Why product traceability matters

Take a moment to look around the room you’re in. Can you tell exactly what the products surrounding you are? Do you have any idea if they’re fit for purpose? And if there were a problem with any of them, would you know how to deal with it?

We spoke to Peter Caplehorn, Chief Executive of the Construction Products Association and Dan Rossiter, Sector Lead, Built Environment at BSI, about why it’s vital to have construction product traceability; how we can get an effective system in place; and how it will benefit everyone in the supply chain.

Why is there a need for effective product traceability?

Peter Caplehorn: For the last 20 years or so, responsibility for building procurement has been pushed down the supply chain. This has led to a fall-off in regulatory and quality checking; in addition, there’s much less understanding that everyone involved in a project needs to work as a team to produce it.

The emphasis now is often on “cheapest and fastest”, which can lead to a lot of product substitutions being made. That’s why we see not only failures in housing and commercial buildings, but also huge problems in major construction firms, like those that caused the collapse of Carillion.

The heart of the problem is that we need to know what products are specified; whether they come together to form regulatory compliance; and whether they perform effectively. From the start of the design through procurement, everyone who ever gets involved with a product on the site has to know exactly what they’re dealing with, so it can be sourced, installed, maintained and replaced correctly.

Dan Rossiter: I think it’s also helpful to define exactly what we mean by traceability. It’s about being able to trace three things about an object: its history, application and location.

First, traceability of history: specifications and substitutions are very much part of this. At what point did someone decide that this was the right product, and when were changes made later? Second, traceability of application. What is the design intent? In other words, why was this particular product selected as right for this particular purpose? With the current procurement system you might have one set of designers and consultants who decide design intent, but then this information gets lost when a different design and build contractor gets involved and you end up with a product that isn’t right for the job. And third, traceability of location. After something’s built, you need to know exactly what is where.

The other problem is that even if you do get correct and complete information, it’s often stuck in a file somewhere. That’s why the word ‘effective’ is so important in this question. Yes, there is some product traceability but it’s currently ineffective and people aren’t using it or realizing the benefits from it.

__How is product traceability typically being done at the moment? __

Peter: To be honest, I think it’s virtually non-existent. As I said, I think we’ve got a situation where everybody is governed by cheapest and fastest at every single stage of the product, from planning to procurement to buying to building. The buyers buy something inappropriate, it gets used in the wrong way, different products are combined badly, and before you know it you've got the kind of problem we see in housing all the time.

Dan:Another key problem is not having the information relating to the product. For example, energy efficiency has become much more important and energy-efficient products and houses offer both environmental and financial benefits. However, if you haven’t got that information, you might not be able to sell your building.

Currently, the end of a job sees a massive scramble to create the operational maintenance manuals, which are stuffed full of every piece of literature they’ve been given relating to the product. But no-one’s checking it, so you don’t know if anything’s missing or out of date.

And it's all decentralized. Say a product was sourced from a distributor rather than than the manufacturer. Now suppose the manufacturer makes a slight change to the product’s chemical composition and releases a new version. What's the likelihood that the distributor will get that updated information and update their website? So unless the manufacturer keeps an updated record of live current information, and you’re always checking in with them, there’s a very good chance that what you’re recording for people to use in future may not be right by the time they need it.

How does product traceability fit in with the aims of the Golden Thread?

Peter: The introduction of a Golden Thread was recommended by Dame Judith Hackett in her report ‘Building a safer future’. It’s a digitally-based body of information about the building project that runs from design through construction and management, telling us everything we need to know about the building so we can keep it and its occupants safe. In many ways it’s simply what’s been good practice for decades, but creating it manually can be cumbersome and time-consuming. But it’s essential that we do it - and now, with joined-up technology, it’s very do-able. Unexpected things do crop up during a construction project - maybe a new budget constraint, or a problem with laying the foundations the way you’d planned - and the accumulated information needs to reflect that. Then you end up with a single version of the truth that exactly mirrors what the physical entity is all about, and it’s therefore eminently trustable. And that’s what we’re trying to get to with this. Dan: There’s also a second part to the golden thread, which is about the management process of how you achieve that body of information. So you don’t just see a blob of information, you see the context of the procedures and considerations that were used to get there.

What we're trying to do here is not replicate the building millimeter by millimeter but to give a simplified representation that includes the right information at the right level of detail to allow good decision-making. A big move that's happening in the built environment is to move towards data-driven decision- making, where you’re not making decisions based on instinct or history, but on the solid information you've got in front of you - the correct floor plans, the right locations for the products, their performance capability and so on.

