Keeping track of the work flowing into and out of the laundry is just as important as the laundry process itself.

In a small laundry operation such as a care home OPL, linen may be identified manually using an indelible-ink marker.

Larger laundries and textile rental companies that process a variety of goods for multiple customers can justify the cost of high-tech identification and tracking systems.

Automatic Identification (Auto-ID) technology includes smartcards, barcodes and RFID (radio frequency identification). These systems allow more detailed information about each piece to be recorded and laundries can customise the data according to specific requirements.

Two strong trends were apparent at this year’s Texcare International. First the use of RFID technology to identify and track garments is increasing in both laundry and drycleaning sectors.

The second trend was the development of management information systems that can be set up to use information collected during the tracking process.

Several systems for identifying and tracking linen and garments as they pass through the textile care processes were on view. Suppliers were demonstrating a variety of ways in which auto-ID systems could be used to increase the efficiency of a textile care operation.

RFID solutions were very much to the fore and laundry managers are increasingly using this technology to monitor processes and procedures more effectively. The real-time information captured by RFID allows managers to be alerted when compensatory decisions must be taken.

In addition, linen security is now a becoming a high profile concern. The high cost of cotton has made all kinds of linen a very attractive target for the thief. Traceability is becoming increasingly important. Being able to validate information relating to an item helps to improve security.

Deister Electronic in Germany has developed Textag-laundry, a textile UHF RFID “soft” tag specifically designed for the industrial laundry sector. The UST 2080-IPC soft tag was successfully tested at several industrial laundries in Germany.

Now Womitex, which has provided linen hire services in the Netherlands for over 25 years, is using the system to reduce the losses of terry towels. Deister says that the tags can also be used with sheets, duvets or pillowcases.

The soft tag is designed for applications that require a flexible material, where a hard tag could damage the textile or where the hard tag itself might break.

The soft tag is said to be resistant to high temperatures (in a tunnel finisher, for example) and to various cleaning methods including drycleaning as well as laundering.

One trend that seems to be beginning is for textile suppliers to provide their products with RFID already incorporated.

Richard Haworth, the supplier of bed, bath and table linen to the hospitality sector, is offering to supply stock with RFID transponders (chips) already fitted and this is done at its factory in Kearsley. The Lancashire-based supplier says the service will help businesses to manage premium stock control, ensure that linen is used correctly by identifying the source of linen that has been misused and reduce theft.

The company will also offer a retrofit service for existing stock. Raj Ruia, managing director of Richard Haworth, says: “Traditionally, lead times for receiving RFID-chipped stock can be lengthy. What sets Richard Haworth apart is that we can process a chip order on our site and turn it around to meet the customer’s needs, whether it’s an order for 100 or 10,000.”

In the heavy-duty laundry sector, the Texcare show provided several examples of garment and hanger identification that allow work to be tracked throughout the laundry process. These used chips and/or barcodes as required by the individual laundry.

The Jensen Group’s Cockpit management information system allows laundry managers to monitor process performance and make adjustments when necessary. The system can be linked to existing administrative systems and to all units in the laundry.

Jensen says that with the increasing complexity of laundry operations and reduced cycle times, tracking batches and visualising them in the laundry process is essential.

Jensen’s Metricon automatic garment transport and sorting system can be equipped with Jensen’s batch tracking system. This allows the laundry to see in real time where each customer’s work is at each stage of the process. The Metricon track and trace software integrates garment handling with the laundry’s own administrative systems for garment tracking, inventory control and invoicing. The software is constantly updated with industry developments.

The track and trace function is an essential part of Jensen’s SpeedDress automated garment handling system, which can be used with RFID or with barcodes. The laundry delivers the garments to the point of use where the sorting takes place. This can either be on-site, using Jensen’s Metricon system or at the end-user’s premises with SpeedDress. The system is custom-built and consists of two main parts, an interface with the garment pick-up and a “back-room” section where garments are stored on Metricon rails and then inserted into the SpeedDress dispenser.

Permanent barcode labels can provide a permanent serial number for every garment that enters the laundry.

While barcodes are often used for identification, the use of RFID is increasing. Tagsys, which specialises in this area, says that RFID can have several advantages over barcodes including the possibility of remote reading and multi-read systems. A typical RFID system is made up of three components: transponders (tags or chips), antennae (readers) and the host computer system.

RFID will track a piece through the laundry but can also collect a vast amount of data, which can then be analysed by a host computer.

Tagsys sees 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. Increasingly nursing and care homes have adopted the system to identify personal garments belonging to residents and long-term patients.

Ultra high frequency (UHF) systems have further extended the use of RFID. Although well established in applications such as logistics, its introduction to the laundry sector is relatively recent.

Tagsys has developed a workflow management system for the textile rental sector. Using UHF technology, the modular system can be used for tasks such as soiled-work check in, order preparation and check-out. These are all controlled by the management system’s central monitor which provides a detailed analysis of the processes carried out as the tagged item passes through the laundry.

The modular system can be adapted as a business grows and can also be linked to other business applications. It is compatible with the majority of ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems available on the market.

Tagsys has introduced the LinTRAK UHF RFID tag, a discreet woven label, which can be seamlessly integrated into textile items. It can sustain pressure of up to 60bar and a temperature of 200C. This tag is guaranteed for 200 cycles or three years.

Imesa, the Italian producer of laundry equipment for the commercial and OPL sectors, has recognised that an RFID system could have great appeal in one of its key markets, the care-home/nursing homes sector.

Traditionally this sector has used laundry labels or barcodes to identify residents’ garments but increasingly homes are turning to RFID for greater traceability.

