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.
After all, you can’t wash what you can’t find.
At a nursing home with an on-premise laundry, for example, tracking could be as simple as writing a resident’s name on his or her clothing with an indelible-ink marker. But larger laundries and textile rental companies that process a variety of goods for multiple customers can justify high-tech tracking to fulfill many needs and even save money in the long run.
Radio-frequency identification, or RFID, was first used for item tracking and access-control applications. It made its way into the textile service industry in the 1990s, and has enjoyed consistent growth as operators have discovered its capabilities.
Textile identification and sorting in industrial laundry processes can be greatly enhanced through RFID technology, says Datamars SA, which has supplied RFID products to more than 700 textile service companies around the globe. Some benefits of RFID tracking include faster textile identification, automatic sorting, error-free processing, and reduced manual labor.
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 either sewn or heat-sealed to a garment, flatwork or mat. As the article passes by a reader, the tag is read and the information relayed to the computer. RFID tags, which are read/write devices, can carry a variety of information such as customer name, individual user name, item number, number of laundry cycles, etc.
RFID tags don’t require a direct line of sight and can be read in any orientation, according to TAGSYS RFID, which provides systems that include tags, readers and related software. And RFID systems can read several tags at once, which means greater speed in processing soiled and clean products.
For example, TAGSYS RFID’s tunnels can identify, in a few seconds and without the need to open them, the entire contents of laundry bags, the company says.
Accurately managing delivery and return when multiple clients held multiple events, often at the same time, was a challenge for La Tavola Fine Linen, a Napa, Calif., linen rental company. It needed a fast, accurate sorting process and the ability to quickly track down missing linens, so it implemented Datamars’ RFID technology.
“Our goal is to never lose a customer because we are trying to track down the status of a linen and therefore [are] unable to respond in a timely manner,” says Betsy Stone, La Tavola’s owner. “Now with just a single scan, the system automatically moves the item from clean to available status and outputs an identification label including linen style, color, size and warehouse location.”
RFID chips are guaranteed for five years, says Bill Dougherty, regional director of business development for Positek RFID, a supplier of RFID-enabled sorting and tracking software to the textile rental industry. “They do not need to be replaced and can actually be used in more than one item over their lifetime.”
“We see a great potential for RFID in the hospitality business through medical facilities and nursing homes where patient garments and linens are increasingly being handled by the facilities themselves,” TAGSYS says.
When Julie Coleman’s mother and grandmother were in long-term nursing care, she found herself continuously replacing clothing lost in the laundry. Families of the residents tried writing names in with permanent marker, Coleman recalls, but the ink often bled or the writing simply faded away after washing.
Coleman began testing and developing her own labels, and her Names Made® labels have been washed and dried 300 times in an industrial laundry setting. Heat-press maker Stahls’ Hotronix has partnered with Names Made to create a turnkey clothing identification system for creating labels and bar codes that can be heat-applied to garments.
Garment check-in, tracking and assembly require much less labor when bar-code labels are used, says Diane Rue, vice president of sales and marketing for EzProducts International. Her company manufactures presses for applying labels and RFID tags, as well as the labels themselves. EzProducts’ clients include nursing homes, commercial laundries and drycleaners.
“Permanent bar-code labels eliminate the paper batch tags and provide a permanent serial number for every garment that enters your plant,” Rue says. “This not only eliminates the labor to attach and sometimes remove the paper batch tags, but they also eliminate the cost and confusion that results from paper batch tags falling off in your plant.”
But bar-code labels can have some drawbacks.
“The bar code must be seen by the scanner to be read,” Dougherty says. This requires handling of each piece, which lowers productivity and could be a health concern for workers who sort soiled linen from healthcare facilities, he adds.
In some cases, RFID tags and bar-code labels are used in concert.
“Some large plants apply a bar-code label as well as an RFID tag,” Rue says. “Then, if the RFID tag fails to read, they can use the bar code as a backup.”
“Personalized items need a visual identifier for the route salesperson and user,” says Dougherty. “Most customers use both on any item. Most users enter both identifiers into their database, which acts as a cross-reference. Therefore, if one is removed, they still have one … and can retain all the history in their database.”
Is any tracking system perfect?
“Nothing is perfect or foolproof,” Rue says. “Computers fail, RFID tags fail to read or fall off, bar-code labels get damaged and fall off. However, these problems can be minimized with proper operator training, purchasing the best equipment, and good quality-control procedures.”