What is Serialization?

What is Serialization?

Serialization is the application of a globally unique serial number to supply-chain objects, particularly retail units. Successful serialization, particularly of mass-produced items, requires the integration of multiple systems, including enterprise software, printer or tagging technologies, reader systems, and production machinery, to apply and verify unique serial numbers.

Identifying products

For many consumer packaged goods, particularly those that have a long shelf-life, the individual units are essentially interchangeable. In this case, absent other supply-chain considerations, identification of the product type is enough to identify any instance of the product.

Other products, including ones that are perishable and ones that are subject to regulation like pharmaceuticals, are granted a higher level of differentiation through the assignment of a lot or batch number. A lot number sets apart a group of the product, comprising up to several thousand units, distinguishing them from units in other batches.

The use of a lot number enables some additional control. Other attributes, like an expiration date, can be associated with the lot. The products in the lot could conceivably be tracked as they move within the distribution system, assuming that the lot number is captured and reported at waypoints in the supply chain. The designation of the lot can also facilitate some control within the supply chain, including reverse logistics efforts such as recalls.

Identifying individual units

To further differentiate between instances of a product, each item can be assigned a unique serial number. In the past, economics only supported such an effort for higher-ticket items like appliances, consumer electronics or cars. However, as related manufacturing technologies have evolved, it has become feasible to assign numbers to lower-cost items. (In parallel with this development, some industries have come under regulations that require unit serialization, particularly pharmaceuticals.) Technologies to store, communicate, and share serial numbers, have also developed to complement the application of the numbers.

A unique serial number enables the same measures as a lot number, but of course at a more granular level. An expiration date can be assigned to a serialized object, each individual object can be tracked in the supply chain, and recalls can be keyed on individual serial numbers.

Enhancing through standards

The value of serialization increases when any entity in the supply chain—from manufacturers to distributors to retailers to the end user—can read the serial number and identify the object. Contemporary serialization efforts typically apply standardized methods to the attachment of the serial number (through barcodes, 2D symbols, or RFID) and the formatting of the number itself. Such standards pave the way to simplified reporting, track and trace, and other enhancements to the distribution and sale of products.

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