Manufacturing Traceability Solutions: What Are The Options?

Anyone who works in manufacturing, whether it’s automotive parts or oil and gas equipment, knows that proper traceability is key to product success. 

Having proper identification information on your components isn’t just helpful for inventory and maintenance, it’s also a federal requirement for many industries. 

But what are the manufacturing traceability solutions on the market for permanent identification? Well, there are a lot of options, some better than others. Here’s the rundown:

Which Manufacturing Traceability Solution Is Best for You?

The ideal traceability solution for you will depend on your industry, processes, and applications. For example, delicate components like solar panels will benefit from laser marking, while other heavy-duty parts can use dot peen marking. 

At the end of the day, the goal is to provide permanent and legible marking. Some of the most well-known methods include:

  • Dot peen marking
  • Laser marking
  • Inkjet marking
  • Impact presses
  • Chemical etching

Dot Peen Marking

Dot peen is a direct part marking method, meaning that the marking head of the machine interacts directly with the component to achieve a permanent mark that is able to survive harsh operating environments

Dot peen machines use an impact stylus to create small indents on a part’s surface to create letters, numbers, logos, or  2D datamatrix codes. Because the mark is formed via material displacement instead of material removal, it is considered a low-stress marking technique ideal for aerospace as well as oil and gas applications.

This method of marking is compatible for complete automation The marking head can be integrated inline for high-volume production lines and requires minimal operator intervention.

Dot peen marking equipment is also well-suited to manual marking operations. It can mark large or hard-to-reach parts, especially if you’re using a hand-held dot peen machine. Plus, dot peen is compatible with a wide range of metal materials, including steel, iron, and aluminum.

Laser Marking

Laser marking is one of the most widely used manufacturing traceability solutions because of its versatility. The mark is achieved by super-heating the part surface to etch, ablate, or anneal the material substrate Target applications that are ideal for laser marking include:

  • Wide range of plastics
  • Ferrous and non-ferrous metals
  • Elastomer compounds
  • Organic materials (like wood or cardstock)

The laser marking system is ideal for high- or low-volume production capable of marking  high quality 2D data matrix barcodes and alphanumeric text to logos and graphics. 

Other benefits of laser marking include:

  • Compact design
  • Flexibility
  • Advanced, yet simple programming
  • Capable of full automation
  • 3D part marking
  • Solid state design
  • No consumables cost

While dot peen marking requires the stylus to make contact with the product, laser marking is a non-contact traceability method. This makes laser better adapted to marking complex geometries or delicate materials. 

Inkjet Marking

While dot peen and laser marking systems provide a permanent traceability solution, inkjet marking is semi-permanent. 

Inkjet marking functions a lot like a regular printing machine — using drops of ink to mark information on a substrate. It’s often regarded as one of the fastest marking methods, and is capable of marking on:

  • Wood
  • Rubber
  • Concrete
  • Textiles
  • Plastic
  • Metal 

The downfall of inkjet marking is that it’s only semi-permanent. High levels of wear and tear or exposure to harsh environmental conditions can wear away the marking. As such, inkjet marking is usually used for consumer goods packaging, where the mark only needs to survive the short life of the product.

Impact Press Marking

Just like dot peen marking, an impact marking press indents a material with the desired identification information. However, the methods are different. 

Whereas dot peen marking uses a series of cold-stamped dots to mark text, 2D data matrix codes, or logos into a material, the impact press uses a die to stamp the information instead

The process is similar to a letterpress, where characters are arranged in a certain order and then stamped onto the substrate. But with impact marking, the tooling is applied with enough pressure to indent the material. 

A mechanical impact punch is versatile, capable of other manufacturing operations like coining or bending materials. However, the process isn’t digital (meaning the information is not dynamic) and has higher tooling and maintenance costs than other methods of marking. 

Chemical Etching

Chemical etching takes a completely different approach to direct part marking. This method uses chemical compounds to subtract materials from the marking surface via a process of electrolysis to create the impression. 

Chemical etching is essentially an accelerated form of oxidation. A stencil is soaked in an electrolyte solution and applied to the material. A low-voltage electric current is then applied to the stencil to initiate the oxidation process. 

Chemical etching requires several steps to prepare the part for marking, but it’s a cost-efficient and quick process. It’s also less invasive than other marking methods, making it ideal for thin-wall parts.

However, chemical etching, like the impact press, is not a digital process. The information on each stencil is fixed, so you’ll need unique stencils for each different marking. On the upside, the materials involved are low cost. Chemical etching is ideal for low-volume applications such as prototyping. 

This method of marking is mainly used for metal substrates like steel, aluminum, or nickel alloys. If you’re looking for marking on plastic or rubber, laser marking might be a better option. 

Finding the Right Direct Part Marking Method for Your Application

A lot hinges on proper identification for manufactured parts, so finding the right manufacturing traceability solution method for your operation is critical. Many of these methods can be customized to meet your specific requirements and improve your production line. 

To learn more about the benefits of dot peen and laser marking systems, contact us! We’ve provided industrial marking and traceability solutions for countless industries!

(Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in March 2021 and was updated in August 2022 to reflect current information.)