__How can the built environment learn from other industries? __

Dan: One thing that several industries are doing is using persistent identifiers. Take the entertainment industry. Just as you might find different sizes of a construction product, you can get a film in different aspect ratios. Now, suppose there was a recall because the film’s classification no longer allows it to show a person smoking. But there might be one aspect ratio that cuts that smoker out of the picture. With a unique identifier for each aspect ratio, this might change the decision about recalling the film. So I think there are lessons there for the built environment, where we can give each variation a unique identifier that persists from specification through design intent and production selection to installation.

Peter: Other industries who’ve been fully digitalized for a long time have seen procurement, productivity and product quality improve out of all recognition. That’s because they've got consistent information, reliable information: a single version of the truth. Construction has none of that. But by moving everything into a fully joined-up digital process, we can improve overall efficiency, product performance, safety, customer satisfaction, environmental performance … and profit margins. An example is modern high engineering production industries. The average car today has around 25,000 components, every one of which is identified. So everyone knows the correct product to use and who brought it into the supply chain. And if they have to change or recall it, they know exactly what they need to do so.

Dan: Absolutely. I can’t see Ferrari building a Formula One car and letting someone turn round and say “I haven't got what you wanted, but why don’t we stick this on here instead? It’s Ford, but it’ll do”!

Dan: Construction is having a seminal moment. This is the largest regulatory shakeup that we've had in the built environment, and it’ll force people to change the way they work. So now we need to focus on the future and look at how we work effectively in this new regulatory landscape.

Why is it so important for built environment operators to have access to robust, up-to-date and accurate product information?

Peter: For me, this is about certainty and speed. It’s about ensuring you can get hold of the right answer quickly. When people are trying to identify a product, lack of time is one of the big reasons why they don’t get to the correct answer from a regulatory point of view.

However, if you say “I specified X, and you've given me Y, what are the implications of that change?”, the contractor should know what they’re dealing with and be able to find the answer quickly. Then we’ll be able to respond better to built environment challenges, from structural and fire safety to carbon.

Dan: For example, if you use brushed aluminium instead of unfinished, that will change its light reflectance value, which alters the contrast. So while you might have something that's almost the exact right product that's made out of the same material, it will hinder accessibility. That’s why we need a quick way to find answers and avoid making those kinds of mistakes.

Each construction project is one big process, involving a chain of tens of thousands of decisions. Each of those decisions depends on the decisions made before it. Once inaccurate or missing information has led to one decision, you’re on your way to a project that drains resources and ultimately leads to the ‘design gap’, where the final building falls well below the intended standard.

What benefits do you think better product identification will bring to owner/operators, designers, constructors and manufacturers?

Peter: You can’t underestimate how huge the benefits will be. It’s about greater efficiency, greater understanding, greater honesty and proveably better performance in buildings. That translates into projects that run more smoothly, a safeguard against regulatory and reputational problems, and even lower insurance premiums.

For owner-operators, it means being able to know exactly what their building is made of for the first time in a very long time. That means they can repair and replace properly, and they’ll even have digitally-prompted reminders of what needs to be done when - all of which will save them money in the long run.

And for designers, manufacturers and contractors, it means being able to talk the same language. At the moment, we can’t always be sure we’re talking about the same thing, but with a digital identifier there’s no confusion and all those problems go away. We’ll be able to go back to working as a team to create the building, instead of everyone working in silos and caught up in their own concerns.

Dan: For me, the benefits can be summed up as reducing risk. If you’re an owner-operator and you hear about a big problem or a recall, you need to know which of your assets might have that product in it. With accurate product identification, you avoid the safety and reputational risk of leaving it in place, or the cost and time risk of taking it out unnecessarily. It’s all about reducing risk - and that means peace of mind.

But also, today’s generation is looking a lot more closely at corporate and social responsibility. They’re picking the provider who uses sustainable resources or supports a charity. And if an organization can’t tell them what’s in its supply chain, if they can’t answer questions on carbon, it risks losing business. With product identification and traceability, the information is transparent and provable.

Let’s take BSI Identify as an example, it enables unambiguous identification and, through this identification, easy access to product information. By having access to the UPIN, either via reading it directly or scanning it via QR/RFID etc, anyone can access the information relating to that product. This results in open access via the UPIN, but maintains a level of control as what information is made available is managed by the manufacturer.

And finally, regulation is coming anyway. Unique identifiers will be a requirement - so the businesses that get ahead of the curve will have a competitive advantage.

Peter: The prize here is better buildings in every possible sense. That’s obviously really good for the people who work and live in them. But there are also huge business and financial benefits for the people who design and build them.

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