The Importance of Material Tracing

Traceability on a processing or production line is incredibly important, especially when it comes to food products, where having the ability to track every ingredient down to the source is crucial to the health and safety of the consumers.

As parts of the country begin to move out of COVID-19 shutdowns, we have been hearing about “contact tracing” as a tool for containing a secondary spread of the disease. Material, lot tracing, or traceability has been part of producing safe food products for a long time. The concepts behind contact tracing and material tracing are similar.

The US food industry should be rightfully proud and the US consumer properly thankful that behind the scenes, out of sight and out of mind, tremendous efforts are being made to ensure food safety.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) require “traceability to the source.” Establishing traceability to the source for all intended and unintended ingredients of a product in a consumer’s grocery cart relies on each producer or manufacturer that contributed to that product to have and be able to rapidly retrieve traceability data for its products.

To enable tracing, food ingredients and final products are produced and packaged in “lots.” For example, a lot may be the amount of product produced by a certain producer on a certain line during a certain day. Each producer tracks the lot numbers of any ingredients that are used in the production of any final product lots.

Confused? Let’s investigate that bottle of salad dressing you picked up the other day. That bottle has a lot code on the label. The dressing manufacturer can use that lot code to pull up a list of the ingredients, the producer of the ingredients and the producer’s lot codes for the exact ingredients that went into that bottle. A bottle of salad dressing may have 10-15 ingredients. Those ingredients may have ingredients. Each producer down the line—all the way back to the source—can do the same. That is “traceability to the source.”

If you are thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of data unlocked by one number on my dressing bottle label that I never noticed before,” you are exactly right. If you are thinking, “Wow, how would we ever collect and manage data for contact tracing and who would responsibly manage that data,” you are also right. But try, if you can, to refocus on food material tracing.

The data each producer must collect, store, and be able to retrieve can be gathered manually, semi-automatically, or automatically. It can be stored in boxes of paper or in a relational database. Incomplete or inaccurate data can create tremendous liability. Activities required to collect, store, and retrieve data add to cost-of-production, so it needs to be performed efficiently. Across the industry, there are a myriad of tools and methods for collecting, storing, and retrieving traceability data accurately and efficiently.

When building new or performing a significant upgrade to an existing production line or process cell, collection and storage activities can be tightly integrated into the operating controls for maximum accuracy, minimal cost, and minimal operator interference. The system can integrate fully with the plant’s ecosystem including inventory databases that contain manufacturer and lot information. Collected information is stored with batch records to be easily retrieved with off-the-shelf reporting tools. Operator interaction might involve some barcode scanning and/or verification. Automated weighing and dispensing increase the level of integration possible.

Often older systems utilize paper forms or forms on a computer screen. Essentially manual systems are prone to human inaccuracy and consume valuable operator time. Such systems were or are less expensive to implement but are often not less expensive over the project lifecycle.

When a targeted upgrade is done to a line or process cell, collection activities are often semi-automatic. A semi-automated system interacts with the operators by providing clear instructions for activities that need to be performed, such as specifying where to locate containers from the appropriate ingredient lot. All activities are electronically journaled, including amounts of ingredients consumed, either automatically or by operator entry. Instructions can be provided for intermediate materials, such as kits, as well as for finished products. Semi-automated systems can also interact with the plant ecosystem, such as the enterprise resource planning system, to receive work orders, execute them and report material consumed and finished goods produced.

Traceability, whether food ingredient tracing or contact tracing, is incredibly important for the health of people living in our communities and nation. Tracing food product ingredients to the source requires detailed collection, storage, and retrieval of accurate and complete data. Producers that accomplish this accurately and efficiently have a competitive advantage. How are you handling traceability? How can you reduce costs and increase accuracy?

This is a re-post of a July 2020 Automation World blog. To see the original piece, click HERE.

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Securing Your Intellectual Property

Protecting intellectual property is very important for many organizations, it is also the main target for hackers. Steps need to be taken in practically every part of the organization to make sure the intellectual property is secure.

As U.S. manufacturers once again grapple with outsourcing production to foreign facilities, issues with intellectual property protection begin to arise. Intellectual properties provide companies with a competitive advantage, making them incredibly valuable. Not only does it include patentable property but also the know-how involved in making the products.

