CHICAGO — Sometimes it seems like goods processed by laundry and linen services simply get up and walk away.
One day, the product is put into use, the next day, it’s gone. There is technology in the marketplace that can help keep tabs on linens, along with offering other benefits.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) provides commercial laundries a mechanism by which to track all type of textiles.
“RFID is being used to track uniforms, scrubs, flat linen, terry, microfiber product, mats, tuxedos and more from the customer to the plant, through the plant and back to the customer,” says Jeff Markman, president of Positek RFID.
RFID provides inventory visibility, he says. Where is the inventory? How long does the inventory reside at each point during the process? How long does inventory last before it needs to be ragged out? What inventory is lost or destroyed the most often?
“Not every company focuses on the same potential benefit RFID can deliver,” Markman says. “Companies using RFID in linen have been able to reduce the amount of product needed to service accounts, bill customers by the piece instead of by weight, bill for loss that exceeds a certain percentage, increase the quality of product they rent, and more.”
Scott Sloan with Innovative Management Designs, which develops RFID tracking software, adds that RFID is not just for counting and tracking.
“We are starting to see locations implement additional data at scan point to use for production, packaging and distribution/shipping,” he says. “One example is with producing items in bundles. RFID allows a method to inspect a bundle to assure all items are tagged, all items in the bundle are the same item, and the count of the items in the bundle is correct.
“So, here, you gain a quality assurance element without adding too much to your existing RFID investment,” says Sloan.
RFID has been available in the laundry and linen services industry for quite a long time, according to Markman. The technology has progressed from low frequency (LF) at 125 Khz to high frequency (HF) at 13.56 Mhz to ultra-high frequency (UHF) at 900 Mhz.
“As the frequencies available have increased, we have seen the applications change,” Markman says. “LF and HF were produced in small, hardened round tags. They provided read ranges of 6 to 18 inches and moved from single-read to multi-read applications.”
He says the read range and limited bandwidth in those frequencies made it difficult to read bulk product effectively and efficiently. Then, in 2010, the first UHF tags became available.
“The frequency demanded a change in the format of the tag to a rectangular shape,” says Markman. “UHF tags have read ranges of 10 feet and read 10 times as fast as the latest HF tags.”
The ability to scan quickly in bulk provided the opportunity to develop solutions to read bulk product in carts, bags and slings. These benefits incrementally improved garment solutions, according to Markman.
“Textile maintenance companies could inventory at a customer site, scan carts of articles and run their scanning processes of single pieces and bundles faster,” he says. “For the first time, it was apparent that the technology was ready for products like linen and terry. Reading soil in carts and on conveyors was possible. Reading bundles and carts leaving was possible. Inventory at the customer was possible.”
Initially, adding RFID to assets was considered an alternate, more modern version of a bar code, Sloan says. But that is only the start of what RFID can do. Speed in counting creates a productivity increase.
“RFID development takes me back to the Internet browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape,” he says. “Every new release fixed previous issues and pain points and also offered something new.”
With multi-reader UHF tags, accountability with respect to the “chain of customer” of an item is easy to obtain, says Sloan. Laundries are more readily able to track what is in-plant and where, as well as out-of-plant by route, customer, item, and for how long. This create efficiencies with inventory control, ensuring laundry and linen services have the correct linen level in back stock, production and out in the field.
“Conversely, RFID costs have dropped to a point where the customers of laundries are tagging items and performing similar tracking of how well a laundry is returning what was sent,” says Sloan.
Tags come in different sizes and shapes for a number of reasons, but the underpinning of how a tag is scanned and what information is collected is effectively the same, according to Sloan.
“Your RFID vendor will generally assist you with engineering the best solution for your needs,” he says. “The challenge is ensuring your software vendor does not develop in such a way they only support one type of reader or chip.”
With respect to tracking, there is no difference in how scanning takes place. However, there are fundamental business processes that are different in what a laundry does when a tag is scanned, according to Sloan.
A hotel may be tracking what items are walking out the front door, he says. Nice Turkish robes, for example.
“In healthcare, you may be also tracking how many times a barrier gown is used before it needs to be removed from circulation or tracking where a cubicle curtain has been or washed for MRSA-related issues,” Sloan says.
UHF tags are all a little bit different, according to Markman. Some tags are suitable for use in MRI machines and some are not. Some tags can be reused easily and effectively.
He adds that some tags are sewn on and some tags are heat-sealed. Different classes of articles may require different attachment methods.
“Terry does not take a heat-seal very well. Heat-sealed tags may not survive repeated processing through a flatwork ironer,” he says. “A tag that has been heat-sealed is harder to reuse. Many manufacturers of product now offer RFID-tagged product, reducing the labor associated with starting up a RFID system.”
Sloan says there are three things a laundry and linen service needs to get started using RFID: Tags, readers, and software that supports the technology as well as the businesses that need to be reached.
He cautions, however, that there is more involved to using RFID: “You just don’t slap tags on items and ‘poof,’ RFID is a miracle,” Sloan says. “You should consult with an RFID vendor. They will let you know where RFID can help and improve your operation.”