By | December 8, 2017

This article was originally posted on Chemical Watch.

Frank Arcadi of Sphera Solutions explains how and why companies must track down hidden chemicals throughout their supply chains

When you consider the chemicals contained inside the dyes, solutions and materials that make up the goods we use at home or work, you start to realize that even the simplest products can cause complex problems for companies in terms of tracking the substances within those items.

A solid data collection strategy will help companies achieve a higher level of satisfaction and peace of mind when it comes to delivering their products. With all the rules and regulations companies need to worry about for chemicals, it is well past time to start addressing these issues now.

This is why current buzzwords like Industry 4.0, which creates what is known as a ‘smart factory’, are being thrown around. This defines the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, supported by the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing.

Advanced data collecting capabilities could play a vital role in helping companies monitor the chemicals that go into products and packaging in ways never before possible. One can think of data exchange standards like EDASx or more recently SDSCOMSDScom XML, which allows for machine-to-machine exchange of structured information.

Another example is the emerging Blockchain technology, a distributed peer-to-peer database approach where information is made available to all relevant parties of a transaction throughout the supply chain, while preserving data security through encryption and access rights.

Smart manufacturing approaches calls for data collection not only on the product itself, but also to its manufacturing process, its use by customers, disposal considerations, transportation and packaging.

Jon Hague, Unilever’s vice president of operations and open innovation, said in a round-table discussion about Industry 4.0: “We want to be able to predict how a product will behave with consumers, what packages are going to do – whether they are going to leak, for example; how will they behave in the supply chain – all in silico rather than the physical prototyping and testing that we have to do now. The most obvious benefit is, and the one we’re interested in, is speed. But you can also see knock-on impacts on quality and manufacturability.”

Organizations already have programmes in place for environmental health and safety (EHS) compliance. Mature programs are supported by software for data collection on product composition, hazards, uses, etc. The clear opportunity is being able to further leverage those solutions by applying technologies that streamline data gathering, and facilitate integration and data flow between solutions used internally or the ones used outside of a company.

Time for action

As much as we paint a rosy picture of the future with technology streamlining data transfer, the reality today is that chemical manufacturers and formulators struggle to get suppliers on board with chemical transparency. Although there is no one perfect solution to force a supplier to disclose, manufacturers have found success by educating their supply chain vendors about why disclosure is necessary and by explaining their need to comply to specific regulations.

For some banned or restricted chemical lists, the minimal threshold for the exemption of any one ingredient varies with different regulations. Only through full disclosure can a manufacturer assess compliance for their products as a whole.

Parts makers must also be aware that a component is often a blend of various raw materials and the percentages must be added up. Additionally, a company’s product stewardship department must work with the materials purchasing department to make disclosure a condition of purchase.

Companies should allow suppliers to indicate that certain ingredients are proprietary or trade secrets as long as they agree to disclose hazards and comply with any and all substance regulations. They should also look at developing a materials data collection strategy with the goal of full traceability of the raw materials purchased as well as their composition. Having a defined process, supported with purpose-built software and content, is the only way to comply with substance-based regulations like REACH.

There exists no silver bullet, no single approach to developing a data collection strategy for an organisation. Maturing information management is often a multi-year journey that starts with assessing your point of origin by making an inventory of internal stakeholders with a need to know, along with any and all software and databases owned, and identifying dependencies and interfaces.

You should then identify which workflow would benefit most from improvements through better integration or automation. The most important condition for success when embarking on such a journey is to ensure there is support and alignment between business, product stewardship and IT business functions. Lastly, just as important as tracking chemicals is educating customers about them. After all, everything is made from chemicals. The more companies disclose or are required to disclose, the more likely confusion will occur.

Limonene, for example, is a colourless liquid hydrocarbon found in citrus fruits. It is a harmless chemical and one that does not often get disclosed. If it does get added to the packaging of any lemon-scented product, it could cause consumer confusion and worry. It is up to companies to have a plan in place to help with the learning process, but that starts with having a deep understanding of the chemicals that exist in the products they make.