RFID could be the future of track and trace

28 May 2015

The UK laundry market is still in the early adopter stage in terms of RFID systems for identifying and tracking linen but the technology’s potential both for reducing linen losses and as a management tool means it could have a significant role within the next five years or so. Janet Taylor reports

Efficient identification of linen and the ability to track and trace pieces throughout the production line and even en route to and from the customer, could be said to be at the heart of effective linen management.

Radio frequency technology that can be used for this purpose has been established for some years and technical advances, in particular multi-read systems, and more recently ultra high frequency systems have made this application more feasible.
However it is only recently that UK laundries have begun to realise the benefits as the Textile Services Association points out, TSA says that one of the main reasons why its members are beginning to look into such systems is that they are looking for more proficient methods of tackling linen losses. It also points that the development of chips that can withstand the intensive washing process has help to attract interest.
At present around 50% of members have implemented some form of RFID. This has mainly been selective, on high value stock such as towels (presumably, although this is not spelled out, because these pieces can be more prone to theft).
From LCN's experience in trying to gather information from users, it also seems probable that in many cases the systems are still being trialled and evaluated.
Implementation in workwear laundries is at present more advanced than in those that deal only with flatwork and TSA attributes this to differences in the way pool stock is managed in the two categories.
TSA predicts that over the next five years, the percentage of members using the technology and the range of applications will increase.
There are several RFID suppliers but two companies in particular have been focussing on laundry applications, Datamars and Tagsys.
Andrea Azzoni of Datamars says the more recent interest in the technology has been influenced by several factors. These include increased competition in linen rental leading to these businesses focussing intensely on costs and as a consequence the need for the more precise control that RFID can bring.
A second influence is the need for greater transparency in the relationship between laundries and their customers. Control over stock allows laundries to understand who their customers are and how they are using linen, and at the same time customers want a clearer view of the service they receive.
The development of the technology itself has also been significant. Azzoni believes that UHF technology-based systems are probably the most suitable for linen tracking and this technology has recently reached "performance stability" and the cost of investment has also decreased.
He reports that several "pioneers" are also running full UHF systems and seeing the benefits. Many others are still trialling systems - perhaps running pilots on small quantities, or on dedicated stock, but interest is definitely high.

Giving linen greater visibility

One sector where there is certainly growing interest is in public healthcare.
Certainly a presentation by Tagsys attracted great attention at last year's hospital linen services and laundry managers' conference.
Tagsys is entirely dedicated to RFID and particularly focussed on laundry applications. "We count linen and give it greater visibility. It provides end-to-end accuracy," says business development and sales director Fabrice Morini.

Last year, Tagsys launched Acuity, a fully integrated RFID-based inventory visibility and management system for the Textile Rental Services industry.
Specifically designed for flatwork applications, Acuity includes industry-leading UHF tags and workstations, gateways and servers, all designed to work in industrial laundry environments and their customer sites. The system's dashboards and real-time reports contribute to reducing linen losses and optimizing stock rotations, while helping managers take the real time operational decisions required in their day-to-day business activity.
As well as giving high visibility at every stage, allowing tracing and tracing and helping to reduce losses, the system provides valuable information on areas such as processes, stock levels and delivery. It records details of condemned stock and information that has implications for linen life.
The system can be adapted to different sizes and types of operation and can be used both for bespoke contracts and pool stock _ it also allows pieces to be switched from bespoke to pool categories, if needed.
TSA has encouraged not only rental laundries but also end user sectors to find out more about the uses and benefits of b RFID. It has hosted a seminar to introduce the technology suppliers to the industry and some of the chip companies have supply partner memberships, which helps communication between the industry and technology experts.

Recognising the trend
Linen suppliers have also recognised that the use of RFID is going to be an increasing trend for their laundry customers and are promoting services that they can offer to assist.
Linen Connect has an explanatory section on the technology on its website. Vikas Shah, director at parent group Swiscot explains the company's relationship with the technology. "As a textile supplier our role is that of an integrator. There are a number of manufacturers of chips, readers and software and it is up to the laundry which system they adopt. Our role is to ensure that regardless of their choice, we have the knowledge, infrastructure and capability to integrate the product and also ensure that we are ready to adopt best practices in RFID."
Asked about the benefits for the industry, he says there is absolutely no doubt that RFID is critical in preventing linen loss, but that is not the sole function. It is an enabling technology so the benefits can be seen throughout the laundry process. It allows better management of stock levels, more accurate predictions of demand, and promotes a better understanding of product use in-flow and helps managers to answer queries and resolve problems.

