Long read

Creating a digital strategy for your traceability set-up

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

How much thought have you given your digital strategy? Credit: Getty/ Floriana
How much thought have you given your digital strategy? Credit: Getty/ Floriana

Related tags Investment Technology & Automation

Food Manufacture’s webinar on ‘Strategies for improving your supply chain traceability’ raised important questions around technology investments, as well as highlighting some current and emerging tools for enhanced traceability, including 2D barcodes.

The food and drink industry is being asked to supply more and more information, driven by consumer demands as well as regulatory ones.

Technology is the key to being able to deal with these ever-increasing asks and to keep pace with the competition.

And while the F&B sector is starting to embrace technology, we’re still seeing many unsure of where to start in their digital transformation journey, or, indeed, failing to utilise data to its fullest potential. 

Getting started with your digital transformation journey

“Most manufacturers we work with don’t know where to start or where to go,”​ as Alain Dilworth, programme manager for Made Smarter’s northwest division, explained in a recent Food Manufacture webinar sponsored by Aptean. Watch a snippet of the webinar above.

He continued: “[Often] they don’t have skills or expertise in-house, [or they] have previously implemented technology but not integrated it, and [they] don’t have a full performance picture of their operations.” 

The common pitfall, according to Dilworth, is a lack of a digital strategy, which should not only look at what you want to get from the technology (i.e. what you want to solve) but also how it will disrupt your processes. In other words, it’s about considering your organisation’s culture and how the technology will work with your people.

“When technology is introduced into a manufacturing business, it can be quite disruptive, and it will impact on the way that people do their jobs day-to-day,” ​he said.

Lee Walker, Aptean’s senior solution consultant manager, agreed: “Make sure that everybody in the business understands. So in terms of ERP software: why you’re doing it, [and] what’s it going to do and not do.

“They’ll be a big cultural change, be ready for that, [and] make sure everyone's aware of that. Expect to fall over in the first couple of weeks and kind of lick your wounds and crack on.”

And as Dilworth noted, don’t make hasty decisions – take time plotting your journey out: “Make sure the technology is the right technology for you. There's nothing quite as frustrating as finding out you've bought maybe just slightly the wrong thing.”

Benjamin Wielgosz from ofi, an ingredients supplier that is well ahead on its traceability-tech journey, echoed this: “We are constantly asking ourselves: ‘Do we need this next level of technology? Do we need the most expensive or the best, or can we do it a little bit more leanly? Can we use something we already have?

“I want to know the cost benefit ratio before I commit to a certain course of action. There's always a more expensive technology out there that can do more, but whether or not it's going to return that value back to your business in the form of market share or revenues is kind of a different question.”

For Wielgosz, there are three key considerations to ask yourself before investing in tech:

  • Think about what a solution is worth to your business and its customers, and if it will cover the ongoing and up-front costs of traceability.
  • Ensure you have comprehensive policies and procedures in place to deal with any supply chain risks that are uncovered as you invest more into traceability.
  • Accusations of greenwashing are on the rise, so ensure you can robustly verify your data and report your progress transparently.

While larger companies like ofi have arguably more cap ex and resources to invest and lend to technology, it can be difficult for smaller manufacturers to make the leap. To this end, Made Smarter offers a consultation service and grants for manufacturers who need an extra hand.

The consultation involves a set of initial assessment questions, followed by a two-part workshop, wherein the business will describe its challenges and its vision to the Made Smarter experts.  

“We'll go away and have a little think about it; and come back to you with an adoption road map,” ​said Dilworth. “This is all free of charge to you as a manufacturing business. The only thing where there's any cost attached is if you do a funded technology project, where we can offer grant support of up to half the value of that particular purchase, capped at £20k.”

As flagged during the webinar, manufacturers who have adopted technology through Made Smarter say it has increased productivity (84%), has enabled them to better engage in digital supply chains (60%), has increased exports (25%), and has increased ability to reduce emissions (25%).

“If you think you're the only one that isn't adopting the technology. It's almost certainly not the case. There will be people just like you, and so don't be afraid to stick your head above the parapet and ask for help,” ​Dilworth added.

When should invest in technology?

As Dilworth acknowledged, timelines aren’t always clear cut but sooner is usually better than later.

“Better be an early adopter than sort of chasing the pack because you'll maybe lose some competitive advantage by not adopting it.

“It can even be an intuitive answer where you just need to ask yourself: ‘Am I going to make any money with this? Am I going to lose any money if I don't do this? And how much is this going to cost me? And is there a cheaper alternative?’”

