Accurate identification of linen is essential for any laundry and the introduction of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) to the sector in the early 1990s has automated the process so that pieces can be identified quickly and efficiently.

Producers of the systems also argue that its lifetime costs and greater accuracy make it extremely cost effective.

Datamars, the company that claims to have pioneered laundry-specific RFID systems, says the value of such systems is now well recognised.

Multi-read systems have widened the scope of RFID in the laundry and increased its usefulness as have developments in transponders (also referred to as chips or tags).

Datamars says that the rate of adoption varies from country to country. Take-up is much slower in the USA, but more recently markets such as South America, Middle East and Far East have started to adopt the technology, largely in healthcare applications.

Tagsys produces RFID systems for several market sectors but has a division devoted to textile services applications. It says that its revenues in this market are growing by around 20% yearly – split half and half between established laundry users and new customers, including both those that are switching from barcodes to RFID for garments and customers that are starting to identify flatwork for the first time and using RFID to do so.

Looking at RFID’s geographic spread, Tagsys says the technology is well established in northern Europe but the number of installations in southern Europe is also increasing. In terms of applications, Tagsys views the healthcare sector as a growing market for RFID. Its use has improved the traceability of hospital goods and it is being used for workwear, flatwork, surgeons’ packs, mops, wipers and mats.

More nursing homes have adopted the system to identify personal garments belonging to residents and long-term patients.

The recession has affected RFID producers as it has all suppliers. Datamars says that laundries and other textile services reduced their stock levels and pushed back purchasing so investment decisions were often postponed. The impact varied from country to country so recovery is difficult to assess but generally speaking the trend is back to the levels of 2007 – 2008.

Tagsys agrees that the recession had an affect but also points out that garment rental contracts often last 3 – 5 years so the impact has not been immediate. It also feels that economic difficulties have led some laundry managers to invest in automated systems to reduce operational costs.

Development in RFID has been quick. Multi-read systems that allow bulk loads to be read in one scan with great accuracy have been adopted particularly by healthcare laundries and by those handling high volumes. Such systems can be used both on the soil-side and for folded and stacked items on the clean-side of the plant.

Various types of multi-read antennae have been introduced such as tunnel and chute antennae.

Tagsys points out that the establishment of an international standard, ISO 15693 has helped the introduction of the multi-read function and helped the market to deal with the constraints of proprietary solutions and systems.

Development in the chips or tags have boosted the market and widened the application field.

The laundry environment is particularly challenging as ID systems must be able to withstand high temperatures, humid atmospheres and also the chemicals and the mechanical action involved in wash and finishing processes. Over the years too equipment has become more powerful and operational speeds have increased. Datamars describes its Orion LaundryChip as “ultra resistant” and the company says Orion has been tested in the latest generation of laundry equipment and is already in use in leading flatwork laundries in Europe and beyond.

While RFID applications started in the workwear sector, the chips used in the early years were too large to be comfortable for the wearer if they were used in personal garments but now smaller versions such as Datamars Personal LaundryChip – just 11mm diameter or Tagsys Ario 370L-HL, with a button style design for easy attachment, are being used for residents’ personal garments in nursing and care home.

The use of radio frequency technology in identification systems has been further extended by the introduction of UHF (ultra high frequency) systems.

UHF systems are already in use industries such as logistics and access control but its introduction to the laundry sector is still in the early stages.

The advantage of UHF for laundries is that it will allow longer read distances. This will make it possible to track flatwork not only in the laundry but to and from end-user sites.

Tagsys says UHF is the only technology that allows an entire trolley or distribution cabinet full of linen to be scanned as it leaves or enters a laundry or hospital. The company currently has UHF projects under developments.

However while UHF has great potential, Datamars points out that it also presents challenges as it affects tag size and involves higher costs and must also be able to operate in the harsh laundry environment. The company is working on a system to suit the laundry market and believes that in future it could be an additional solution alongside the current HF and LF versions of RFID.

Gathering data

Identification systems not only allow greater traceability of linen within the laundry, they also provide management with an efficient means of gathering data that will help to improve and develop production.

In this, the software packages that support RFID are vital.

ABS specialises in this area and indeed it has a partnership with Datamars that allows the two, when appropriate, to present joint propositions to the market.

The company says that it has seen growth in the past 18 months despite the recession, as tight finances mean that the data its software provides are even more crucial. Many customers needed to gather details that would allow them to invoice accurately in areas such as providing additional services or charging for stock losses and repairs.

The ABS production information management system (PIMS) has become a high priority to minimise costs. Labour is a high-cost part of the operation and it needs to be used efficiently. ABS says that as the need for analytical data provided by PIMS Increased, laundries needed more benchmarking and realtime data to allow quicker reactions and decision making. They needed to monitor the profitability of individual accounts and they also needed the PIMS Dashboard functions that allowed customers instant access to key performance indicators and other information that would allow more efficient monitoring and could be customised to the laundry’s individual needs.

ABS says that demand for web-based applications is expanding and such software is growing in importance and has been adopted more widely, especially in Europe. The company’s USP is that it focusses on laundry-specific software. It has redesigned its ABSSolute web application, broadening the options available for both linen and garments.

Linen applications now allow the laundries to do customer counts and handle orders online. ABS software will also allow online stock counts and order adjustments.

Additional options for garments include allowing laundry customers to add employees to their account and also to remove staff who have left and to adjust the garments allocated to each wearer.

Laundry customers can now use the online system to identify garments that will need special treatment when they next come in for washing or where a change such as a different size may be needed.

Laundries can also use the web application to print reports on both linen and garment production.