Recognising the wider applications
The wider applications of RFID are also recognised by TSA, and the association makes the following points.
RFID provides data that allows laundries to become more "intelligent" as a supplier by increasing their understanding of the product's journey.
It can produce information on matters such as how many times linen has been processed, and how long it has been in circulation before it is finally sent for ragging. The laundry can then use such records to build up a picture of stock.
RFID data can also influence buying decisions and help to start discussions between laundry and customer as to how they can work together to solve problems such as linen loss or misuse.
Rod Nutter at Hilden recognises that it was the "thorny issue of linen losses" that has in many respects kick-started the interest in this technology and pays tribute to TSA for its "thirst for a real solution" to help laundries track and trace their investment in linen stock. The ability to do this with the introduction of UHF chips from the RFID providers is not proving to be an irresistible addition to many laundry operators.
Hilden has been involved in the introduction of RFID following the 2011 Clean Show. It can provide linen with UHF chips sewn in at the point of manufacture, which is the most cost-effective method, although it can also retrofit chips to linen when required to do so.
At Tagsys, Fabrice Morini comments that it is the surge in UHF technology that has helped to open up opportunities for the laundry industry and especially for its use with flatwork allowing RFID to be applied to laundry logistics. Low frequency and high frequency versions of the technology could not provided the efficiency in tracking and tracing that was needed for such applications, says Morini.
At linen supplier Tonrose, director Chris Kingsford says that the company is now working with laundries that have embraced the concept and are providing these laundries with a chipping service, working with Datamars as a partner. Linen can either be chipped at source or retrospectively at the company's hemming unit. He says that the concept gives excellent stock information - where stock is, how often it has been washed, whether a piece has disappeared from circulation. In short it gives laundries more control over stock.

RFID in the future
Kingsford sees RFID as a project that is taking its time to gather momentum in the UK, but like barcoding before it, it will, eventually, become part of the linen purchase. Some hospitals are raising the prospect of chipped linen in their tender documents and the concept is well established in workwear in Europe.
At Datamars, Azzoni says the RFID is the enabler of a punctual management system. The ability to track each individual piece with high precision allows managers to set and monitor KPI through dashboards and assist business decisions.
The present technology is stable but innovation is needed. Azzoni sees UHF technology as the way to progress. His company recently introduced its third generation of UHF transponders and these have increased electrically and mechanical performance. However he points out there is much more to UHF?technology than a "transponder in a textile" and it needs a deep understanding as well as a detailed knowledge of the customer's operation.
Datamars offers pre- and post-sales service to its customers.
At Linen Connect, Vikas Shah says, when asked about industry awareness, that with any "new" technology there will be a mix of people trying to grab an exclusive position and the advantage of "taking the first move."
The real challenge is educating users and suppliers about the challenges the laundry industry faces and how RFID can be used to solve them.
He also points out that there is a definite need for education on how to measure the financial returns on RFID. It is not just a simple matter of a single percentage. It is an enabling technology so pockets of return can be seen throughout various parts of the laundry process.
Morini at Tagsys says that the past year has seen several large-scale RFID installations within European laundry groups.
The UK?was an early adopter and now it is one of the top two countries for adopting UHF?RFID?for flat line applications. He believes that the rate of adoption will be triple that of the growth in the last ten years and that the rate of take-up could increase ten-fold in the next two years.
TSA believes that both take up and applications will increase among members in the next five years. The more information that laundries have at their fingertips, the better equipped they are to be efficient. The technology will help to highlight areas needing improvement and with the data it supplies TSA members can become intelligent suppliers that can advise and discuss problem areas with their confidence backed by strong, unquestionable information.

EFFICIENT TRACKING: Multi-read systems such as this one from Datamars mean that cage loads of linen can be read accurately in one pass

RFID systems

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