The Hive

Where Does It Come From?

Why traceability is the next great challenge in manufacturing.

An RFID label with a microchip beside bananas.
An RFID label and bananas

Photo by David Hecker/AFP/Getty Images.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.

At the end of August, Mr. Coffee announced it was recalling 600,000 single-cup coffee brewers that had been available to consumers in the United States and Canada since 2010. The water reservoir in certain models could pop open unexpectedly, spraying scalding water and coffee grounds all over the faces and torsos of people who were just trying to get their morning brew. 

If you own a single-cup Mr. Coffee brewer, you have some simple questions to answer. Did you buy it at Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, or Wal-Mart? Do you have one of the faulty models?

Mr. Coffee’s Chinese manufacturer and importer have a separate set of questions to answer. Was the faulty product the result of an honest mistake or cutting corners? Was the design flaw in the reservoir itself or just how it fit into the larger product? More than 60 people had been burned by the coffee makers by the time the recall was started, and while it’s far from Germany’s virulent E. coli outbreak of 2011, the Mr. Coffee episode is serious enough that those companies will want answers. So will the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which is charged with protecting us from things like scalding coffee makers.

But in 2012, finding out exactly how, where, and when something was made is more complicated than it has ever been because the production line is increasingly international and decentralized. Most of the things we make and use come cheaper, faster, and farther than ever. Consumers who want to behave responsibly for myriad reasons struggle with this, but so do companies. The problem—and its solution—can be boiled down to one thing: traceability.

Traceability is basically accurate accounting in manufacturing—knowing all you can know about the components you’re working with so that you can identify problems and inefficiencies in your production line quickly and fix them before they multiply. And in a world where a company like Apple doesn’t own all the subsidiaries that make parts going into its products, accurate accounting has big implications.

“Things are being greatly outsourced vertically now,” says Sanjay Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “That movement started 30-50 years ago, but today it’s reached an apex. If you make washing machines, for instance, the rotors, sheet metal, et cetera all come from different places. And traceability is becoming the next challenge in vertically outsourced manufacturing.”

According to Sarma, the world’s second industrial revolution is the idea that successful methods of companies in countries like the United States and Germany could be learned and improved upon by Japan, China, India, and Mexico. But while many companies are thriving on the fact that they can go further afield to get their product made more efficiently or cheaply, they’re also struggling to figure out just how to interface and deal with quality control.

“Maybe a supplier changes something which to them is completely legitimate, but the change manifests in the larger part as a flaw,” says Sarma. “You add in the possibility of simple error, and things get really crazy. That’s why traceability becomes fundamental. You need to very quickly look at a broken product and identify the source of the problem.”

If companies with international supply chains and production lines had a universal standard and technology for logging large amounts of information in the factory computers and embedded in the products themselves, Sarma thinks it could be part of a third industrial revolution. And he says that the universal standard should be Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID.

RFID technology could be like putting the barcode on informational steroids. It would give us an almost limitless ability to connect data to a given item we can scan with ease. And most importantly, the technology allows that data can be added to or accessed at any time.  

As the co-founder of MIT’s Auto-ID Labs who works daily on RFID innovation, Sarma definitely has an agenda. But it’s an agenda that’s gaining traction. RFID tags are already used in lots of ways, from tracking cattle and invalidating stolen casino chips to paying at the gas station. It’s also how you pay automatically at the tollbooth.

The technology isn’t new—the origin of RFID can be traced back to inventor Leon Theremin, who invented an espionage tool called The Thing for the Soviets in 1945 that transmitted information with incident radio waves. But just like many of the products it could one day accompany, RFID technology is getting a lot cheaper. Readers can now be handheld, and the RFID tags themselves have shrunk in size—the smallest are 3 mm square—and grown in memory-holding abilities.

Unlike barcodes or QR codes, RFID tags can be read in batches rather than one at a time, and they can store new sets of information as they progress, which makes them far more practical on the supply chain and production line. For instance, a floor manager could input arrival or departure times of parts, which help make the larger production more efficient, with a wave of a scanner. Wal-Mart already uses RFID to track products and apparel, and Airbus uses the tags to track parts as they move through suppliers and go eventually to assembly.

Even with all of these current uses, RFID has a long way to go. The technology needs to grow in how the tags themselves are made. Tags still need to be smaller, more versatile, and more powerful. A goal for many RFID advocates has been a tag that costs 5 cents or less, and while it seems within reach, tags aren’t that cheap yet.

RFID’s potential uses are so versatile that it can be scary. Earlier this month, a San Antonio, Texas, school district started planting them in student ID cards in order to track the movements of students and see when they were at school—despite protests from safety and privacy advocates.

But one can see how RFID’s versatility could be used for good. What if, for instance, Mr. Coffee could have pulled the bad models from the shelves when the first few burns were reported, to protect the company—and consumers—from further mishaps?

 It isn’t a stretch to imagine that one day a consumer could use RFID technology to be just as informed about a product’s origins as the manufacturer. You can already read tags with your cellphone or iPad. But questions remain as to whether consumers will actually use it.

“I would be skeptical in general of hand-scan technology,” says Ellis Jones, the author of the Better World Handbook and smartphone app, which helps consumers make environmentally responsible purchasing decisions. “It’s one thing to create or provide the data. It’s the other thing to get the user experience right.”

Because technology like RFID can scan hundreds of items at once, Jones is optimistic that a comprehensive and unified way of storing and logging information could eventually offer consumers a way to be informed way beyond “made in China,” or even the traditional product label. That day on the supply chain side is getting ever closer and ever more necessary.

This month, Slate is exploring how to reinvent American manufacturing. We’d like to hear your best ideas for that. Please submit them here.