Traceability solutions in the laundry industry
Laundries throughout the industry agree: Tracking textiles with RFID in ultra-high frequency (UHF) is one of the top developments in the present and future. Providers of RFID solutions are excited about the many possibilities the technology offers. Although potential users are aware of the advantages, their enthusiasm has not yet developed as much. Some are put off by the investment costs, others argue their customers aren’t comfortable with RFID while another group raises concerns about the reliability of the reading stations and tags.
However, laundries that already implemented an UHF solution and are taking advantage of its advantages are thrilled about the technology. They have realized that RFID is not only a tool for tracking linen but that it offers much more than that. RFID technology is the basis of other trend-setting developments like industry 4.0. To fully grasp all the advantages and opportunities this development has to offer, one needs to take a step back and get an overarching view.
Automating processes vs RFID technology
RFID technology is closely tied to automation, the industry’s second big topic today. The trend of automating processes as well as using robots is not only interesting to reduce high costs of labour and manpower shortage; automated processes lower the costs of a laundry and elevate quality, which provides a competitive advantage. A fundamental requirement for an intelligent automated laundry is the exchange of information between all involved items: machines, textiles and IT systems. As the communication is realized via internet protocols, this system is often called the Internet of Things or IoT. For textile RAIN RFID technology is used is the basis for a completely automated laundry. By introducing RFID, laundries are thus also taking a big step toward automation. Therefore, atomizing single stages of the process, such as counting linen before and after washing, can be done easily and quickly. Thanks to the RFID tags, every machine receives exact information about every item: What kind of laundry is it? How is it washed? What customer will it be sent to?
Collected data is not saved on the tag itself but in a database. The information is linked to its specific tag with a unique ID number. As the processes of a laundry produce enormous amounts of data, it is a logical solution to manage this data in a separate application, which communicates with the ERP system or certain machines to exchange information via an interface. This way the capacity of the ERP system is not unnecessarily used to collect data but can concentrate on its core function.
UHF RFID to strengthen customer relationships
As much as RFID tracking and automation are intertwined and complement each other, there are two different approaches. In contrast to tracking, automation requires every single item to be tagged. Tagging 100 % of laundry represents a big investment and great effort as textile already in circulation needs to be chipped as well. Hence many laundries are avoiding this expensive and time-consuming step. As a compromise a lot of laundries start tagging 100 % of a new customer’s laundry. What first sounds like a sensible, soft introduction of RFID in reality bares little merit: Although the laundry knows exactly where the articles of that one customer are located, it does not provide any insights into the processes at the laundry itself. Consequentially they cannot profit from the savings and advantages RFID tracking promises.
Another approach which is less known throughout Europe even though it offers more benefits at a similar price, is to tag only the newly bought linen. To start off, only a small percentage of linen is equipped with RFID tags across customers. With every purchase the percentage rises and the complete 100 % are automatically reached after 2 to 5 years. The application which is running autonomously from the ERP system makes this approach possible. The software is solely responsible for the tracking and therefore capable to deliver meaningful statistics. As a result, all the advantages of RFID tracking can be used even when only a small percentage is equipped.
This way laundries can start approaching their customers right after the introduction of the tracking technology. UHF RFID comes with the opportunity of fundamentally restructuring the relationships with customers. It brings a new and comprehensive knowledge about the location and the history of each laundry article. It is essential for customers to have access to the data to improve transparency and therefore trust in the technology. Data can be accessed easily via the cloud application enabling customers to change their view on the technology as a supervising tool to a value adding support-tool.
The application offers the laundries a complete overview over all data of every item in real time. The application knows exactly when any item was washed the last time, which customer it is attributed to and where it is currently located. Transparency created by the cloud can be transferred to customers as well. They receive their own access to the application and can see e.g. how often their laundry is used before it is worn out, how much laundry they have in stock and if they are complying to their hygiene regulations. Customers of the laundry thus significantly profit from the tracking themselves.
Through mobile readers, additional data can be collected at customer sites, which assist for example hospitals or hotels in the management of their laundry. Thanks to the new transparency customers and laundries engage in better informed and more trustful conversations. Together they can enhance service and quality further while improving their relationship and customer loyalty.
The RFID technology opens the path to industry 4.0 for laundries, the path to the future. Linen moving autonomously through the laundry and machines which know themselves what to do sounded like science fiction just a few years ago. Today that future lies within our grasp. For it to become reality, laundries have to think beyond single tags and machines. They have to let technology inspire them, they have to embrace change with determination and maybe take a step out of their comfort zone.
Interview with Luc Videau, technical director of the hospital laundry BIH in France
What was your motivation to introduce the RFID technology?
Our main motivation was to reduce the loss of 50,000 sheets per year representing € 250,000, which were vanishing every year although the yearly purchase rate is at only 30.000 new bed sheets. Given the success of this project set up in September 2013 (return on investment in 7 months), now 100 % of the patient shirts and 10 % of sponges towels are chipped.
These 3 products represent 75% of our textile purchases.
Why have you taken the decision to tag only a percentage of your stock instead of all of it?
Mostly, the investment for chipping 100% of the linen was too big and gave us no guarantee of a higher ROI. The issue was to have a tool that would allow us to educate our customers to handle the linen differently. Thus a tool that provides transparency was more important than tracking 100% of the linen. Before the introduction of the system, we had no visibility. So even a visibility of 30% of our linen on all customers the first year gave us a great advantage and enabled us to reduce losses and therefore our annual purchases by 25%.
Today 75% of our textile article is chipped. With this method, the ROI of the solution was very fast: 7 months.
How have your customer relationships changed after the introduction of RFID ?
Our relations are much better because we can now discuss factual data. The more new and chipped linen we buy the higher is the accuracy of the KPIs.
Have you experiences resistance from your clients? If yes, what were they?
There was no resistance, it was actually quite the contrary. This solution enables hospital linen room to have accurate KPI’s to show to the care services.
Once 100 % of laundry is tagged, do you have plans to use the technology to automate your production process?
Clearly yes. But why wait, today, the simple fact of chipping just 20 to 30% of our textile articles is sufficient to justify the investment.