, at the dawn of the iPhone, the Australian food, dairy and beverage industry was called on to implement smartphone-based product traceability solutions.
In the wake of the 2008 Chinese milk melamine scandal, and as a means to differentiate against imported generic branded products, it proffered a way for local manufactures to improve profits by ensuring quality, trust and provenance for customers.
At the time, the technology options were limited to 2D barcodes. It's been pleasing to see the rapid development of multiple technologies that now make track and trace very accessible for all manufacturers.
At Foodmach, we've recently been involved with the implementation of three types of product traceability technologies, which has given us the opportunity to review the merits of each.
A unique QR (uQR) code needs to be digitally printed, either off-line during the label printing process, or online, using laser, thermal or inkjet printing.
Laser coders have been successfully deployed in many infant milk formula uQR applications, though not elsewhere. Thermal printing of 2D barcodes in real time, embedding variable event information, is probably the most exciting development in recent times to advance traceability, though this technology format isn't generally accessible to consumers.
Unique QR codes are able to be replicated by counterfeiters, though not easily when good number generation algorithms are used.
There is some potential though for uQRs of supply chain diverted products to be read and replicated, creating counterfeits with ‘authentic' uQRs.
RFID and NFC technology has been held back by tag costs, though this barrier has been eliminated in many categories, with tags now as low as 3c to 4c each.
(RFID is radio frequency identification and can be used at a distance, whereas NFC refers to near-field communication and work at a maximum range of around 10cm).
All major smartphone makers also allow NFC tag reading nowadays, which wasn't possible a few years ago. NFC tags can be encoded with a unique and locked identifier, making them very suitable for track and trace.
Application of the tags is generally best suited to being a layer in a self-adhesive label.
RFID and NFC technologies also allow relatively simple aggregation of codes on each packaging level, making for simpler supply chain traceability tracking from pallet level to product level.
An emerging new technology embraces the inherent variability in the printing of normal retail barcodes to create a unique identifier on consumer goods.
Incredibly, a normal smartphone camera can identify these print variations in every printed barcode.
The captured image taken of each barcode, at speeds up to 600 labels per minute on a production line, is converted into a unique alphanumeric string and stored in the cloud.
No additive technology is used, just the existing retail barcode. A smartphone, with the correct app, is then able to scan the barcode and confirm traceability and authenticity of the product.
The technology is not able to be replicated by counterfeiters and is simple to deploy on any production line or label conversion process.
Finally, what we are seeing is a multi-layered approach to traceability and anti-counterfeiting.
No single technology is the silver bullet, and so the use of more than one technology is becoming the gold standard.
Phil Biggs has 20 years' experience in the product traceability industry. He's a director at factory automation specialist, Foodmach, which is an Australian partner of global product traceability leader, Markem-Imaje.
This article first appeared in www.packagingnews.com.au March-April 2021
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