Automated lot tracking systems provide value-added benefits, including improved efficiencies and reduced costs.
At one point in time, the ability to trace ingredients from batch to batch may have been arbitrary, but implementation of the FDA's Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act in 2002, following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, now mandates complete traceability. Records must be kept for all ingredients received and all finished products produced and shipped. Record keeping by hand is not only a cumbersome task, but one prone to error. Today, many bakeries rely on electronic systems for lot tracking. Many of these systems offer value-added services beyond identifying where ingredients come from, where they're used and when and where they're shipped. These systems can trace allergens throughout the system, identify operators responsible for batches, automate batching and mixing, reduce errors in scaling, identify process parameters used and provide inventory control, notes Charles Hayward, director of new business development, Focus-Works Inc.
“A lot tracking system is a system that records information associated with a batch of product,” says Victor Hoerst, president and owner, Logistics Connections LLC, Chicago, and U.S. representative for ToolBox Software Gmbh, Eschweiler, Germany. “It could be a lot of information or a little bit of information. It could be as simple as knowing what raw materials went into a particular batch of product. That's one lot tracking system. Another one is knowing what raw materials went into a batch, who touched that product, when this particular baking product went through the system, what temperature it was proofed at and for how long. So, there are different amounts of information you can choose to track throughout the system.” More data can be collected in a plant with a higher level of automation because chances are, the equipment has the infrastructure and electronic measurement capabilities to support data collection. Ideally, a lot tracking system should be capable of working with the most technologically advanced equipment, as well as that which is antiquated. Hoerst says, “For instance, with an older piece of equipment, an operator may have to manually enter data directly into the lot tracking system, and just 20 ft. away that same lot tracking system will automatically be connected to and collecting data from another, more modern piece of equipment.”
An important criterion for an automated lot tracking system is vendor independence. As Hoerst explains: “Equipment vendor A for a proofer or oven may not send signals in the same way as vendor B. Having a lot tracking system that has the built-in flexibility to accommodate both of those would be important.”
Automated lot tracking systems have many benefits, both direct and indirect. Aside from the obvious benefit of tracing product to its ingredients' origins, they also trace finished product forward through the distribution chain. Labor savings can be achieved by eliminating manual entry of data, Hoerst notes. “Once you have the infrastructure set up to do the electronic lot tracking, you can, with little additional effort, collect a lot more information about what you're manufacturing. For instance, once you have the information superhighway set up to collect weights and raw materials, it takes little effort to collect information about how long the product is in the oven. You know the oven uses this much natural gas or this much electricity per hour, so with a little extra effort, you can tell precisely how much that product costs,” Hoerst adds.
The lot tracking system also serves as a quality control tool. Not only are lot numbers associated with ingredients electronically stored, but ingredient use associated with individual batches are tracked as well, as are process parameters; such as mix times, proof times and temperatures, and oven temperatures.
Lot tracking modules often are part of a larger production management system. One such system, Production Recipe Ingredient Management Software (PRIMS), by Focus Works, also includes a scheduling module, a finished good inventory-shipping module, a receiving-inventory module with reconciliation, an inventory label printing module, an efficiency batches per hour analysis, a work plan template module, a production schedule template module and a material requirements module. PRIMS inventory module, for instance, provides real-time inventory statistics, tracks usage errors, accurately records lot usage of automatically metered bulk ingredients and ensures FDA Bioterrorism Act compliance. Each ingredient is clearly defined by name, code number, expiration date, unit of measure, supplier, storage location and whether or not it is an allergen. The bulk lot tracking report indicates the lot numbers currently in bulk storage and those used in batches on a particular day. Reduced errors in scaling also can be achieved, which translates to cost savings. For example, when an operator receives information on the specified weight of an ingredient to be added, the system sends a signal when that ingredient is within that weight tolerance. The PRIMS system will not let the operator proceed unless the ingredient's weight is within the allotted tolerance. Ralf Nahrstedt, managing director, Backhaus Nahrstedt, Meiningen, Germany, cites one of the advantages of cabTool®, the production management system his bakery uses that not only fulfills European Commission regulation requirements for traceability, but provides a solution for managing the supply chain: “Of course we wish to grow further,” Nahrstedt says. “By simulations, different production conditions can be created on short notice. Efficiency charts show the entrepreneur, for example, if the available oven capacity will be sufficient if three more outlets are added. Investments can be planned more safely.”
Now that bakers must comply with traceability requirements, many have taken advantage of the many benefits electronic tracking systems provide. Although cost always factors into any type of capital investment, including a lot tracking system, why not reap the value-added benefits of one that will surely provide a return on investment?
The Global Trade Item Number, or GTIN® (pronounced Gee-TIN), looks to be the next generation in coding capable of supplying information from the product's identity to its manufacturer to the manner in which it is packaged. This information can be used for pricing, order/entry and invoicing at any point throughout the global supply chain. GTIN, owned by GS1, a not-for-profit standards organization with global offices in Lawrenceville, N.J. and Brussels, Belgium, is a means of rationalizing numbering systems on a global basis, notes David Habib, product manager, software and solutions, Markem-Imaje, Keene, N.H.
While there are a number of companies already migrating to GTIN in Europe, the United States is reportedly lagging behind in adopting the new system. GTIN does not represent symbology associated with bar codes, but is the data system associated with a globally unique 8, 12, 13, or 14-digit number that identifies products and services. In other words, the GTIN number, which represents a set of data about a product, is used in conjunction with the bar code symbol. GTINs are stored in databases as 14-digits by right justifying and zero-filling left, according to the Uniform Code Council (UCC).
Habib estimates it will take three to five years for the United States to adopt the GTIN coding system, although it may take five to seven years for the FDA to mandate it, particularly for baking companies, as the FDA is now working with pharmaceutical companies for adoption by 2010.
Changing product coding from UPC to GTIN may require extensive work for those who lack the infrastructure. For instance, a rotary coder will need to be converted to a digital printer hooked up to a network. The conversion for those using an ERP system or other computerized method, such as Excel spreadsheets, may not be as extensive as those using a customized product coding system.
Bakeries must ensure their products are properly registered with GS1, the global trade body that owns GTIN numbers. Those who currently have the infrastructure to support UPC numbers will have to cross-reference the old UPC numbers to the new GTIN number, and make sure these numbers are changed both internally within their own production system and externally, with all distributors, warehouses and customers, Habib notes.
Ultimately, bakers should be aware of the requirements involved with the new coding system. “GTIN is coming and it is the foundation for traceability and recall solutions,” Habib says. It may be three to five years from now, but it can't hurt to be prepared.