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Leather traceability: CTC’s unique design for a solution

Posted in on 2020-03-25 by CTC
Implementing a reliable, simple and financially viable traceability system in the leather industry would provide it with an essential tool to secure its supply chain and respond appropriately to increasingly pressing societal concerns. After ten years of research, CTC is now proud to present a complete solution that allows players in the industry to face this major challenge.

A TRACEABILITY SYSTEM TO GAIN RELIABLE KNOWLEDGE OF THE ORIGIN OF HIDES


In a context where hides with only few defects are rare, it is important to improve the quality of leather through sustainable corrective actions, from the birth of the animal to the tannery, including transport, flaying and conservation.
CTC has developed and implemented a comprehensive solution with multiple benefits:

  • a reliable knowledge of the origin of finished leather,
  • securing supply sources through partnerships,
  • access to information pertaining to animal welfare.

 

LEATHER TRACEABILITY SYSTEM : FOUR PHASES 


The comprehensive solution we have designed and developed and are currently industrializing and implementing can be broken down into four phases.

Phase 1: securing the transfer of meat traceability to hides


Ideally, the system relies on the meat traceability requirements that are enforced in most industrialized countries. Where there are none, slaughterhouses can generate a unit identification code. Our solution’s first phase therefore consists in transferring this unitary identification number from the animal to the hide. This phase must take place on the slaughter line before the flaying station, so as to reliably keep the traceability chain continuous.

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"A range of unique industrial
tools ensuring reliable,
simple and economically
viable traceability."

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There are two options:

  • either the animal’s earring is instantly and autonomously flashed, a label is then printed in real time and the operator attaches this label to the hide’s flank, thus allowing to track it until the next phase of the process,
  • or the printer is directly connected to the slaughterhouse’s digital management system, which will initiate the order of editing a label with the unit identification number of the hide so that it is present at the pre-flaying application station.

The cost of this equipment is relatively low (less than €4k) and the cost of consumables is very low (under €0.067 excl. VAT per printed label).

This first phase allows small slaughterhouses to transfer meat traceability onto hides so as to provide reliably traceable hides to their clients at an economically viable cost, and also allows large slaughterhouses to ensure the continuity of traceability between the slaughter lines and the salting workshop where hides can be marked at their core.

leather traceability - Slaughterhouse labellerSlaughterhouse labeller and Industrial use in a slaughterhouse

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Phase 2: securing the transfer of traceability by marking at the hide at its core

We were quick to notice that no label or matter added on the hide could resist the tannery entry process (wet work / tanning), which means the unit mark must be copied into the core of the material. We have therefore opted to transfer it there by means of an innovative technology that fits right into our industry – laser marking.

 

 

> Laser marking

CTC has developed a high-power CO2 laser marking system. Transferring a 14-character code to the core of the hide by marking on the hair side takes a few seconds. This duration makes it possible to fully automate the operation and complete it in a masked time, during the process of salting or sorting raw hides.
After several studies, it was agreed that the best area for marking was on the shoulder, 15 cm to the left of the back line and 10 cm below the hide’s edge. 

 

The cost of the industrial system deployed in several French slaughterhouses and tanneries ranges from €100k to €150k depending on the level of automation and integration chosen.

 

> A functional and precise process

 


The marking process has proved itself on bovine leather (ranging from calf to bull) and exotic hides (alligator, snake), and tests are underway on lamb hides. This operation can be carried out at all stages from the extraction of the hide on the slaughter line to tannery entry if the hide bears a label as previously described.

Another crucial point in the success of this solution is the form and nature of the marked code. This code must respect a strict typology defined in terms of:

  • size and type of marking font,
  • marking power according to animal species,
  • structure (number and length of each line and information carried by each line).

All these settings are crucial to achieve very high automatic reading rates in the next phase.

 

Phase 3: patented solution – automatic reading of the mark from the tanned stage onward


After tanning, each skin is inspected. During the feasibility study, it was possible for an operator to read and copy the hide’s unit code and note down any defects along with it. This process cannot realistically be exported to an industrial operation, as it would both take too long and lack reliability. CTC has therefore developed automatic mark reading stations, for use during the sorting operation at the tanned stage (wet-blue, wet-white) first, and then at later stages of the process.

