Every year during the first Monday in September, American folk (including green card Aliens such as myself) celebrate Labor Day. Since this holiday was originally conjured to celebrate the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of the USA, I felt that I should participate.
Luckily some of the friends I have invited me to enjoy a few hours in their company. Upon arriving, my present of very expensive wine was hidden from view and I was offered a domestic American beer that my hosts told me I could find in their refrigerator.
Unfortunately, the can that I had selected was only one third full while the container, although somewhat dented, was perfectly sealed with its ring-pull intact. Somewhat excitedly, I showed the product to all that were present while attempting to find an explanation for this phenomenon. Since no easy explanation was immediately apparent, I decided to take the can home and report the defect to the manufacturer.
After calling the toll-free number on the can, a kindly customer service representative offered me numerous free coupons, T-shirts and other paraphernalia for my trouble. After politely declining this offer and asking whether a free trip to the British Virgin Islands was in order, the questioning began.
Apart from the barcode number situated on the side of the can, there were two other tracking numbers, a date stamp and other codes printed on the bottom. To my amazement, the customer service representative also asked me for a code that I never knew existed - one that can be seen by swiveling the ring-pull of the can. With this much information, I figured that the company could precisely locate the very canning line where the product was produced.
Employing such systems, manufacturers can rapidly identify the source of any manufacturing problems and track their products from the manufacturing facility to the customer. This is especially important in other industries such as pharmaceutical packaging, where such track-and-trace systems can ensure that each product is uniquely identified and be shipped worldwide.
Luckily, numerous companies have developed such products. ISW, for example, has developed a system that incorporates both an in-line printer and vision components to allow pharmaceutical packages to be printed and verified before shipping (see "Track-and-trace system ensures proper pharmaceutical packaging" p. 9, this issue).
Other industries, it seems could learn much from the use of such technology. When aircraft parts are washed up on islands located miles from a crash site, it still seems to take investigators days to discover whether they actually ever formed part of the missing aircraft. Perhaps if such manufacturers placed as many codes on these parts as American breweries, such identification would be much faster.