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RFID has linen abuse tagged


---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? ---

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.

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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.
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.

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. 

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.

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 goals of RFID tagging and control are complete automation of the reception and sorting operations.
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.
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.

Text and photos by LNCi/LNC, courtesy of LNCi/LNC.

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