The barcode revolution

Alongside digital strategies, the Food Manufacture webinar was also great a source of information for current and emerging technologies. Among the tech discussed, GS1 UK’s Camilla Young, spoke about the move towards 2D barcodes.

As we see a bigger push for more information, from allergens to ethical sourcing details, alongside a need for data sharing (e.g. the UK’s Food Data Transparency Partnership programme), having a barcode capable of holding more information could be extremely useful.

“Now barcodes are brilliant; they've been around for 50 years this year and they scan over 6 billion times every single day. But they do have a bit of a limitation. They generally only carry one data point,”​ said Young.

GS1 has created standards around QR technology that is able to connect a product’s unique identity to multiple online sources of content. And although this special QR is smaller than most barcodes, it can carry significantly more data.

“The digital URL contains a string of data points so it can identify a specific batch or country of origin, all the way down to serialisation, which is a unique code for every single item that is produced,”​ she explained. “So there's a huge amount of potential in terms of what different information that you can encode in it.

“And then it also links to the Internet using a resolver system which effectively works like a link tree. So it pulls information from around the web and then it serves it up to the consumer in a consistent format.”

Your questions answered

As always, the Q&A portion of the webinar sped by and although we attempted to get through as many questions as possible, there is inevitably always some we don’t manage to answer during the stream.

So, here’s your unanswered questions, answered by the expert panel.

Q: ​Is it correct to say that AtSource provides real-time data (making the data dynamic)? Or do you know how frequently the data is updated?

A: ​AtSource and ofi’s broader set of last-mile traceability applications use a variety of data sources, most of which are updated seasonally, given the fact that the majority of the primary data we gather is only relevant for a crop period.

Important sustainability-related metrics such as yields or carbon footprints cannot be real-time, as they require primary data that can only be gathered at the end of a production cycle.

Q: ​How could your QR codes be used on farms, grain silos, worldwide?

A: ​QR codes can be used to capture a unique product identifier and production information e.g. batch or serial number, so that it can be added to a database to record critical tracking events such as processing, or inputs like crop protection and seeds for traceability purposes. In this context you could also be capturing information around dates and locations.

Q: ​In case we are to adopt QR codes, do we need to replace our label makers?

This will be dependent on your current equipment, and whether you intend to add dynamic data. We would suggest contacting your current label maker supplier to check this in the first instance, you can also contact GS1 UK directly and we can help connect you to specialists in this area.

Q: ​When would you foresee GS1 2D barcode becoming an industry standard?

A: ​QR codes powered by GS1 are already technically an ‘industry standard’, however assuming this refers to implementation- globally, 2027 has been set as the date that we expect to reach a critical mass of retailers scanning at POS.

Adoption is likely to vary by market with some retailers scanning much sooner and others taking longer to make the transition. We expect that regulatory factors will be a significant driver for suppliers, and the impact of those also vary by country and product type.

Q: ​It is going to be compulsory for manufacturers to move to QR (bar)codes? Is there a proposed timeline for business to transition to QR (bar)codes?

A: ​Adoption is likely to vary by market with some retailers scanning much sooner and others taking longer to make the transition. Whilst QR codes are not currently compulsory, we expect that alongside retailer transition, regulatory requirements will be a significant driver for suppliers, and the impact of those also vary by country and product type.

Q: ​The GS1 QR barcode sounds very powerful. Do you have any examples of where they have been used for regulation, legislation and also sustainability/recycling?

A: ​Yes, there are some great examples of both of these from around the world. From the UK specifically, the most powerful and advanced use of 2D codes for regulation and legislation is in healthcare, where they have been used to ensure authenticity, compliance, and safety standards. On sustainability, there’s the Ocado milk bottle recycling scheme​ and Blenheim Palace coffee cup circularity project​ that both leverage QR codes powered by GS1.

Q: ​Manufacturers or wholesalers may receive raw materials/product with different variations of barcodes (QR and original). If the manufacturer/ wholesaler scans good using barcode tech, will they require a tech plug-in to read multiple variations of (bar)codes?

A: ​It depends on what tech they already have already, but it’s likely they’ll need to do some software development to accommodate scanning multiple data carriers (e.g. prioritisation of codes).

You can watch the webinar ‘Strategies for improving your supply chain traceability’ for free, here.

Related topics Supply Chain Industry 4.0 Operations

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Featured Jobs

View more


Food Manufacture Podcast

Listen to the Food Manufacture podcast