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Digital transformation has become such a buzzword recently, especially for markets with high-value manufactured products and highly regulated industries. But, what is it about digital transformation that draws attention? Is it only the idea of digitizing all paper-based processes, or are people hungry for something deeper?

Traceability is an important part of the production process. If you need to trace back a customer complaint to identify a root cause analysis, you need to spend time tracking back to every point in the process to find where the error is escaping. Perhaps you need traceability to find out what caused a product to be recalled from the market. Initiating the steps to track back manually, using paper processes can be time-consuming and costly.

Transforming traceability procedures to a digital process could greatly impact efficiencies and provide more data for further improvements over a paper-based process. Statistically, companies that utilize digital tools often perform better than they had before digitization. This is because they are better equipped to handle traceability complaints using tools that will provide them with relevant data to prevent errors from recurring in the future.

In a recent survey that Pleora Technologies conducted with a wide group of manufacturers, it’s surprising to learn that there are still a significant number of key processes that remain manual. Yet, consumers have come to expect higher quality standards in products and brand accountability, fully understanding with more advanced machinery and technology available to manufacturers, that their expectations can (and should) be met.

Consumers are already engaging and relying on traceability services in their day-to-day lives, expecting to receive a photograph with accompanying information like date, time, and address, included in a package notification email, proving a successful delivery. This growing expectation will only compound pressure for quality control and improved traceability for manufacturing.

Good news, it does not need to be complicated.

The cost of high-quality cameras for machine vision projects has substantially become more mainstream. Thanks to the massive smartphone industry, quality compact cameras are everywhere, and always improving, making it easier than ever for computer vision and AI to be integrated into factory automation applications.

In four steps you can build your own camera system for digital traceability.

First, you need a camera.

There are so many choices today when it comes to cameras, from smartphones, webcams, and DSLRs to industrial-grade machine vision cameras. When picking a camera, ideally you’ll want something that will auto-focus well. It needs to be able to clearly detect and focus on the target so no additional time is needed adjusting the focus. From an image quality perspective, you also want to ensure that you can capture the level of detail you are looking for in various lighting conditions.

Using machine vision-compliant cameras like GigE Vision and USB3 Vision, or UVC-enabled webcam cameras, provide an easy way to interface software using standard protocols. This will make software integration much easier, saving you from manually moving files or using an SD memory card, which can be very time-consuming.

You may think smartphones are a convenient choice, but some facilities do not allow devices on the production floor, and you would still have the challenges of transferring the photos to your database/repository, slowing down processes, and making them less likely to be used consistently.

Then, you need to find a PC

You’ll want a PC that can connect to the camera to retrieve the images. You may want to assign a dedicated PC as a scanning station in one of the final Quality Control areas of your factory. Having a dedicated station allows anyone to capture images at any time or access stored images by batch number or barcode. Another benefit to the stand-alone station is that the diligence can be shared across many operators, instead of relying on a single person and their workstation PC for capturing snapshots.

Step 3, plug in a barcode scanner

Barcodes are used everywhere in the factory, so for the sake of this process, we will assume you already have one. If you don't, remember, a barcode scanner plugged into your PC will come in handy to avoid having to type (or mistype) the product information. Whether you are serializing every product that you are manufacturing or serializing by work order, saving the code with the filename for the image can save so much time in traceability. In minutes, images can be fully searchable based on the product barcode, saving time and effort in future.

Finish off by selecting a repository, either on-premise or cloud-based

You’ll want to be able to compress photos and adjust the compression level to a suitable level, such that you reduce the file size of your photos without losing too much detail. This takes a bit of tweaking and testing when you are building a system yourself. Without compression, you’ll realize that your storage space will be used up pretty quickly. As we discussed above, here is where you will organize your photos into folders based on the serial number of the product. Many cloud storage services allow you to add tags or labels to files for efficient search capabilities.

You might also decide that a cloud isn’t the right approach for your data storage. Although they provide the benefits of not having to worry about setting up servers and applications, or supporting the entire infrastructure, depending on your product policies (ie. highly sensitive data), you may decide that on-premise deployments are best for you.

If you prefer the benefits of a cloud repository, yet do not want to do any IT infrastructure up, cloud-based solutions such as Microsoft SharePoint, OneDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox will be a good fit.

If security and data privacy are the topmost concern, then you can opt for an on-premise storage solution which may be as simple as a network drive or an on-prem version of the storage solutions listed above. The benefits of on-premise deployments involve better control and security over your data, at the expense of more internal IT costs to set up and maintain the infrastructure.

Looking for something out of the box?

All the pieces to build a traceability camera system are readily available and on the market, but the time required for integration and even application development with custom software may be too much of a commitment with other ongoing projects and day-to-day duties. Out-of-the-box solutions, like Pleora’s Visual Inspection System, are an alternative to complex custom-built camera systems, with pre-loaded customizable no-code apps, including one developed specifically for digital traceability.