Product identification 4.0

Software and scanning
Software and scanning

The aerospace industry has been a pioneer in product marking. Now the technology is moving upstream to play an essential role in ‘smart factory’ implementation. Alastair Morris, sales director at Pryor, reveals all.

Most aerospace suppliers have invested in product traceability at the behest of their customers. In a safety-critical and highly-regulated sector, OEMs and airlines need to know exactly which parts are installed on their aircraft. Increasingly, however, participants in the supply chain are recognising that part identification technologies can deliver benefits that go well beyond basic compliance.

Tracking individual parts throughout the entire manufacturing processes and beyond into distribution and after-market activities will be critical to the functioning of the highly-automated 'smart' factories, cyber-physical production systems and interconnected supply chains characteristic of the Industry 4.0-inspired manufacturing revolution. All this will require end-to-end ICT based integration of production systems, from factory floor automation to the extended supply chain. And in this seamless, paperless production environment where human interventions are infrequent or non-existent, part identification and tracking will fundamentally underpin the operation.

While finished goods in aerospace are typically given machine-readable marks prior to despatch to the end-customer, many suppliers still rely on less sophisticated manual processes to track materials and sub-assemblies inside their own manufacturing operations. These processes involve time-consuming administrative tasks, which are often labour-intensive and certainly do not provide the fast and efficient traceability solutions demanded by Industry 4.0.

Smart factories

In tomorrow’s smart factories, production assets - not humans - will determine capacities and product flow based on all manner of inputs from the supply chain and customer communities. For this to work, machines must have an effective means of communicating with raw materials and parts in order to identify them and their origins from within the factory, as well as their onward destination following machining, an assembly operation or manufacturing process.

Industry 4.0 will require every component to be individually identifiable and located wherever it happens to reside within the supply chain. Information regarding origin, storage, state and location of materials, components and products must be instantly retrievable. As well as providing the history or current status of a part, such comprehensive tracking of parts and components could be an aid to operational analysis, suggesting alternative and more efficient production paths.

Dot peening continues to be the preferred method for marking data matrix codes for machine readable identification

So, as Industry 4.0 practices are embedded and the need to implement the accompanying integrated parts and materials tracking capability becomes more urgent, how are industries with little experience of, or investment in, traceability systems going to cope? Fortunately, as Industry 4.0 has rolled out among key enterprises across the world’s manufacturing economies, the necessary developments in coding and marking technologies have kept pace.

Tracking individual parts throughout the entire manufacturing process and beyond is now easier thanks to these developments, which enable data to be captured, networked and shared across the supply chain, regardless of geographical location. For example, software packages are now available that can fully-automate the marking process, network production sites and collate production data on a global scale.

This software, used in conjunction with unique identification marks on each component and a reliable means of scanning these marks, aids quality control procedures and ensures that components are presented in the correct sequence for assembly or onward despatch to other locations for further processing. Such real-time monitoring of production data also provides advanced warning of developing bottlenecks, enabling smart factories to re-route production to other lines, if necessary.

Scanning produces huge quantities of data that may need to be manipulated later for commercial considerations or quality control issues. Databases can be deployed to store this component level information for the most complex assemblies, while ongoing records can be updated as components are replaced in service. And where a root cause analysis is undertaken following a product recall, for example, these databases provide a full manufacturing history that can instantly be recalled to identify the relevant components, their origins and their journey through the manufacturing process.

Although in-process traceability has historically been viewed as a high price option, modern integrated systems are now easier and more cost-effective to implement. Moreover, the expense and time-savings that accrue from reliable product tracking far outweigh the initial outlay.

At the heart of traceability

Coding and data capture are at the heart of effective traceability. The process begins with a specially designed marking device giving raw materials and parts a unique identification tag, which can be a barcode – typically in 2D or Data Matrix format – or permanent readable texts and images. These unique identifiers are captured by vision equipment and the coded information transferred via a network to a database from where it can be accessed in real-time or in batches for trending and analysis.

Where marking devices are concerned, dot marking (peening), which 'prints' text, lines or images on components as a series of closely spaced dot indentations, continues to be the preferred method for marking unique data matrix codes for machine readable identification. It is also suitable for critical parts, where permanent legibility is important and surface flaws are unacceptable.

As effective component tracking, data capture and networking becomes more important and accessible in the Industry 4.0 era, it is critical that businesses throughout the supply chain adopt this smart way of working in order to maximise its effectiveness. Implementing systems and technology that enable traceability doesn’t just help companies meet the requirements of their customers, it can also be the key to tighter quality control, higher productivity, greater process flexibility and, ultimately, improved profitability.


Pryor Marking

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