In 2009, Mike Duke, then President and CEO of Walmart, made this comprehensive statement about the benefits of building transparency into how a business operates:
“Information on the quality and history of products will drive higher quality, lower cost and lower carbon output, promote clean air and water, and create a more transparent and responsible supply chain.”
Much of the “information on the quality and history of products” that Duke speaks of above is made possible through traceability—which is essentially the ability to trace something throughout the production process.
Sound vague? That’s because it is, at least as a broad concept. In practice traceability has a slightly different definition and purpose in each industry.
In Duke’s context, a manufacturing supply chain perspective, traceability can prove that products are manufactured in factories with safe working conditions, by workers that earn a fair wage, and by using methods that do not damage the environment. With the increasing interest in both international labor standards and environmental safety, displaying this kind of traceability can be an important selling point.
For example, traceability has become an important tool to support sustainable forest supply chains. Timber tracking is now being used in countries where illegal logging has been a problem, to assure buyers of the source of the materials they are buying.
Another application of traceability is in health care, where new technologies are keeping track of which patients receive which medications, particularly those that are considered high risk.
Food safety is perhaps one of the most well known industries for traceability, due to the potential for contamination. And it’s important, considering the average annual cost of foodborne illness in the United States alone was estimated to be $55.5 billion. A 2009 study showed that less than 20 percent of consumers in the U.S. trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy for themselves and their families.
When a recall is required, traceability makes it possible to precisely identify, by time and location, which goods must be recalled based on what was manufactured, what else may have been cross contaminated, and more. This gives customers confidence about which foods are safe, thus minimizing the size of the recall and potentially saving millions of dollars (and millions of sick customers).
Another example of how traceability is transforming food safety is in the seafood industry. This industry has traditionally been prone to erroneous record keeping, improper storage conditions, illegal fishing practices, and mislabeling. These issues not only compromise produce quality but have also deteriorated consumers’ trust and threatened the economic security of the industry.
However, some in the seafood industry are now utilizing traceability by attaching smart sensors to fish immediately after harvest. These sensors continuously measure data including location, temperature, and humidity across the distribution channels. The final buyer can then access this complete, transparent record of information. The automated practice is not only saving time and money, but also building trust by assuring that consumers know what they are paying for.
The automotive industry uses traceability in a similar way. By having an easily accessible record of the engineering and testing process for an automotive part, you can show due diligence in the face of potential recalls, and also identify only the products that are affected. This saves time and reduces liability.
Before we move on to what traceability means in the software development and systems engineering world, let’s first summarize some of the ways traceability systems can add value across many of the above-mentioned industries, and others as well.
Generally, traceability can provide the ability to…
* Meet safety and/or environmental requirements and regulations
* Detect counterfeit products
* Verify process certification, such as organic or halal for food items
* Improve the time it takes to identify and remove contaminated or potentially dangerous products from circulation
* Address illegal or unfavorable practices in a supply chain
* Reduce inventory levels and waste
* Reduced transportation time and costs
* Improve customer relationships by providing more transparency about the origins, ingredients, processes, and practices related to the products they are purchasing
We have found that digital innovation such as custom software, connected sensors and controls, and data warehouses play a huge role in creating this kind of traceability—by measuring, storing data, and making it easy to search and parse data from internal and external sources.
In the software development and systems engineering world, however, the term traceability means something even more. It most commonly refers to requirements traceability, which is defined as “the ability to link product requirements back to stakeholders’ rationales and forward to corresponding design artifacts, code, and test cases.”
There are three elements to requirements traceability:
* Following the life of a requirement from idea to implementation
* How requirements impact each other, and how requirements impact other areas of systems development, and vice versa
* The translation of requirements from the high-level user/customer/market needs to the system, sub-system, software or hardware component requirements that meet those needs
Many requirements traceability practices originated from industries like aerospace and defense, where it’s critical to show that contractual requirements have been addressed. Now, most industries have recognized the value that traceability can bring when used effectively with the right tools to maintain it and report on it.
Specifically related to software development and systems engineering, traceability adds value through the ability to:
* Trace back from a design or test to the original user requirement, providing valuable context to optimally meet the requirement
* Help a new staff member navigate a project and see why particular requirements, designs, and tests exist
* Ensure all user requirements in the derived systems requirements, designs, and tests have been covered
* Identify and investigate over-engineering to eliminate dependencies wherever possible
* Analyze the potential impact of a user requirement change or feature on all related systems/sub-systems/component requirements, design elements, and tests—and vice versa
So whether your business is in logistics, manufacturing, food and produce, or software, implementing traceability systems is something to consider. Over the long run, it could save your business significant time and money—and help you better meet your customers’ needs.
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