RFID has linen abuse tagged29 April 2016
Is RFID the magic pill that is going end the problem of lost, stolen and abused textiles and give them the gift of a long life? Kathleen Armstrong finds the technology has many benefits and just a few drawbacks
For several years now, the theoretical advantages of being able to recognise every piece of linen owned by a particular textile renter have been widely publicised and aroused keen interest across the textile rental sector. However, finding a proven system and putting this into operation has been found to be much more difficult.
In this article we take a look at how far the textile rental sector has come, the ingenuity of the suppliers of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags who have taken up the challenge and the successes to date. More importantly, we have tried to identify any barriers to further rapid progress and where we go from here.
In common with many advances in the sector, there has been wide cooperation across different rental operators, with acceptance of the fact that this technology is going to benefit everyone and all will benefit from fast resolution of the remaining problems.
Development of RFID tags for linen rental
Much thought and development effort has been devoted to the creation of a durable tag for textiles, which can survive multiple washing and finishing through a variety of processes. The successful product has to withstand strong, hot chemistry in order to stand up to strong alkalis in the main wash, strong chlorinated oxidising agents in the first rinse, acids such as glacial acetic for neutralisation and souring and emulsifiers for breaking down oily, fatty soiling. The tag must then cope with membrane press pressures up to 56bar and rotational forces in a washer extractor in excess of 400G, possibly folded at least once and sometimes twice.
Nevertheless, leading technical laboratories have come up with tags able to withstand over 500 washing and finishing cycles and still be readable, with accurate data emission.
The next problem inevitably was cost, with renters pointing out that with pillowcases costing from as little as £0.50, there is little point in designing a system in which the chips might cost even more than the item whose life they were trying to extend. The cost factor was probably introduced as a barrier too early, without taking into account that as soon as any manufacturing industry produces a successful product, it immediately needs to reduce the manufacturing cost. This has been done with outstanding success with computer equipment and with mobile phones and RFID tags are confidently expected to follow the same pattern and first cost now should be progressively reduced.
Although early pioneers of auto recognition (using barcodes initially) in the garment rental sector were prepared to read every item manually if necessary, when checking soiled garments in, this was recognised as being impractical for flat-work rental. Despite some early semi-successes with auto readers and barcodes, it rapidly became apparent that what was needed was a system which could identify (both accurately and rapidly) the contents of an entire bag of linen (or garments), before the bag was opened. The leading RFID developers have responded superbly to this challenge and it is now feasible to do exactly this. Accuracy started out as being just about adequate but is improving steadily and is no longer seen as a long-term problem that cannot be solved.
In order to achieve this latest requirement, it was found that the RFID tags would have to work in the UHF frequency band, which suppliers have taken in their stride. Suppliers can currently be differentiated by their ability to find every tagged article in the bag and to download precisely the data on each one; and of course prices do vary.
Experiences to date
Probably the longest running trial to date is not in the garment rental sector but in leading cleaners of leather garments, who have been uniquely identifying intrinsically expensive leathers, so that these can be accurately tracked through a wide variety of processes. This system uses recyclable RFID tags, which can be used again and again. The tags are large and not cheap, so the system does not translate easily to sheets and pillowcases, but it represents a very solid start.
More recently, small-scale trials by the market leaders and entrepreneurs have enjoyed sufficient success to prove the various technologies. What is needed is an entire laundering operation equipping every textile article with a tag and setting up a full-scale system.
Although LCN is not aware of any UK laundry doing this, there is understood to be one overseas (in Turkey) and many UK launderers have travelled to Turkey to visit this and gain some in-depth knowledge and experience.
The best forum for wider technology transfer has proved to be the Textile Services Association (TSA), which has arranged updates within their Special Interest Groups and hosted two seminars to disseminate the key results to TSA members.
Is the technology now mature?
The shape of RFID tags for textile rental looks as though is going to be based on a fine wire which can be programmed to store the required data (with spare capacity for future needs) and which can withstand the chemical, thermal and mechanical shocks which will be imposed on it. Only tags based on UHF frequencies are likely to give the required in-the-bag accuracy. The technology of the tag itself is therefore believed to be nearing maturity.
