Thursday 6th Aug, 2020

The barcode revolution: Standardising the industry

Thermit Australia’s Andrew Carter tells Rail Express how the company is implementing GS1 data standards and why global standards should be part of normal business.

As technological initiatives coordinate the Australian rail sector, the global standards that shape the entire industry will allow organisations to realise significant benefits as they streamline their operations. That’s why the Board of the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) is encouraging the implementation of GS1 global data standards across the Australasian rail industry to prepare it for its digital future.

For Andrew Carter, operations manager at Thermit Australia, suppliers of aluminothermic welding and glued insulated joints, it was a no brainer to start implementing GS1 standards and realise the vision towards a national approach of rail technology.

Carter has been involved in businesses that supply to the rail industry for the past 20 years. He took on a new role at Thermit Australia five years ago to manage operational interests. Carter has seen the industry evolve over the years, however, the biggest change to digitalisation in operations at the company occurred two years ago, when regional Victorian operator V/Line requested

Thermit to implement GS1 barcoding in 2018. Thermit Australia is one of 24 companies within the global Goldschmidt Thermit Group – a supplier of products and services for railway tracks. In the group’s 120 years of operation, this global standard had never been implemented before.

The Australian company was the first business across the international group to adopt GS1 barcoding. Initially looking to implement the standard as a standalone company within the Goldschmidt Thermit Group, the head office in Germany had also been investigating implementing GS1 standards across all of the group companies.

MODIFYING AND IMPROVING OPERATION
The Australasian Railway Association (ARA) is encouraging the industry to act on digital capabilities and automation of operational processes by using GS1 global data standards.

The ARA resolved for 2019 to be the year of building rail’s digital capability through a transformational joint initiative with GS1 called Project i-TRACE. The ARA and GS1 established an i-TRACE working group to help support the ambitious goal of rapid adoption of standardising the entire industry.

Thermit Australia had already implemented the GS1 standards, spearheading this initiative a whole year before the 2019 Project i-TRACE action plan.

Two years before V/Line had discussions with the ARA to adopt GS1 standards, the Victorian government-owned corporation was already having significant issues around tracking critical spares in the inventory of the company’s maintenance groups and project works.

V/Line consulted Thermit Australia to help standardise the identification (codification) and barcode labelling of stock to help fast track the management of inventory at V/Line’s main warehouse in Lara and the company’s additional 33 inventory depots across Victoria.

V/Line was the first customer that Thermit Australia had that wanted the introduction of GS1 standards, so the company had to undergo operational changes to its welding consumables labelling in order to meet V/Line’s product requests.

Carter said implementing a new system meant facing new challenges, but Carter said GS1 Australia assisted Thermit in understanding the practices for standards in the industry and building the system to improve data quality and barcoding.

“We knew we needed to adopt a GS1 coding based on a group wide format, so the key aspects of the project were to implement the Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) labelling on products for our customers, with V/Line being the first.”

Carter said throughout the initial process of modifying operations to comply with GS1 standards, V/Line provided valuable feedback to Thermit, ensuring the company can providing a suitable format that meets their requirements.

Thermit Australia had minor modifications during the implementation stage, sending V/Line prototype labels for review before supplying the final GS1 barcoded products, said Carter.

“We didn’t have to worry about V/Line coming back to us saying our barcoding wasn’t in line with their expectations as we engaged with GS1 the whole way through the first implementation stage,” he said.

Carter said the open collaboration between V/Line and GS1 Australia helped Thermit refine the style and format of labelling, according to the guidelines.

“GS1 Australia were of great assistance to help us implement the new barcoding guidelines, they would look at what we produced and then we created prototypes and got valuable feedback from V/Line.

“The first trial run of product with labels was sent to V/Line at the end of January 2019. Following feedback, some modifications were made and finalised at the end of March 2019 to provide them the efficiency they wanted through product handling,” Carter said.

“I’m very happy we’ve been proactive in embracing the GS1 barcoding standards as a supplier to the rail industry. It was an expectation in V/Line’s contract requirements and it potentially is a tender advantage as more requests for GS1 barcoding are rising within the industry.

“Once we implemented the barcoding with V/Line we have rolled it out to every customer that continues to request it, expanding our GS1 labelling process to major passenger rail networks including Metro Trains, Sydney Trains, and Queensland Rail.”

DRIVING TOWARDS DIGITALISATION

Carter said engaging with GS1 standards meant developing IT systems that aligned with the standard’s automating operational procedures.

Thermit Australia has two operational sites located in Somersby, NSW and Clontarf in QLD. Somersby was the initial facility using the barcoding standard as the site manufactures and provides welding consumables and implementation.

“The existing label generation at Somersby was a standalone system that required the manual transfer of data from our Navision ERP system into the label creation software,” Carter said.

“We decided to make this process more efficient and looked into having the ERP software send data automatically to the label software to generate the new GS1 compliant labels.”

After the company engaged its inhouse and external ERP software consultant, along with label manufacturer Wedderburn, Thermit Australia established that a new label generation software was required.

The new software, called Bartender, was compatible with the company’s existing label printing hardware, making the implementation process smoother, Carter explained.

“Our ERP system needed to be customised to allow the capture and transfer of the required data to the Bartender software,” he said.

By the end of June 2019, the new GS1 compliant product identification labelling was rolled out, with all customers receiving GTIN labels on the weld kits.

Since then, work has been commencing on adding GS1 barcoding to other products, with the first crucibles to be supplied to the market early this year.

Carter said the Clontarf site where labels are manufactured to be attached to the rail and installed in track will catch up in time.

At Clontarf, the existing product label is an aluminium tag with stamped data, and through the second half of 2019 Thermit investigated options to find a solution to add the GS1 data to the aluminium tag, Carter said.

“Dot peening was pursued with a new supplier and samples were sent to GS1 Australia and V/Line for assessment, they provided positive feedback however there were reliability issues reading the tags in different lighting environments.

“The readability of the dot peen on the aluminium is not satisfactory for the scanners that are already being used by our customers, so we are currently looking at a alternative materials instead and this work is ongoing.” Carter predicts over time the rail industry will more broadly see the benefits of adopting global standards, staying ahead and being up to speed with current standards has improved the efficiency of operations at Thermit Australia.

“This implementation project is driven by the industry and remains a key priority for us, so we will continue to endeavour to meet the requirements of our customers.”


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