Automation is the buzz-word in garment identification and tracking. The goal is to be able to read a bagged load of garments in one pass and the route to that goal seems to lie in radio-frequency-based identification systems. But the reality is that barcode identification systems still reign supreme.

Mr Jeremy White, managing director of J&A International says that an automated system would give a more fluent operation as well as ensuring full traceability and statistical records for customers. Automation is attractive but the cost of RF chips is high at between £1 and 60-70p/chip. Even then, the system is passive—garments have to be individually read.

Barcodes are cheap at about 10p each and although labour-intensive, the UK’s low labour costs make them a viable proposition.

This view is echoed by Mr Steve Nicholson, general manager for business systems at Sketchley Textile Services. “I don’t see a move away from barcoding in the short to medium term. We’ve looked at RF tags and transponders but they are not a commercially viable option.” That will continue to be the case, he believes, “until multi-read capabilities are available”. Sketchley developed its own tracking systems in-house so that it could be adapted to work with other identification methods.

At Thermopatch Data Systems in the Netherlands, managing director Mr Ronald Gram takes the view that barcode technology has improved over the past six years.

His company has been working in garment identification and tracking for nearly ten years and has worked both with barcodes and more automated systems.

At one time they were not seen as reliable, but since the reliability of both the barcodes and of the reading devices have improved, barcodes have remained the industry staple, he believes.

The market, however, is expecting that the way to a new era of identification lies in a chip-based system.

Thermopatch has installed a number of chip-based systems, Mr Gram says. “We sell our products throughout Europe—but these systems are not cost-effective if barcodes can be used instead,” he points out.

Mr Gram argues that a laundry would only opt for chips if it was moving towards a hands-free system. “Radio-frequency chips are big, expensive and at the moment, only single-read. The future lies with a small, flexible chip, with the promise of a low price and multi-read availability. As yet, these are not a commercial reality.” He admits that there has been a gradual change in the laundry market, creating a marketplace that will be more responsive to investing in more sophisticated systems.

At Fenland Laundries, managing director Mr Simon Fry says the company has long wanted to move to an automated system using RF tags.

Both tags and barcodes work on a unique number that relates to a database. In a manual system, tags have no advantage. Once a plant is automated, however, there is a definite need to contemplate making the switch to RF tags.

Fenland has run trials, but found the low-frequency tag had noise problems and its non-read rate was too high.

High-frequency future

Mr Fry believes the future will lie in high-frequency chips—which are currently at the trial stage. They present less noise problems and thus have a better read range and can be read very quickly. Although passive, the high-frequency chips will incorporate anti-collision technology and will also be able to multi-read and handle the contents of a laundry bag without problems. They will additionally be equipped with read/write capabilities.

The cost of a chip-based system could come down if volume increases—at the moment it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, but he feels that the chip manufacturers will eventually have to take a view on costs.

New technology in identification could also be influenced by developments in tracking.

Mr Fry feels that the existing software does not always arrange data logically at the user interface, and there is also need for greater access to that data. This could influence the identification route.

At the Jensen Group, Mr Gert Christen, project manager for identification systems, believes that although costs will reduce slightly, the industry’s expectations are not always realistic.

Jensen has developed its own chip, the Jentag. This is now in its final stage of product valid identification and Jensen has already started to supply pilot customers with the product. So far the response has been very good.

It is low-frequency but, says Mr Christen, low-frequency technology is already well-established.

High-frequency bands have only been operational more recently and, he points out, the the higher the frequency, the more directional problems one encounters.

Jentag’s big advantage is that it has been developed specifically for laundries and offers higher pressure resistance (30bar) smaller size (16mm), and good reading distance (250mm). It is also equipped to be adaptable—for example, its frequency can be changed. In addition, to protect it against misreading, it has three light emitting diodes (LEDs) indicating the read conditions.

Laser light signals

Another route to an automated system lies in laser technology. LaserPaint, a system for coating threads so that they emit light signals, is being developed under licence in the US by Spectra Science.

Treated threads can be woven into material or into a label. In combination they produce an optical code that can be read much more quickly than a barcode. Further, it does not have to be read sequentially and only a fraction of the thread needs to be exposed to produce an accurate reading.

Another variation would be to use a single thread woven into the material that simply identifies linen pieces by type.

This system is still being developed but it would have great advantages as it could produce a cost-effective identification system for flatwork, where identification systems may be too expensive in relation to the actual cost of an item.

Innovention, a company involved with R&D for the laundry industry, is looking to act as a systems integrator for laser technology in Europe.

Mr Mike Edwards, the company’s principal, believes the use of laser technology has great potential for laundry identification and tracking, even if in the end it is used in combination with other technologies.

The technology is some 15% to 20% cheaper than RF systems, he estimates.

It is also quicker and more accurate than barcoding.

Both RF and laser systems are still a development for the future, however. More immediately, companies are taking steps to enable their current systems to work more efficiently.

One such company is label producer Barcellos. It has sought to improve the accuracy of the label by developing Kleentrak—a system of printing by thermal transfer that produces high resolution labels which are “almost impossible to mis-read”. Sales director Mr Mike Southwell says Kleentrak allows a move from interleave barcodes two of five to 128, which offers less chance of mis-reading.

It can also be adapted to produce not just barcode labels but to include logos, wearer status and the wearer’s name.

Barcellos is also in the process of developing coloured inks for its labels, as well as the traditional black types.

Kleenrak’s only drawback is that the label must be applied at a very precise temperature.

MiRiCal Emblems has recognised the problem of print fade and the need for more accurate control of the label application process. This applies not only to Kleentrak but to other systems that rely on encapsulation of the printed data during the heat-seal application process.

MiRiCal’s PRO-CON is a retrofittable device to control the heat-sealing process through temperature, rather than time. It has also been designed to eliminate the temperature variances that can occur. These can be as much as 20 to 30°C.

Identification is of course only one element in the total concept of garment tracking. The aim of tracking systems is to provide identification and total garment traceability and control.

Laundries have their own requirements for monitoring the flow of garments, tracking the laundering history and preventing losses. But laundry customers have their own agendas.

The food industry is one of the largest laundry users. It has very specific requirements and needs detailed statistical information to prove to its customers and suppliers that its products are hygienic.

In today’s increasing food safety-conscious environment, where demands could grow ever more stringent, the customer’s agenda could also influence the progress of identification systems.