What is far less certain is the ability of the software, which comes with the tag systems, to integrate seamlessly and effortlessly with the wide range of software currently in use by different rental companies. This is hardly surprising when one considers the differences in concept and language between general purpose packages from Sage and other leading accountancy suppliers and the very different semi-bespoke packages designed and marketed for textile rental. Of equal concern is the inability of any system (as far as is known) to recognise and read an RFID tag on competitors' linen.
What to do with orphan linen
The best that can be achieved at present is to recognise a foreign item for what it is and side track it immediately and efficiently. This then avoids having to waste time, money and productive capacity on washing, finishing and packing someone else's stock. However, this generates the problem of what to do with the side-tracked, soiled and potentially smelly pile which results.
With your new system, it would be very difficult to take over the orphan stock directly because your system will not recognise it for packing and invoicing purposes. If you had an agreement with each of your possible competitors who might actually own it, then you could consider re-tagging it as your own, but this might have legal implications beyond the scope of this article. This could be a matter for the TSA to address, with a list of members who have signed up to an agreement as to what can be done with orphan stock belonging to anyone else on this list. This might be the best way of balancing out losses without anyone paying disposal charges.
What are the potential benefits?
The benefits of RFID tagging and identification fall into five main categories: more efficient use of labour, accurate and automatic classification, much lower textile injection costs, significantly lower re-wash and consistently accurate invoicing.
The time has come, both in the developing and developed world, to continually improve use of labour, so that machines perform routine tasks, leaving humans to perform the work requiring judgement, individual manipulation and genuine skill. The goals of RFID tagging and control are complete automation of the reception and sorting operations, so that the human operator's role is to keep the line running smoothly (with eyes wide open), not to do the heavy lifting with head down and eyes blinkered.
The same applies to counting-out and packaging and delivery note generation for accurate invoicing. Although most organisations have now largely automated counting and packing, many operators still rely on human counters and invoice accuracy suffers as a result. Because customer complaints are usually for under-delivery, errors here tend to be one-sided, with more over-delivery counts than under. Around 3% is the typical figure for net over delivery in some plants, which makes a disproportionately large effect on final profit.
Ability to track and manage expensive items is crucial on some plants. If a London five-star is using duvet covers which average say £17 each, then an injection of 1000 duvet covers to set up the new installation will cost around £17,000. On one RFID trial using this number of duvet covers, the rental operator found that 50% disappeared in the first month. Armed with this data the renter was able to find the destination and the culprit and the stock.
In a different region, one rental operator was very surprised when as a result of police action (of which the renter was unaware) three large van loads of items were shipped to the laundry for identification as being stolen rental stock. What amazed the laundry was how this amount of stock could have gone missing without the laundry being aware of it. They had been unwittingly financing a large market stall operation throughout the region.
Are there any risks?
The biggest risk with implementing an RFID based management system to realise each of the potential benefits is to try to rush the job and fail to check in detail each step of the essential procedure for success. The outline design of exactly what you wish to achieve needs to be set out first in writing and agreed with the entire management team, who must all sign up to it.
Armed with this, you can now select the supplier who can best satisfy your requirements and with whom you have the confidence to work. The first step is then to refine your plan so that the supplier quotes against your exact needs, instead of persuading you to accept his plan (which might or might not meet your needs). Fitting into your existing management control system is a fundamental part of this. If you are going to need bespoke software, then you need to know this at the outset.
Finally, you need to plan and control the way in which you are going to check each step in the commissioning procedure. This is unlikely to go smoothly or as planned - multiplying your time estimate, for 'de-bugging' the new system, by a factor of four would be a prudent step. You are working at the forefront of technology here, with a laundry that is unlikely to be immediately receptive to a new system.
So, the risks (of disruption and wasting money) are considerable, but if they are tackled with care, systematically, they can each be reduced to a sufficiently low level as to make success highly probable. Now is a good time to act.