Traceability – Keeping Product Recalls Manageable

Having to recall a product is a manufacturer’s nightmare – difficult, expensive, and damaging to the company’s reputation in the marketplace. No company wants to recall a product and no company intentionally delivers a flawed product. Nevertheless, recalls are fact of manufacturing life, as the Galaxy Note 7 product team at Samsung is all too aware.

Prevention, of course, is the most desirable defense against a recall and that depends on good design, solid engineering, and rigorous testing. All of these efforts are supported by today’s information systems – computer-aided design and manufacturing, Product Lifecycle Management, quality systems, and the comprehensive databases that support in-depth analysis.

Despite our good intentions and best efforts, however, products fail in the field, components and materials are found to be harmful after the products that include these materials have been in the market for years or decades, unanticipated uses of products turn out to be dangerous and other unexpected circumstances cause a need to identify and retrieve products – a recall. Recalls in the automotive industry are highly visible, as are recalls of toys and food items, but there are many more product areas that experience recalls that may not get the headlines but are just as devastating to the manufacturers and suppliers. Companies can and sometimes do recall products quickly and voluntarily as soon as the problem is detected and before the impact is serious enough to cause notable harm to customers or the product’s standing in the market, and are sometimes in response to pressure from government agencies or consumer groups. In some cases, recalls are mandated by regulatory agencies.

It would seem that no industry and no manufacturer is completely immune to the possibility of a product recall. That’s why more and more manufacturers, even those in industries with little or no history of recalls, are embracing proactive measures to position themselves to manage a recall effort for quick resolution and minimum impact – namely, traceability.

Traceability is detailed tracking of all components, materials, intermediates, and products and their end-to-end history with the ability to reconstruct the provenance of any product and the disposition of every component so you can identify where everything came from, where everything went, and what happened on the way.

Imagine that a product is found to have a flaw that can be traced back to a certain batch of a certain material that it contains (this discovery process relies on good engineering and quality records as well as the traceability we are discussing). Traceability starts from the product and works back through the distribution chain to the plant, through the manufacturing processes to the components and materials, and on to the source of those materials. Then the process is reversed to find out exactly which products and batches or lots contain the subject flawed material and where they ended up by following the chain through manufacturing and distribution. Successful track-and-trace identifies the exact end product (batches, lots, shipments, current locations) and perhaps even customers that bought them.

In the absence of this level of detailed track-and-trace, larger quantities of product have to be recalled to ensure that all possibly defective products are retrieved. Imagine a food product problem that is traced back to a malfunction of a particular machine on a certain shift (perhaps a specific operator). Full rack-and-trace might be able to identify the 2,000 cases of product affected. If track-and-trace is not specific enough to isolate the product made during that specific shift, the company may have to recall all the products made on that machine (or by that operator) for a whole week or even a month or more. The impact and cost of the recall can multiplies rapidly with any uncertainty or missing detail in the track-and-trace records.

Traceability today is supported by the rapid expansion of autoID technology – bar-code scans, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), networked controllers (SCADA) and Manufacturing execution Systems (MES), and the increasing number of connected sensors (Industrial Internet of Things or IIoT) combined with more comprehensive data management and analysis software. Manufacturers and distributors are blessed with the availability of a rapidly increasing deluge of data that can be harnessed for a level of visibility and traceability unheard of just a few years ago. While traceability cannot prevent recalls, it can be an important tool for executing the recall definitively and rapidly, minimizing the cost and impact.

Dave Turbide

Independent Consultant, Educator and Freelance Writer
Dave is an independent consultant, educator and freelance writer serving both the developers and users of software and systems for manufacturers. He has performed analysis, written hundreds of articles, blogs, white papers and case studies and advised software developers on direction and focus. He is an APICS Chapter President as well as a recurring presenter and instructor and is a certified trainer in The Fresh Connection supply chain simulation. Dave can be seen in print and on-line publications and his website is