Accenture Academy Blog
In my March 3rd post, I focused on the what and why of supply chain traceability. Today, I will address the most challenging aspect of traceability—how. Conceptually, it isn’t difficult to envision the ability to monitor goods as they flow from one supply chain partner to another. However, the devil is in the details when you consider the vast number of goods traveling between supply chain partners. It’s a much bigger undertaking than one might think.

For example, consider a simple supply chain for fresh carrots with a single farm serving three packing plants. Each packing plant sends the carrots to 50 wholesalers that each serves 100 retail stores. If only one shipment per week flows from the farm to each retailer, there are 5,153 shipments that must be traced across the supply chain each week. And, that’s just a small regional supply chain. Add the issues of different SKUs, lot numbers, and other pertinent data, and you have a major task on your hands.

It would take a small army of clericals to manually monitor the farm-to-shelf flow of the carrots. Issues of accuracy, cost, and timeliness would plague the effort. So what’s the answer? Technology. We need to leverage available tools to maintain visibility of in-transit goods. Technology is an enabler, but it cannot leverage incomplete or poor quality data, improve badly designed processes, or overcome unrealistic expectations. Hence, before an organization begins to investigate software or hardware solutions, it’s important to lay a foundation for success.

First, you need traceability data standards. This involves collecting, keeping, and sharing mandatory traceability data elements (e.g., sender identifier, lot number, product description, etc.) and preferably optional data elements (e.g., pack date, logistics provider identifier, country of origin, etc.). Shifting from proprietary identification numbers to standard format information such as Global Trade Identification Numbers (GTIN) provides information that is meaningful and readily usable by all trading partners.

Next, process change is required to benefit from traceability technology. The Fresh Produce Traceability Guide to Implementation discusses these process change requirements. The document notes the following:  “Irrespective of technology, adopting standard data requirements and traceability processes across the produce supply chain will greatly enhance the industry’s ability to track and trace product.”

Finally, keep your original traceability goals in mind when evaluating solutions. That is, remember why you started—avoid focusing on technology “bells and whistles” and making other costly errors.

With these principles in mind, it’s time to make technology decisions. Note that no single solution achieves end-to-end traceability. “People are looking for a silver bullet, but it’s not an easy problem to solve,” states Andrew Arnold of, a provider of agricultural services and software.

As the GS1 diagram indicates, multiple options exist to help achieve the traceability principles. Technology can help us identify products, capture data, and move it quickly from partner to partner. This is the essence of effective traceability.

Standardization helps with the issue of product identification. Data capture can be accomplished via bar codes or electronic product codes (EPC) like radio frequency identification (RFID). Both capture data far more quickly and accurately than manual processes.

Although they require human intervention to scan information, UPC bar codes have been used successfully for decades. They are cost effective, the technology is proven, and the retail infrastructure of bar-code readers and databases already exists. The ongoing challenges are data synchronization (so that the bar code has the same meaning to everyone) and the logistics of labeling some products. Bar-code innovations such as 2D bar codes and the GS1 DataBar provide more information in smaller amounts of space.

RFID tags reduce the need for human intervention. Unique product identification information, in the form of a universal EPC, is stored on RFID tags. The tags are read when they pass within proximity of an RFID reader. These tags contain unique identifiers not found on traditional bar codes, and direct line of sight is not required to read RFID tags. RFID tags provide the signposts along the supply chain that allow you to trace products without workers doing anything differently than they’ve done before.

RFID is not without challenges and skeptics, especially in situations where environmental issues and product characteristics may impact its success. From a financial standpoint, it can be difficult to justify RFID equipment capital expenditures. Also, getting all stakeholders in a produce supply chain to understand the benefits of RFID and commit to participation can be difficult. Finally, current tag costs make traceability beyond the pallet level largely impractical for low–value-goods such as produce.

Whether data are captured via bar code or RFID tag, the information needs to be transferred to a database. These tools provide efficient storage of traceability data elements and support the timely retrieval of records for transaction analysis and tracking. Storage can be handled in-house using traditional software applications or off-site using Internet or EDI-based subscription services.

Fast information retrieval and dissemination are critical in the event of product problems. Compared to the days and weeks involved in manually tracing a product back to its source, technology-driven traceability accomplishes information query, retrieval, and publication in minutes and hours. The clarity and richness of this information is also superior to paper-based “needle-in-the-haystack” data searches. The outcome will be enhanced product safety and quality, brand protection, and supply chain control.

For more information on traceability technology, follow these links:

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