The Key Ingredient In Food Traceability: Industrial Printers

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Accelerating technology deployments to gain visibility of assets, people and products to understand specific industry demands is key, and such measures include traceability solutions, says Tan Aik Jin, manufacturing and warehousing solutions lead, Zebra Technologies, Asia Pacific.


The food and beverage (F&B) industry is no stranger to calls for digital transformation. We’ve seen discussions arise around the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver more adaptable, flexible, and potentially autonomous systems. The enabling of ‘hands-free’ workflows through wearable adoption at point of operation as well as the use of voice-enabled systems that enable people and machines to use multiple modalities to communicate across the digital world are some notable examples. All in all, the industry is evolving at an extremely rapid pace.

In this world of digital transformation, is there still a place for printers? Absolutely. Despite the innovations that are changing the F&B industry, the fact remains that food products are perishable, often shipped in great quantities to many different points of sale, thus necessitating the need for traceability. While demand for printers in the home or office might be falling, industrial printers are here to stay. As long as the need for physical goods remains, manufacturers, logistics providers, and retailers will continue to rely on printers to play the critical role of being the bridge between the physical and digital aspects of businesses. Printers give a “digital voice” and identity to assets in a cost-effective, efficient manner.

From warehouses to production floors to packing lines, printers remain valuable assets in the enterprise space. By producing durable industrial labels, printers help introduce a sense of order in massive—and often chaotic—industrial business environments. Tapping into the digital space, these labels account for all products as they move through the different stages in a manufacturing facility, even until they arrive at their eventual destination.


Curing Blueberry Supply Chain Blues

As businesses look beyond the shores of their native countries to seize opportunities both regional and global, they are seeking new ways to track and trace their products more accurately and easily. Traceability is not an unfamiliar concept in the F&B industry, as many regulatory bodies globally require companies to put a robust traceability system in place in the event of a recall—businesses need to know which batch of products needs to be brought back and where they are. In recent years, this practice has also spread to other industries, such as those dealing with chemical products, pharmaceutical drugs, and human specimens for clinical use.

Product tracking has historically been a relatively taxing and cumbersome task. Today, thanks to the innovations in technology, companies can make tracking products more manageable. The solution includes a printer that prints barcode or encoded RFID labels as well as a mobile computer that captures barcode or RFID data and relays it to the backend systems. Another solution is a wireless infrastructure that provisions connectivity between the devices and the backend systems.

The Carolina Blueberry Association was looking for a robust traceability system for its 24 growers. In the past, farms had been taping paper labels on palettes or handwriting lot numbers in spiral notebooks—a time-consuming, formidable task. As harvest was approaching, the Association sought a modern traceability solution, and found it in Zebra’s industrial printers. Easy to configure and use, and delivering high-quality printing and throughput, the printers allowed the farmers to flexibly change labeling based on the size of the product they were packaging. Some ran a single line while others ran several. As a result, the farms generated a digital record of their operations, helping them track production and shipments. With accurate labelling and records, they were also able to track every batch of their produce, reduce the impact of a recall, and quickly remove affected products from the supply chain.


Connecting The Dots: Finding The Best Printer For Your Business

In different industrial environments, the requirements for printers can vary. Here are some guidelines when it comes to choosing a suitable printer.

The first question that should be asked is on the printing environment. Some industrial environments can be rough. Businesses often need to print in the manufacturing plant or in the warehouse. This inevitably leads to some bumps and knocks for the machines. Industrial-class printers are more rugged and built to withstand dirt and humidity, making them hardy partners on the plant floor.

The second question is on the type of applications, the printing volume and its frequency. Some enterprises handle a large volume of printing, resulting in virtually non-stop printing every day. Or, some companies need to print high-resolution small labels with variable data—for example, food packaging labels that contain manufacturing batch numbers and expiry dates. Some industrial printers can produce high-resolution labels with precise registration at a high frequency, and can work for long stretches of time. In some cases, industrial printers are also used to imprint information on specialised labels, so they can be used for long periods of time. The selection of labels that suit various business needs is also paramount. It’s important for businesses to understand the importance of using quality materials that can contribute to a smooth printing experience.

Last but not least, the printers must be easy to manage en masse and remotely, especially if there is a whole fleet deployed across various sites. This can help keep IT costs down over time, since an industrial printer can function at full performance for five to seven years. Cloud-based solutions such as Zebra’s Operational Visibility Service provide detailed insights into the status, health, and use of every printing device on a given network, thus allowing the IT department to have a bird’s eye view over the printers, and proactively manage and configure them.


Software That Enables Hardware

Just as printers themselves connect the physical and digital aspects of businesses, the physical printers themselves require dedicated software to show their true value. It is not enough to only have the printers; they also need to be constantly managed and maintained.

To ensure the printers can deliver maximum results, Zebra has created a dedicated software environment that powers its printers. Print DNA combines an innovative operating system (Link-OS), a powerful multiplatform Software Development Kit (SDK) and software applications that make all printers—be it industrial, mobile, or desktop-mounted—easier to integrate with the rest of the technology infrastructure. Meanwhile, security concerns have pushed businesses to scrutinise their infrastructure for vulnerabilities. Such considerations have led enterprises to look at updating their legacy infrastructure for advanced capabilities, like deploying Link-OS printers, even if they have reliable printers that still function.

Regardless of whether the printers produce barcode labels, receipts, or passive RFID tags, operating systems such as Link-OS provide real-time visibility into these devices, connect them to the cloud, and effectively manage data security. This way, administrators can easily and securely gather information such as device location and workload capacity, and even perform proactive maintenance to preclude downtime, making their printer solutions more cost-effective and lengthening the device lifecycle.


Traceability That Feeds Into The 3As

Rather, they should think holistically and examine how traceability can help drive their businesses. Against the backdrop of the on-demand economy, supply chains are struggling to adapt to changing fulfilment models, which enable customers to receive more of what they want, when they want it and how they want it delivered.

As a result, supply chains are being challenged to re-think how they run their daily operations, such as how to better manage their inventory levels and anticipate operational needs in near real-time processing capabilities. They may also be at the crossroads, thinking about what mobile Operating Systems (OS) they might want to adopt when refreshing their fleet of mobile computers, or if they want to adopt more advanced barcoding technologies like 2-dimensional (2D) barcodes that can store more data per pixel.

All in all, accelerating technology deployments to gain visibility of assets, people and products to understand specific demands is key, and such measures include traceability solutions. Because of this, there is a strong need to modernise the operational and operating procedures of current supply chains by leveraging the “3As”: Analytics, Automation and Artificial Intelligence.

The “3As” will help businesses navigate their operations in real-time to meet the emerging needs of customers. They will be critical in helping supply chains provide more granular and detailed tracking and tracing of people, process and assets, as well as more compelling and personalised customer experiences. As new technologies such as AI and automation continue to grow, 2018 will be all about how businesses can utilise that data intelligently to generate real-time insights that can pre-empt and drive business value.


Beyond Food Traceability

Businesses in the F&B industry are looking to expand the definition and capabilities of traceability. Beyond food traceability, they are also seeking to capture more business-critical data, and to do it more automatically. To achieve this, they need solutions that will take data capture to the next level and integrate it with analytics that make that data easier to understand and act on.

The ability to have visibility into processes, assets and people will provide the winning edge in an increasingly competitive landscape. It is an exciting time for the industry, and Zebra looks forward to seeing how brands will evolve their business models and processes in the coming years.


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