Packaging line modifications for serialization

Line serialization, while a significant investment in time and money, is less strategically taxing than sharing the data internally from each line and plant up through the enterprise, and with your trading partners.

Regardless, all agree there are many things that have to happen at the plant and line level to succeed.  Accurate serial number commissioning and aggregation are the realm of the plant manager.  This means every machine on every line has to be able to communicate the same standardized information to plant IT and through to the enterprise.

WARNING: If you start your project at the packaging-line level, you will get bogged down when it comes to moving data.

Establish package coding requirements independent of hardware or software. This way, teams at plants located in other parts of the world can tap into local resources better equipped to meet their specific needs. 

There are two types of equipment necessary to physically place serial numbers on the package and then verify accuracy:

Printing equipment—This includes ink-jet, laser, or other technologies to mark directly on the package or label web to apply the serial number and 2D barcode.

Vision systems—These examine the package label and code to verify the marking is legible and correct before clearing the serialization line and plant system to signal back to the central database that the serial number has been commissioned.

There is much debate about installing new equipment ideally suited to serialization (“rip and replace”) or making do with current machinery by upgrading control modules to accommodate the serialization requirements.

Plant-level engineers would prefer to keep as many existing machines as possible—especially important to avoid getting bogged down in regulatory revalidation.

Consider adding two parallel conveyers outfitted with two inspection systems to perform the same label inspection and/or scan tasks near manual case packing.  These older systems require that you use such vendors’ control systems on each line.  This limits choices in the future and is a single-source risk.

Manpower requirements are a special consideration.  Initially, just pulling the CAD files for all machinery affected could take weeks. Who is going to do this? A current employee may be pulled away from regular duties, or a new manpower budget may need to be established.

According to experienced consultants, you might have to add six feet of conveyor to fit inspection cameras, a reject station, even a print-and-apply station for packaging levels that were not even labeled prior to serialization, such as a shrink bundle.  You might consider a robotic solution to reduce the footprint to fit into the existing plant layout or add a 90-degree flow-direction change if space is tight.

Consider adding parallel conveyers to maintain line speed and reduce risk by performing the same inspection tasks on two parallel conveyers. In this scenario, two conveyers perform the same label inspection and/or label scan near manual case packing.  This allows half of the items to travel down each path and maintain a high overall output.  It also ensures that if a system fails, the other lane can continue, and the entire line does not stop.

Consider updates to risk evaluation and mitigation strategies (REMS) and use previous REMS for use cases and development of requirements.

Experts say that in about half the situations they’ve encountered, packaging lines typically don’t have enough room to expand. In those cases, companies are choosing from these alternatives:

• Knock down walls and expand rooms and/or buildings.
• Jam coding systems and cameras into existing machine footprints.
• Build a standalone serialization system that can be wheeled to different lines as needed.
• Change packaging processes (e.g., brightstocking with separate offline serialization).
• Offload some SKUs to contract packagers.
• Creative solutions include pre-encoding labels or cartons offline the day before packaging with serial numbers and using existing label application or cartoning systems.  Cameras may then be installed at case packing to commission item serial numbers and record aggregation.

Plan for power and equipment failures, such as hard drives in control systems.  How do you account for data loss in various modes of equipment failure or loss of power? 

Integrating your serialization strategy into existing lines, especially complex machinery like cartoners or case packers, requires involvement from your original equipment partners.  Tap into their experience with other customers to save time and money.

Warehouse and distribution center impacts
There is a separate class of solution providers that focus on warehouse aspects of serialized material handling, so be sure to engage them. Most ERP vendors have very basic solutions for warehousing and shipping with regard to serialization. Likewise, very few packaging-centric serialization solutions support a fully serialized supply chain, lacking access to master data, pick orders, and packing and sales order information. There are quite a few issues to deal with when looking at moving serialized product through the warehouse. Be sure to engage the appropriate vendors.

The challenge is dealing with a mixed environment where some product is serialized and some is not managing multiple hierarchies for shipping. This must all be balanced with the need to limit slowdowns in velocity of product through the distribution center.
Finally, don’t forget to conduct a full assessment of the scanning capabilities at the warehouse and distribution center levels. Oftentimes entirely new scanner guns may have to be purchased to read 2D barcodes. Ensure that your purchasing organization knows the type of equipment that will be required in the future.  This helps avoid situations where purchasing may acquire new scanners or label printers that will not support future needs, such as 2D barcodes.

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