How emerging technologies can both improve and exacerbate product recalls

Advances in technology tend to be mixed blessings for product recalls. They often introduce new product safety vulnerabilities while, at the same time, may offer new capabilities that improve recall efficacy.

The impact of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, big data, and others on product recalls are slowly unfolding, but emerging patterns give us some sense about how these technologies might affect product safety and recall management in the future.

We’re already seeing this play out in big ways in the medical device, automotive, food & beverage, pharmaceutical, and consumer product goods industries. In a rush to be first to market with the latest innovations, medical device manufacturers have experienced significant increases in recalls due to the devices’ firmware or software, for example. In the Q4 2018 Recall Index, software issues were the main cause for the eleventh consecutive quarter for medical device recalls. There were 79 software-related recalls, which far surpassed all other causes including mislabeling (43 recalls), quality issues (36 recalls), and sterility (27 recalls). In 2017 automotive researchers found they could hack wirelessly into an automotive telematics system and shut down the engine. Next-generation lithium batteries have introduced countless explosion and fire hazards to electronic consumer products.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is amping up its oversite of IoT-connected devices in the home. For example, a malfunction in one smart home device raises the risk that other devices in the home control system can fail, such as a smart smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector.

Yet, there are optimistic patterns as well. The role of IoT-enabled connected cars with AI-driven autonomous driving capabilities holds great promise for improving not only the driving experience but in reducing overall driving accidents. True, we’ve already seen some accidents – including a few fatalities – caused by self-driving cars. But statistics suggest that human drivers will continue to cause far more accidents and fatalities during this digital transformation of the industry.

Connected cars bring with them unprecedented levels of data that can be enormously helpful in recall management. If a safety issue emerges, data analytics can help uncover the cause earlier before they become catastrophic problems that impact more people. Consumer complaints can be tracked more precisely to specific parts, and thus the defect’s origins in the supply chain. Repairs can be tracked more thoroughly, and regulatory compliance reporting can be simplified.

IoT also makes a defective product less likely to actually be removed. Recalled medical devices, for example, are particularly problematic because there are stringent FDA regulatory requirements to follow concerning coordinating seamless notification and response, to managing product retrieval, field repair, or destruction. Even if onsite corrections are the best remedy, the manufacturer must coordinate the effort with myriads of hospitals, physician offices, and even patient homes. IoT connectivity offers the potential to fix technologically-based problems through over-the-air software fixes, without having to transport products or coordinate technician visits.

In another example, AI can be hugely helpful in managing food recalls. Because complaints tend to originate from consumers first, AI can be used to scan social media posts and other sources to spot emerging trends and take proactive action earlier.

AI can also be used with telematics to improve product traceability. Telematics, which is another form of automotive IoT, can enable product manufacturers to track when and where product shipments were made as well as where recalled products are in the retrieval and remedy cycle.

The bottom-line: innovation will always tend to introduce unintended consequences. The key difference with today’s new emerging technologies is that, while their new functionalities might introduce new product safety risks, their advanced intelligence and connectivity can also make them incredibly useful for solving product hazards before they get out of hand, and improve the efficacy of product recall campaigns when needed.

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