The intellectual property for making your product goes beyond the components or ingredients used to make it, setpoints, durations, tolerances, and the best order for performing all steps are also included. When these are strewn about as printed work instructions, they become easier to steal. Conversely, when automated, steps may be hidden from the operator making theft more difficult. However, an electronic-encoded intellectual property can still be hacked. So, using multi-layer security can be used to thwart such attacks. Multi-layer security should include all—or most—of network security, device security, application security, and encryption.

An intellectual property can also be stolen or compromised when plant operations modify product methods and procedures. Products of inferior quality or products unsafe for consumer use steal value from the intellectual property by devaluing the product brand. Automation is combined with logging all system activities to guard against this form of intellectual property theft. Some systems allow playback of system operations through the human-machine interface. Some implement automated notification when an operator varies a procedure in any manner. Both are powerful tools to protect the intellectual property value and train operators to take appropriate actions.

Another form of intellectual property theft involves modification by unauthorized individuals. Owners can protect the source files from which work instructions are printed with file level security although, they cannot, as described above, ensure that the procedures are fastidiously followed. Individuals authorized to modify a programmable logic controller, programmable automation controller, or distributed control system programming may or may not comprehend how a programming “fix” can affect intellectual property.

The effects of a change may not be immediately noticed, but during this time hundreds of thousands of dollars of inferior or unsafe product contaminates downstream equipment and inventory or is packaged and warehoused or shipped. Best-in-class systems not only provide access security, they implement version management and roll-back for quick recovery. When an intellectual property is programmed into the control system, such rollback is not possible without additional software and may be cumbersome to use in that it restores an entire program, not just the specific procedure.

Should a plant be ravaged by disease, as we see happening these days, highly automated systems can continue to produce quality products even when staffed with less skilled, temporary, operators. Intellectual properties managed by a secure procedure manager could save millions in lost production and bad publicity as recently experienced by several meat packaging facilities. Obviously, certain products and procedures lend themselves better to automation, but disaster is indiscriminate.

Best-in-class automation—including best in class procedure management—combats all these threats to intellectual property, the value of the intellectual property, and use of it. Capable control systems integrators can help you secure your intellectual property from theft, damage, and more.

This is a re-post of a June 2020 Automation World blog. To see the original piece, click HERE.

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Food Industry Struggles with Barriers to Automation

In a recent Food Processing article on the barriers to automation, our own Process Specialist, John Parraga, shared his expertise in the following section:

Man and machine

No matter how, or how much, a plant is automated, there’s still the human factor. Floor workers have to operate, monitor or otherwise interact with equipment, and it’s important that they be prepared to do so.

Perhaps the most important factor is attitude. As long as there have been machines doing what humans used to do, some of the humans have resented it. And if a worker decides, consciously or unconsciously, that a machine isn’t going to work, it won’t work.

“Operators can make or break the success of a new automation system,” says John Parraga, a process specialist at control integrator ECS Solutions. “Listening to their needs is sometimes more or as important as listening to other system stakeholders.” That means giving them a sense of ownership from the beginning, by asking them how they operate the current or previous system and how they would like the new one to be different.

“Even though the system designer has a good idea of what is required and what the new system may look like, it is important to listen to the operators say what they need,” Parraga says. “With this simple step, operators feel empowered to influence the final design and will support onboarding activities for all operators.”

Those onboarding activities are critical. The most sophisticated, efficient piece of equipment in the world will be useless if the people who have to run it don’t know what they’re doing. Inadequate training (or none at all) is one of the biggest stumbling blocks as automation increases.

To read the entire article, CLICK HERE!

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Properly Using A Recipe Lifecycle Management System

*This blog has been re-published from Automation World! You can see the original published work here.


Protecting the sanctity of a product is an important aspect of recipe lifecycle management, but the flexibility of your system may not be fully utilized. See how a system can easily be extended to a new product without much change when properly installed.

ISA-88 batch recipes are not just simple lists of ingredients, they describe the ordered process for producing a product. Recipes make your system flexible enough to produce multiple products and agile enough to make quick yet safe changes. Recipe lifecycle management is important to batch manufacturers because the recipes represent a significant portion of the system programming.

