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Few would argue with the importance of accurately labelled products, especially where trust in inaccurately labelled products can actually cause dissatisfaction, illness and even death.

‘Label Verification – essential risk management but no guarantee of performance improvement’

Few would argue with the importance of accurately labelled products, especially where trust in inaccurately labelled products can actually cause dissatisfaction, illness and even death.

Fortunately, the consequence of most labelling inaccuracies does not fall into the latter category, but loss of confidence, damage to customer/supplier relationships and illness can be all too frequent.

Due to the potential consequences of incorrect labelling, the pharmaceutical industry has long placed great importance upon ensuring that the packaging is correct, the product goes into the correct package and the appropriate instruction leaflet is packed with it.  Serialisation, where every pack will have its own serial number, will become standard practice within the next few years, not only to minimise risk of incorrect labelling and packaging but also to reduce the risk of counterfeit products entering the supply chain.

Within food and drink, whilst the consequences of inaccurate packaging and coding can still be serious, they have not been afforded the same level of importance within the food supply chain, but that is changing.

The most common consequence of inaccurately labelled or coded food and drink products is inconvenience, with coding and labelling issues still rated as the biggest cause of batch rejections from supermarket customers. One of the greatest dangers, however, is the unexpected risk of the presence of allergens, when there is no reference to such on the packaging, caused either by cross contamination or incorrect packaging.

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Several supermarkets have now introduced Codes of Practice, including risk and gap analysis, in an effort to minimise the risk of allergen contamination and the incidence of inaccurate coding and labelling.

This has led to the development of the automated set up of date coders and on line barcode scanners, having identified potential hazards from the risk analyses.  As such systems reduce the risk of operator error, especially in busy production units with frequent product/label changeovers, it is obviously a step in the right direction.

But does this go far enough? No, not in our opinion.  Important as accurate coding and labelling is, it represents just a small area of control leaving many other areas of risk and quality compliance less well controlled or simply dependent upon paper recording.

Much is made of Codes of Practice, and rightly so, but they are simply based upon GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) so ideology suggests that manufacturers will already have carried out their own risk and gap analyses and, consequently, put appropriate controls in place, without waiting to be pushed into such actions by their supermarket customers.  Ideal as this might sound, much of the food supply chain is driven by price and cost. Manufacturing also suffers from long held erroneous beliefs that greater compliance and more consistent quality will always increase production/quality costs.

Those who have embarked upon their own lean journey will however already have realised that a Right First Time, Every Time, policy is not only the safest but also the most cost effective as it reduces wastage and improves efficiency.

In some cases, this will need greater investment in automation (such as, but certainly not limited to, automated coding and labelling set up).

Sadly, the words “Greater Investment” are used by some as a justification for the long held belief that improvement always costs more and may therefore do nothing, a bit like saying that ‘spending nothing is the same as costing nothing’.

Done wisely, however, investment should always be cost effective, but this is best achieved through a comprehensive evaluation of a company’s needs, risks and opportunities, coupled with a vision for the future, rather than as a knee jerk response to the demands of one supermarket chain or other.

By way of example, the pressure to install automated label verification systems, though considered necessary to reduce batch rejections and risks, could have been far more effective and beneficial to the whole food manufacturing supply chain if it had been done with a wider remit to include improved efficiency, at very little, if any, extra cost.

Even the companies set up, and championed by some supermarkets, to produce automated label verification systems are now realising the value of extending such semi-automated systems architecture to include; automated line efficiency, paperless quality control, OEE, improved materials and labour utilisation, short interval control, etc., as bolt-ons to enhance what has already been installed.

The more experienced Continuous Improvement, Technical and Engineering Managers, however, will already recognise that such a piece meal approach to performance improvement can never be as effective or cost effective as having a holistic vision of overall performance improvement (GMP again), from the outset.

Some additional automation will doubtless be necessary but such a holistic approach can often be achieved, as already mentioned, with little more expenditure than required for automated label verification, supported by training, coaching and more training to achieve and sustain optimal results.

Many of our own customers have already seen efficiencies improved by 20 to 30 percent, whilst simultaneously reducing their production risks, improving quality consistency and reducing wastage.  This is true Lean Manufacturing in action.

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Article submitted by Roy Green, Managing Director, Harford Control Ltd.  January 2017

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