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RFID – Identifying Productivity in the Laundry Industry

For more than a decade the laundry industry has been exploring work tracking and logistics systems that employ bar code and radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies to keep tabs of everything from commercial uniforms and work clothes to rented formal wear. 

  With dozens of trial deployments and tens of thousands of RFID tags affixed to clothes and linens, where is the laundry market in its use of this technology?  What kind of value is being realized and what’s next?

Logistics ID technologies, notably RFID, has progressed significantly. These ID tags now store more information, read data faster and are designed for the harsh and robust environments the laundry industry requires.  At the same time, we’ve seen logistics and work tracking systems as well as application software improve in functionality, ease of integration and cost. So are we at the next threshold for RFID-based tracking?  Likely, yes.

RFID is widely deployed across logistics, manufacturing and process industries for everything from work-in-progress tracking to inventory control and logistics.  Yet, the laundry industry faces some challenges in unique settings that have not yet fully tapped into the potential of RFID.

In the garment and linen rental markets, assets, from work clothes to tablecloths, are relatively low-value assets that need to be tracked across their lifecycle. Garments and linens go through dozens, if not hundreds of collection, cleaning, sorting and delivery cycles, in what are typically very labor intensive processes.  Add the harsh, high temperature environments of a laundry environment and RFID has to perform to levels beyond most normal industrial settings.  

It Starts with a Tag
At the core of RFID laundry and textile rental tracking is managing assets, increasing productivity, and improving service in ways that create ROI along the way.

It all begins with an RFID tag attached to a garment or linen.  The industry has created a series of ISO standards-based, high-frequency 13.56 MHz tags that are encapsulated in plastic to withstand the harsh temperatures and detergents found in commercial laundries. Tags are programmed with a unique ID number that can be read and linked to asset tracking and logistics applications. Unlike bar codes that require line of site and item-by-item manual scanning, RFID-tagged garments can be read while stored in bags or racked on hanger bundles. 

When an asset is added into the inventory and tracking application, the unique ID code is read, entered into the system and matched to an asset tracking number linked to any number of variables from the type of garment to the name of the customer and their company.  More advanced 13.56 MHz tags include off-network authentication which is a “read/write” function where data can be written to and stored on the tag, off-line from the application.   For example, a delivery person might time-stamp the garment with a hand-held RFID reader when it is delivered or picked-up, or the laundry tag might be easily assigned a unique customer code at drop off and then upon pick-up the tag can be read to verify ownership.

Building Value from Collection to Distribution … a “Disassembly” Line?
What is interesting about the laundry industry is that, in a way, it’s one of the few process industries that assembles and then disassembles its product … and then assembles it again.  The product is not a single item, but the entire inventory brought together and delivered to a customer.

An industrial laundry or textile rental operation first acquires “product components” (individual items of clothing or linens in its rental inventory) then, after use by a customer, collects and assembles these components into “product” loads or bundles for washing.  Exiting the wash and press cycle the “product” has been essentially taken apart and needs to be sorted and reassembled into a “new product” (groups of hangers or bundles), ready for customer delivery. 

Along the way there is a lot of cost, time and potential for error and customer dissatisfaction, all for what is essentially a highly manual, volume intensive, tight margin business. At every step, efficiencies, ROI and productivity need to be squeezed out of the work tracking system.  Let’s look at each stage of the work flow process and examine where RFID can build efficiencies.

Pick-Up and Collection
We spoke earlier about getting an item into inventory, tagging an asset and linking that ID number to an item tracking, database and logistics application.  Let’s view the process from the point where the item, be it work clothes or linens, have been used and are ready for pick-up.

A driver, equipped with a mobile data collection device can not only collect and record the number of bags being picked up but, because multiple high-frequency RFID tags can be read simultaneously, the driver is collecting item-level information at the site of pick up, rather than a manual count and sort process back at the laundry facility.  The information from the mobile device is typically downloaded to a host computer system back in the laundry facility.

If the driver is not equipped with a portable data collection device, the in-take process can be done at the laundry facility with a similar reader, or one attached or integrated in a sling bag or other unloading conveyor system which tracks not only each bag but each individual item as well.

The system not only collects information on how many bags from which customers are coming into the facility.  It can also automatically reconcile an item-level count between uniforms still being used by the customer and items in the laundry, to alert the company to potential loss of inventory.

It is also possible to use the RFID system to gain visibility on how much inventory is in the laundry’s processing pipeline to schedule optimum washing and drying loads as well as work shifts.

Wash, Press and Get it Out the Door
As clothes and linens move through the washing, drying, pressing and folding processes, RFID tags need to withstand extreme heat, moisture, pressure and harsh detergents.  Opposed to bar code labels which require manual scanning of each item, and where printing can wear off or labels can become frayed, RFID presents a robust and durable alternative.  RFID laundry tags operating at 13.56 MHz provide a secure and permanent ID to garments and linens, and because they do not require a battery (called a passive tag) they can last the lifetime of the asset. 

As garments and items move from the wash, dry and press cycles, the sorting process begins; garments are sorted by type, size, user, and company, depending on the item.  They are then placed on hangers and packaged into orders for customer delivery.  Orders may also be bundled according to delivery date and distribution route.  Here again RFID is automating what was previously a highly labor-intensive process of tracking assets as items were identified, sorted and passed along to a series of racks and conveyors making their way to a bundling and delivery station.  With RFID-tagged items, RFID readers placed alongside or integrated into automated conveyor systems can track, and then automatically route garments via a series of conveyors.  The process is analogous to a train yard where cargo cars are routed along tracks to a central line where they’re assembled into a freight convoy.  Bundled items on carts can also be automatically read to ensure that the proper items are ready and are being correctly loaded into delivery vehicles.

The high degree of automation is not only speeding productivity and reducing multiple manual steps, but some industrial laundries using automated reading, sorting and conveying systems find they are reducing the square footage required for sorting and holding operations.  

Customer Service and Accountability
While we’ve compared the use of RFID in the laundry business to a manufacturing process – assembling, taking apart and reassembling bundled “products,” when it comes to customer service the RFID analogy may be closer to overnight package delivery industry.  Certainly customers need to know when a delivery of hundreds of items is being made to a factory, restaurant or hotel, but often more importantly the question is “what happened to that shirt and pants?”

With RFID item-level tracking at every step of the pick-up, wash, sort and delivery process, a laundry or textile rental operation has complete visibility into both its inventory and an individual item a customer needs to track. A lost shirt?  It wasn’t part of the load we picked up.  Or maybe it was mistakenly delivered to the wrong site.  RFID and advanced tracking and logistics systems can pinpoint laundry carts, bags or individual items much the way FedEx can tell you when a package was loaded on a truck.  The cost of taking someone off line to locate a single lost item is a cost that far exceeds the value of any single garment or linen, and that’s before you factor in the cost of an unhappy customer.

The same RFID tracking capability also helps in the management of a company’s inventory and product life-cycle management.  Monitoring the use and wash-cycles of that item to determine when to take the item out of circulation can provide insight into when to factor new inventory costs into a company’s planning.

When the laundry industry began its early betas on RFID they found success in discreet operations such as pick-up and delivery, automated sorting and lost item tracking. Today, RFID along with a host of tracking, logistics and even customer relationship management (CRM) applications is putting the benefits of automatic data collection along the entire laundry inventory, work-tracking, delivery and customer service value chain, creating new productivity and ROI along the way.


Quick Rinse - News From Around The World

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