So Imesa has worked with RFID specialist Datamars to develop the Iris system, which is specifically designed for identifying personal clothing in nursing/care homes. A small pocket containing the button-size chip is sewn onto each garment. The system can identify the garment’s owner instantly and the laundry manager can track its route throughout the laundry process.

A palm-held computer (called Tiddy) can be used to register garments when they are collected from the guest’s room. If the linen is collected in closed bags, then sorting begins in the laundry room, where the garments are read by a table or tunnel antenna.

As a specialist in RFID, Datamars has experience in developing a wide range of applications and has an extensive range of LaundryChips (as its transponders are branded).

The latest development is the Novo LaundryChip. This has been developed for high-volume bulk-read applications where the reading range needs to be over one metre. Novo LaundryChips can be heat-sealed onto fabric so they can be attached quickly as there is no need to use an extra patch or to sew the chip into a seam.

A Novo-based system can be used to track pooled work for hotels, restaurants and hospitals. There are two versions of this LaundryChip – one for workwear and the other for flatwork.

But it is not just the RFID specialists that are providing automated ID solutions.

The materials handling specialist Metalprogetti offers automated systems for sorting, storing and distributing garments in hospitals and hotels with the option of RFID or barcode.

The company says that it is becoming more important to identify each piece individually. Its B2K Uniform System can handle single garments and the software can be adapted to the type of user and the service offered. Garments can be identified by user or by size or both.

The system includes automated drop-off of soiled garments and automated distribution of clean ones.

All garments are identified by a transponder or barcode and entered in the dispenser’s management database.

The two sections are separate. In the drop-off section, the garment is identified and the user’s credit updated. In the distribution system, users access the dispenser via an ID badge.

A touchscreen shows what garments are available for that user. The user confirms the selection of garments and collects them directly from the distribution shelf.

Kannegiesser’s garment handling systems for the healthcare sector use sorting technology to process a large amount of pooled articles. Every garment can be marked by either a barcode or an RFID transponder.

Garments can be entered into the system, by manually putting in a code, by barcode scanner or by an RFID antenna. The identified garments are then attached to hangers with an embedded RFID transponder.

The hangers will already have been entered into the system via the embedded transponder. The two sets of information – for the garment and for the hanger – are combined within the hanger’s transponder so that the garment can be accurately tracked throughout the system.

Alternative solutions

While high-tech solutions have a wealth of applications, in some cases a temporary or low-cost means of identification is the most suitable.

The Polymark marking system is designed for applications such as seasonal work where a temporary solution is more suitable and cost-effective. The specially designed tape, which is printed with an identification code, is cut and bonded to each article using the Polymark temporary laundry marking machine.

The identifying tape remains securely attached during the wash cycle but can be removed instantly without leaving any marks. The company can supply tapes for use on delicate fabrics and in ten colours plus white.

Continuous ink jet (CIJ) printers from Linx Printing Technologies can also provide a lower cost efficient option for identification.

The machines are used at three London laundry companies to print three-digit identifiers onto tablecloths, bed linen, napkins and towels. The identifiers correspond to the laundry’s customer.

Linx printers are an alternative to the traditional thermal press method, which uses a metal plate to apply ink to the linen, or iron-on labels that are printed using a thermal press process.

Management information

Several companies have developed management information software to manage and control costs and show where improvements can be made.

The Netherlands-based company WSP specialises in software for controlling laundry operations.

Joanne Vroegindewij says that the WSP Laundry Dashboard system monitors performance and productivity in both machines and employees.

“At the moment, many laundry owners don’t know which products and which customers are profitable or the ways in which they can improve their efficiency. That’s why we have developed Laundry Dashboard. The huge number of positive reactions we have had proves that Laundry Dashboard meets a real need.”

ABS Laundry Business Solutions, provides IT solutions to the global laundry market.

Its ABSSolute tracking system can handle all the services within a laundry including garment control, linen handling, mats and mops, washroom and clean room.

The system can be integrated with barcodes or RFID-based systems to monitor the workflow and to track each piece through the production line, including delivery.

Services are handled within one central database for both single and international multi-plant operations.

Data collection should be simple and effective says the German company SoCom Informationssysteme. While the use of RFID allows individual pieces to be registered and counted, this identification needs to be supported by software that allows the information to be used effectively. The company provides several modules that support tracking and tracing of individual items of workwear or flatwork.

It also has systems for RFID batch recording and pool laundry modules that register incoming goods, and modules for stock control with single and multi-read RFID transponders.

It also provides a module for tracking personal clothing in care homes.

Drycleaning ID

Automated distribution systems are also available for the drycleaning sector. Metalprogetti has developed a system for drycleaners in partnership with Spot EPoS Systems.

The system has been installed at Presto Dry Cleaners in Lisburn City, near Belfast. It includes 24 hour kiosks for pick-up and collection.

Customers identify themselves by swiping a credit card, which was registered when they signed up for the service.

The kiosk prints out a numbered receipt and the customer is a notified by e-mail when their garments have been inspected and entered for production. This system also increases efficiency within the shop. All incoming garments are marked with a small barcoded label which is scanned to enter details of customer and garment into the EPoS system. Later the label can easily be softened and removed

After cleaning and finishing, garments are placed on hangers and the barcode label scanned again as the hanger is placed on the Metalprogetti assembly conveyor.

The conveyor instantly recognises the barcode data and memorises the garment’s position.

When the final garment on that particular order is placed on the conveyor, the conveyor signals, “Order Complete” and discharges all the garments in assembled sequence onto a rail. An operator removes the completed order from rail to the bagging machine.

A final scan of any one of the available barcodes on the order will trigger an email to the customer notifying them that goods are ready for collection.