A proper batch manufacturing system separates the programming that supports the capabilities of the system’s equipment from the programming that defines what the manufacturer wants to do with the equipment. Equipment programming runs a pump after making sure there is a clear flow path. This programming—which is concerned to safely operate the pump independent of what is being pumped—is often in a programmable logic controller or a programmable automation controller. Procedure programming instructs the pump to run at the appropriate point in the manufacturing process, this programming—which is concerned to effectively produce high quality products—is the programming in your batch recipe.

Why this separation? The programming that supports what the equipment is capable of never changes—that is unless the equipment is changed or the programming was incompletely developed in the first place. What a manufacturer does with that equipment can change dramatically.

So, how might a manufacturer today use a line originally designed to make pancake syrup changeover to produce hand sanitizer needed to protect the world from COVID-19? If this fundamental concept was followed, all that would need to be done is to write a new recipe and, of course, put the corresponding ingredients into the supply tanks! And, if done correctly any process-knowledgeable person, capable of manipulating flowcharts, can make these changes without inadvertently modifying or bypassing equipment programming designed to prevent equipment damage or misuse and without engaging outside resources.

Your recipes are valuable! They encapsulate your intellectual property and the best practices for making your products. They are a significant part of your system, orchestrating the steps your equipment needs to make your products. Any change made to your recipes may improve or degrade the quality of your products or the effectiveness with which they are manufactured.

This is but one reason why properly implemented, world-class batch manufacturing systems utilize a proven recipe lifecycle management package with recipe lifecycle management tools—such as security, genealogy tracking, version management, enforced approval requirements and audit trails. One such market-leading package is Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Batch.

Capable recipe lifecycle management should include security controlling which limits who can edit your master recipes. It should support the coexistence of multiple recipe versions, with only one holding the “released to manufacturing” status. Individuals deemed trustworthy to develop and modify recipes need to be able to create separate versions for testing ingredient changes or other process improvements. The genealogy of these derivative recipes—which version of which prior recipe this version was created from—should be tracked as it helps developers keep track of what they have done. Version management also allows a developer to release an improvement for manufacturing, evaluate its effects on the product and on the product’s effective production, then roll back to the previous version if necessary. Enforced approval requirements facilitate communication between developers and production managers, assuring all stakeholders buy into any modifications. Audit trails help teams figure out what happened if something does go wrong.

These may sound familiar if you are familiar with GAMP 5. Originally developed by ISPE for the pharmaceutical industries, GAMP 5 is being adopted by many food and beverage manufacturers seeking a risk-managed approach to more consistent production practices and improved food safety.

Does your manufacturing system include a capable batch management product? Are you using it? Are you using all its capabilities? Is your programming properly divided so that your recipes can manage all your equipment capabilities? Any or all of these might be opportunities to improve your operations. Perhaps now is a good time to get started.



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2020 ECS Engineering Scholarship Recipient Announced

Daniel Vollmer, a senior at Reitz Memorial High School in Evansville, IN has been named the 2020 recipient of the ECS Engineering Scholarship.  While in high school Daniel played 4 years of football and was named Academic All-State in Football in 20220. He also participated in the Memorial’s Academic Superbowl Team and served as Captain for 3 years. For 4 years he belonged to Memorial’s History Club and was President both his Junior and Senior year. Additionally, he is an Eagle Scout with Boy Scouts of America. Daniel is also a member of the Memorial’s National Honor Society and was chosen as a recipient of Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Leadership Award. Daniel has participated in numerous community activities while working multiple jobs as well.

In the Fall of 2020, Daniel will attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale focusing on a dual major in Computer Engineering and Computer Science.

Congratulations to Daniel from all of us here at ECS Solutions. We wish you the best as you continue your education!

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ECS Named One of the 50 Top-Selling Integrators

ECS Solutions is excited to have landed on the list of the 50 top-selling Ignition integrators by Inductive Automation. Each integrator’s ranking on this leaderboard is based upon their total sales of Ignition for the current calendar year and ECS continues to see success with Ignition for our clients.



