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On the Trail of Textiles

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Photo: © iStockphoto/Amanda Rohde

CHICAGO — Those who manage laundry/linen services or textile rental firms find that tracking and counting the goods streaming in and out of their plants improves productivity and inventory control.

Yes, washing, drying and finishing goods for an end-user or client is only part of a professional launderer’s job. Keeping track of the linen, garments or mats flowing into and out of their facility is just as important.

So, how does a laundry go about tackling that task in the most efficient way possible?

RFID SYSTEMS

Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, first used for item tracking and access-control applications, made its way into the textile service industry in the 1990s. Key components of an RFID system generally include a tag or chip (packaged into a rugged plastic casing specially designed to withstand harsh industrial laundry processes), an antenna connected to a reader, and a reader connected to a software system that collects and manages the data collected. The tag or chip is affixed to a garment or linen in some fashion.

“Such devices come in many forms and sizes, from small wires and tags to tiny chips,” says Ecolab’s Jim Mitchell, who discussed linen tracking while a member of the American Laundry News Panel of Experts. “Using these devices to track linen flow is becoming commonplace, especially with more expensive linens such as uniforms, bed linens and silks.

“Although some laundries use RFID tags or chips for inventorying, sorting and tracking of all linens, having these devices applied to common linens such as sheets and terry may not be practical or economical in your operation.”

RFID technology is constantly improving, according to Mitchell, and devices on the market are smaller, more cost-effective and offer greater resistance to adverse cleaning elements.

There are many instances of organizations using RFID tracking to better maintain their inventories. For example, Four Winds Casinos recently selected InvoTech’s RFID Multi-Property Uniform Tracking System to centrally consolidate uniform inventory, tracking and purchases for all of its properties to reduce labor and purchasing costs.

Four Winds use the InvoTech system coupled with a White Conveyors system to automatically deliver uniforms to employees’ hands. InvoTech centrally tracks uniform use, controls inventories, monitors laundry cycles, and consolidates purchasing for more than 10,000 uniforms.

“We now have an accurate combined uniform inventory count for all properties on one database and can purchase in larger numbers to benefit from higher-volume buys,” says Jennifer Lasiewicz, Four Winds Casinos’ vice president of hotel operations.

Four Winds launders its own uniforms and uses an RFID drop-chute reader to record when staff returns soiled items.

“It reads each uniform’s RFID chip as the garment is dropped,” Lasiewicz says. “We do not manually count every piece the staff returns to our laundry. With a large number of employees, that would take a long time. InvoTech monitors uniforms coming and going at all properties, and we maintain a central bulk inventory at Four Winds New Buffalo to simplify our operation.”

Some hotels are even using RFID technology to deter theft. They are sewing tags into pricey linens such as towels, bathrobes and high-thread-count sheets. When a tag is read by a strategically placed RFID reader, a system instantly alerts staff that an item is in danger of being pilfered.

A Hawaii hotel which introduced the technology a couple of years ago claimed to have reduced theft of its pool towels from 4,000 a month to just 750, saving $16,000 in replacement costs monthly.

BAR-CODE LABELING

Bar coding is a more mature, simpler technology than RFID. Such a system can provide a launderer with information about each individual item, including when it was last turned in, how many times it has been processed, and when it was originally issued. Bar codes are generally thought to be less expensive than RFID tags.

But bar-code labeling has some limitations. It requires line of sight, which RFID does not in most cases. RFID systems can read multiple tags simultaneously, while bar codes are read one at a time. Many RFID tags are read/write, while a bar code is read-only. And most fixed RFID readers don’t require human involvement to collect data, while most bar-code scanners require a human to operate them.

Some large plants apply a bar-code label as well as an RFID tag, so if something prevents the RFID tag from being read, the bar code serves as a backup.

Regardless of how one goes about tracking their textiles, gathering the information is just the first step. Then one has to decide what the data means and then put it to use it in their operation.

 “Item tracking with RFID chips, bar codes, electronic route accounting, etc., are all important opportunities to help you control your merchandise,” says American Dawn’s Steve Kallenbach, a former member of the American Laundry News Panel of Experts. “However, if you don’t have good reconciliation processes, any of these systems will only allow you to know what’s missing!”

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