 

> Artificial intelligence (AI) for reliable and lasting character recognition

For this purpose, we have developed various leather image acquisition stations to suit the different configurations of sorting stations at each tannery. To date, we have three types of acquisition station (to capture images of the marked area), all of which use algorithms based on artificial intelligence (specifically neural networks). We could have used more common OCR-type image processing algorithms but the results would not have met expectations.

 

The solution developed by CTC makes it possible to recognize alphanumeric characters set in the hide, even when they were only partially marked or were warped during tanning. This integrated intelligence allows perfect reading rates to be achieved for more than 90% of production.
With a well built base, this approach allows for better efficiency than human operators could achieve in deciphering marks. AI makes it possible to adapt to the vast variations in the quality of markings that result from the processes of individual tanneries.

 

Artificial intelligence (AI) for reliable and lasting character recognition

Artificial intelligence (AI) for reliable and lasting character recognition

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> Acquisition stations tailored for tanneries


The first acquisition station, which is the least technically complex, allowed us to carry out the feasibility study and algorithmic modeling. 
It is composed of an area scan camera and a portable grazing light. The operator places this station on the mark and presses a button to trigger the image capture. The system then automatically locates and rotates the mark, decodes all the characters, and sends it to a piece of software to be associated with the defects found on the hide. 
The second acquisition station, which is fully automated, is designed for tanners equipped with a conveyor and an automatic stacker unit for sorting. Each hide passes under a linear camera and a grazing light, allowing for an image of the whole hide to be reconstructed, and the algorithms then automatically search for the mark, rotate it and decode it to store the code in a database. 

Our latest acquisition station, which is also fully automated, is intended for tanneries that sort hides piled on a pallet placed on a lifting table in front of the sorter. This station consists of a simple very high resolution area scan camera and a specific light, it scans the shoulder and the entire decoding operation is carried out by artificial intelligence algorithms that adapt to changes in image capture conditions over the course of the sorting operation. The feasibility study for this station is currently coming to an end and had yielded promising results. 

In all cases, algorithmic processing takes about a second, which is much less time than is needed to sort a wet-blue and determine its quality potential.

Following this series of studies, a harmonization phase allowed us to generalize the algorithm to all acquisition stations; this algorithm is improved as the learning progresses, thus ensuring that our solution is optimal and scalable over time.

Laser marking on a raw hide and Matrix camera automatic mark reading device

Laser marking on a raw hide and Matrix camera automatic mark reading device

 

> The algorithms developed in this third phase are patented by CTC.


This technology can also be applied to exotic hides, so as to transfer the CITES ring’s code to the core of the material and remove the ring itself, thus making it possible to work on the entire hide on through machines.

Traceability logistics diagram

Traceability logistics diagram

 

Phase 4: Centralized management system for material quality and traceability data


The last phase of the proposed comprehensive solution is to set up a data management system.
To do so, we currently offer two solutions:

  • the first is to use a regular database, in which information only flows downward. This solution aims at improving hide quality. With this in mind, we have defined a quality standard for hides, in collaboration with tanners and slaughterers,

This "Raw material quality" data architecture, combined with a single and complete tracking solution going back to the animal’s birth, opens up possibilities to implement quality charters specifying the origin of raw materials and providing information pertaining to animal welfare,

 

  • the second data management solution consists in implementing a generalized information management system for the entire supply chain, based on a blockchain*. The principle would be to connect all the CTC tools described here within this blockchain, in order to automatically feed it with reliable and non-declaratory information. The blockchain will be secure and guarantees persistent and unforgeable storage of data entered by all actors in this database.

In addition, many types of information pertaining to the craft could also be integrated to this blockchain, like for instance, the dates of interventions for corrective actions or notes on defects found on wet-blues.

This type of implementation (regular or blockchain database) makes it possible to meet all of the traceability project’s goals (improvement of hide quality, animal welfare, origin of hides and full monitoring of the supply chain).

 

TRACEABILITY : CONCLUSION AND PROSPECTS


This research and development project conducted by CTC at the request of the French leather industry has provided the industry with a range of unique industrial tools ensuring reliable, simple and economically viable traceability. These tools are undeniably crucial building blocks for the implementation of corrective actions aimed at sustainably improving hide quality, as well as the implementation of charters to guarantee and secure hide supply sources while respecting animal welfare. These elements are the foundations of an eco-responsible supply chain. 

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