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The Benefits of Off-The-Shelf SOP Management Software

Being able to keep track of every step and every bit of data is a major necessity for every organization. An off-the-shelf standard operating procedure software is one way to implement new processes and keep track of business operating standards.

Tracking manual operations in discrete, batch, and continuous manufacturing processes can greatly benefit from off-the-shelf products. Clearly specifying your procedures, enforcing their execution, and capturing pertinent data are all major benefits that can be quickly and easily be obtained by implementing off-the-shelf, procedure management software.

To ensure consistency, manufacturers use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to specify how operations are to be done. SOPs may be developed for product operations, safety, periodic maintenance, startup or shutdown operations.

Often, discrete manufacturing processes require a high level of manual operator activities that rely on paper-based SOPs to specify how to manufacture their products.

It is the responsibility of employees to perform the tasks specified in the SOP and to capture any required data. Even in relatively automated process control systems, it is not uncommon to find SOPs that require an operator to input the setpoints or record readings before initiating the required tasks. Sometimes data is recorded on the SOP or a related paper form, but, oftentimes the date and employee identification is required.

As the volume of amount of data and the value of accuracy increases, as does the justification for automating the SOP and data collection.

Standard, off-the-shelf products can be used to replace the paper-based SOPs and electronically interface with the operators via portable devices such as phones, iPads, industrial portable terminals, etc. One such product is Rockwell Automation’s FactoryTalk Batch.

The unfortunate name of the product implies that it is only helpful with batch manufacturing processes, but, in fact, it is very helpful automating any operation where following an ordered set of steps and collecting data is required. FactoryTalk Batch is really a sequencing engine that follows the steps of an operating procedure or recipe.

The operating procedures are clearly specified electronically. A sequencing engine is responsible for prompting the operator to perform the tasks in the order specified by the electronic SOP. Off-the-shelf sequencing engines contain features that streamline the process of following the SOP and recording required data. Many sequencing engines, including FactoryTalk Batch, can transfer required set points to the process control system as well as directly capture process information without relying on the operators. In partially automated processes, data collected from operators via electronic forms can be merged with automatically collected data.

The sequencing engine is now the orchestrator of the process activities and is responsible for interacting with the operator, to instruct them to perform manual tasks and capturing information not available electronically; at the same time, it coordinates all activities with the equipment it can interact with.

This off-the-shelf sequencing engine can be interfaced with the enterprise-resource planning system in order to receive production orders, it clearly specifies and maintains SOPs and their versioning, it coordinates all manual and automated procedural activities, and it captures all pertinent information to recall how a product was made including material traceability.

Fixed industrial human-machine interface products or mobile devices can be used for operator interaction.

Clients see return through increased product yields and improved overall equipment effectiveness. An ISO-9001 certified client realized tremendous benefit in reduced labor costs. Being able to use an off-the-shelf package, significantly reduces implementation cost and schedule. Perhaps you can benefit too.

This is a re-post from a March 2020 Automation World blog. To see the original post, click HERE.

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A message from ECS about COVID-19

The world is grappling with an issue of enormous scale and human impact, and our hearts go out to all who have been affected by the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). You have our personal commitment that this situation has our full attention. Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our employees and their families, our clients and our customers. We are taking the necessary steps to stay informed and engaged with the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidance for preventing and reducing the spread of COVID-19.

In order to ensure workplace safety and maintain a safe environment to serve our clients and customers, we are doing the following:

  • Working remotely as much as possible
  • Conducting meetings by video conference, even in office
  • Taking proactive steps to review and refresh general safety procedures with associates.
  • Being extra vigilant and intensifying preventative measures, such as implementing enhanced sanitation and hygiene practices across all of our operations.
  • Working closely with our partners to assess and modify customer-facing services in order to provide a safe and comfortable environment.

Please remember, we have staff ready and available should you need an “emergency” engineer. Our engineers are all over the country and are able to respond to your needs quickly if needed. Do not hesitate to reach out should you find yourself in need.

These are challenging times, but we feel confident that as a company and country, we will get through this together.

~Randy Otto, Vice President

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ECS Shares Expert Advice in Recent Plant Engineering Articles

The following are excerpts from two recent articles written by John Parraga, ECS Solutions’ Batch Process Specialist, that were featured in Plant Engineering. 

