Supply Chains and Transportation

5 ways traceability technologies can lead to a safer, more sustainable world

Intelligent supply chains can track, trace and authenticate products. Image: Axel Ahoi/Unsplash

Louis Roy
President and founder, Optel Group
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This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

We all know the world is rife with environmental, economic and social problems. What few of us realize is that many of these issues arise because today’s supply chains lack visibility and transparency at every stage of the journey, from raw materials to consumer products.

Counterfeit medications, faulty medical devices, contaminated foods and unsustainable sourcing practices threaten public safety, waste precious natural resources, erode consumer confidence, and destroy brand reputation.

An even lesser-known fact is that today’s technologies can help mitigate these issues and lead to a safer, more sustainable world for all. Specifically, digital traceability technologies give us the means to create more intelligent supply chains capable of tracking, tracing and authenticating everything from coffee beans to catheters.

What is traceability?

Traceability is the capacity to verify the history, location or status of an item by means of documented identification. Merging serialization – assigning unique identifiers to products ranging from consumer goods to complex medical devices – with smart manufacturing and traceability is the first step towards complete, end-to-end visibility over supply chains. As products are tracked, the resulting data gives products their pedigree, and provides a wealth of information that companies and consumers can use to inform better decisions.

Disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain and collaborative platforms, can take traceability systems to another level, offering detailed reports on any product’s status and movements and creating direct links between the various stakeholders along the supply chain, from producers to end users.

Traceability analyzes what goes well, or wrong, and assesses the efficiency of the entire supply chain process with data management and analytics, right up to the point of sale, the consumer, and beyond.

Using data-centric traceability systems, stakeholders can share collected data and make it more powerful, because information can be cross-referenced with connected systems anywhere in the supply chain.

Traceability would have allowed a thorough tracking and instant identification of all infected romaine lettuces during the 2017 E. coli outbreaks, as reported by the Public Health Agency of Canada. In this case, all lettuces had to be recalled instead of solely the tainted ones, which demonstrates the inadequacy of the tracking and tracing process in place at the time. A more complete, precise and accountable traceability system would have offered substantial visibility on the products and helped make the entire supply chain more secure.

Traceability analyzes the entire supply chain. Image: Optel Group

A safer, more sustainable world

Traceability can be adapted to any industry. In fact, some sectors, such as the pharmaceutical industry, are subject to legislation that requires it, such as the European Union’s Falsified Medicines Directive (EU FMD) and the United States Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA). Here are five ways traceability systems are applied to create a safer, more sustainable world:

1. Pharmaceutical industry

The World Health Organization estimates that around 11% of medicines in developing countries are counterfeit, and Newsweek reported in 2015 that “anywhere from 100,000 to a million people die every year due to falsified drugs.”

Recalls are unavoidable when a product is counterfeited, contaminated, tampered with, damaged or deemed unsafe. Traceability optimizes the process. With serialized items and data reporting, we can identify the location of products and retrieve only faulty products, instead of the entire batch. This helps reduce monetary losses and makes recall management faster and more efficient.

Traceability provides potentially life-saving information on pharmaceutical products, such as instantaneous notification of any non-conformities, status confirmation and expiry date, counterfeiting alerts and more. It also ensures efficient waste management and optimizes workflow so that staff have more time to focus on serving patients.

When combined with other disruptive technologies, traceability can help pharma innovate by offering new ways to connect and communicate with the end user. For example, when a customer scans a product, pharma companies can use a chatbot to give instructions about the usage of the medicine or even verify whether the patient has taken the correct dosage. This helps establish a closer relationship with the end user and ensures they are using medication safely.

2. Medical device industry

The “Implant Files” investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) laid bare the human suffering caused by faulty medical devices.

Traceability makes it possible to know whether a medical device is defective or counterfeit and provides visibility over every single event throughout the supply chain. Traceability also helps healthcare institutions manage their inventory and allows surgeons and doctors to know the full pedigree of the medical devices they are implanting in their patients.

Should a device be recalled, a traceability solution will alert the user at any stage of the supply chain, eliminating a potentially dangerous or even lethal situation before it occurs. No medical practitioner wants to risk giving a patient a defective or expired product, which is why traceability is so critical.

3. Food and beverage industry

Transparency in public health, prevention, preparedness and corrective actions can become reality by using traceability in the event of a food safety issue. Take the infamous melamine scandal in China, for example, in which milk products and baby formula were mixed with nitrogen-containing plastic resin to fake a high amount of protein. This notorious case could have been solved by using traceability, avoiding the ordeal of 294,000 affected children, the 50,000+ treated in hospitals and the six children who died.

Since the food and beverage industry has a long and complex supply chain, a lack of visibility leads to more risks of food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella. Manufacturers, retailers and consumers want and need to know everything about their food, such as the origin of ingredients and their attributes, where and how the products were processed, and so on. Traceability can provide the answers and mitigate potential risks and impact.

4. Natural resources industry

The natural resources industry is under increasing pressure to make the origin of products more transparent, to ensure the security of raw materials and to be more aware of the environmental impact of the agriculture, livestock, fishing, forestry and mining sectors. Resource scarcity has also created a need for better administration, to optimize time and resources, avoid losses and reduce risks.

Both consumers and manufacturers benefit when they know where the raw materials that go into their products come from. Tracking this information – along with how the products were produced and who produced them – is even more critical if counterfeiting occurs and enables ways to solve these issues.

5. Traceability for a more sustainable world

In addition to optimizing available resources, facilitating the reuse of materials, authenticating products, and ensuring fair and sustainable trade, traceability allows companies to take control of their products’ carbon footprints. End-to-end traceability is the key to product life-cycle analysis, which leads to understanding and controlling the environmental and social impact of any type of product.

For every industry, every product, at every level, traceability is the driver of a smarter, safer, more efficient, entirely connected global supply chain – an intelligent supply chain. It is the key to a more sustainable world.

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