  1. Designing an Equipment Model

According to ISA/S88 guidelines, a manufacturing process can be represented in terms of two models: A procedural model and an equipment model. The equipment model includes a functional group of equipment that can perform a finite number of specific, minor, processing activities. It is important the equipment model is well-designed and provides flexibility and modularity as well as impacting the equipment’s overall performance. One approach to equipment model design is based on the use of phases, which is where the phase is regarded as a building block for the process or as a specific activity.

Questions to consider include:

  • How does the phase interact with operators and automation control system?
  • What information is recorded and made available to an operator and journals?
  • How does a phase respond to failure of a component in the equipment?

Click HERE to read the full article on Plant Engineering.

2. CIP and SIP Procedures Improve OEE and Profitability

Process plant operators seeking to automate their manufacturing processes should consider automating clean in place (CIP) and sterilize in place (SIP) sequences, which often are more complex than making the products. Some of the complexities may come from the lack of automated devices, as well as creating control code to perform the procedures defined during automation design, then, changing them until they meet the final qualifications. CIP and SIP automation are commonly prescribed with little flexibility that often only allows the end-user to change minor functionality via parameter sets. Sometimes the sequences are “black box” where nothing can be viewed or changed, which limits the end-user from making significant optimization changes without requiring control system reprogramming.

Click HERE to read the full article on Plant Engineering.


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Documenting Your Manufacturing Ecosystem

*This blog is a repost from a March 9, 2020 blog post that ECS President wrote for

Understanding your manufacturing ecosystem is one thing, but documenting it is just as important. Having extensive documentation of the manufacturing ecosystem, helps those who aren’t involved in daily, plant-floor operations make informed decisions.

Your manufacturing ecosystem is the system you use for making your product(s), and fully documenting and understanding this ecosystem will help the decision-making process of your organization.

It is very common to think about how a plant or process cell goes about making its product(s) in terms of component offerings. I hear, “We use blank for our historian, blank for reporting, a spreadsheet to schedule labor, another spreadsheet to schedule production, and we get orders from our ERP [enterprise resource planning] on paper.” Vendors in, what is sometimes called, the manufacturing execution system and manufacturing operations management space offer separate software packages or modules for various pieces in this space.

As an integrator, we think of this space as a vibrant, agile ecosystem full of people using tools to accomplish and measure production, where the various pieces are software packages, spreadsheets, or paper, is less material than the interaction of the whole system.

By documenting your plant’s manufacturing ecosystem, you can understand how decisions in one part of the plant affect other parts of the plant process. As I wrote previously, standards, such as ISA-95, only guide you on a journey to more deeply comprehend the workings of your unique process for manufacturing your products. Each plant or process cell needs to document its own ecosystem, because each is different. An experienced integrator can help you with this process by asking, “How do you do this and how does it interact with that?”

Documenting your ecosystem allows you to quickly understand, at a higher level, how the plant operates. You will be able to more easily “connect the dots” of data being received from the plant floor, and utilize basic equipment resources, personnel, instructions, and materials to manufacture the final product.

One way to use this new understanding is to make better decisions is optimization. The documented ecosystem helps understand how improving one aspect will affect another. Though there may be additional cost or additional benefit or both, you will reduce risk of unforeseen consequences of a change.

We often show clients higher payback from improving how they manage their manufacturing process than from how they control it. A food product manufacturer was able to add 20% capacity by improved scheduling. Another added nearly 20% through improved equipment utilization. A third set production records a week after implementing an overall equipment effectiveness and “paper on glass” quality data collection system.

Documenting your ecosystem will help you get the capital funds for an improvement by helping you explain to the business managers how what you propose will affect the plant, not just the process. Information, derived from data, is the lifeblood of good management decision making. Your ecosystem document will help you explain to management how the improvements you are making can be measured and reported.

Documenting your ecosystem takes work, as do other worthwhile endeavors. Perhaps it is time to get started.

Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., is president of ECS Solutions, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). He is also author of a paper on model-based control, presented to the ISA Food and Pharmaceutical Industry Division in 2014. To obtain a copy of Matheny’s paper, or for more information about ECS Solutions, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.

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