This article was written in collaboration with an industry expert, who began his career at a large Italian laundry in the early 1980’s. It contains information that is specific to his experience in the Italian market.

Industrial laundries (rent and wash textiles for their customers) run a complex operation. The average industrial laundry sees thousands of textiles flowing in and out of their facility on a daily basis, and each of these textiles must be tracked and accounted for. Textile tracking is a critical process for large laundries, as it allows them to oversee their inventory, use cycles, usage trends, customer losses, etc. While today, thanks to technological innovations, the tracking process has become increasingly efficient, efficiency was not always the name of the game. In this article, we try to retrace the technological evolution of textile tracking in industrial laundries, and how it has helped laundries become more efficient, while improving their quality of service and customer relationships.
Before the rise of automation technology in the late 20th century, tracking textiles was an extremely labor-intensive, inefficient, and challenging process for laundries. Inventories were counted manually (identified by a mark on the seam of the textile) and were tracked through spreadsheets. Counting errors were frequent, which made it very difficult to keep accurate tabs on items. The industry was desperate for innovations that could help automate the tracking process.

The introduction of barcodes in laundries – Code 39

The first widely adopted tracking tool was barcode technology, specifically, alphanumeric labels called “Code 39”. These labels were sealed onto every garment, which enabled unique identification using barcode scanners. This technology was a big step in the right direction, since it enabled the implementation of more sophisticated inventory management software, and quicker access to data. However, it still failed to eliminate some of the drawbacks of manual tracking. Barcode labels need to be individually scanned for identification, which is very time consuming.

In addition, these labels are printed with dot matrix printers, and could only withstand a handful of high temperature wash cycles before wearing out. Replacing the worn-out labels is costly and time consuming.

Addressing some of the drawbacks of Code 39 – The Code 2/5 barcode label

Since the main drawback of Code 39 labels was their lack of durability, a new type of barcode label, called the “Code 2/5 (2 of 5)” was introduced to the market. This label contains a numerical barcode, and is made of fabric rather than being printed, which eliminates the issue of rapid fading. In addition, the Code 2/5 was typically embedded in the textiles directly by the manufacturer, which allowed laundries to save time. This new barcode label also seemed to perform better in terms of reading.

Limitations of barcode technology

While barcoding was a welcomed innovation that drove many process improvements, it had some insurmountable limitations.
For one, operators could not scan the barcodes of soiled textiles without coming into contact with contaminated items, since they needed to be handled and scanned in close proximity to the scanner. In addition, the labor intensiveness of the tracking process was still, for the most part, yet to be overcome.

There was still a need for a tracking solution that could:
– reduce the time spent identifying items
– scan soiled textiles without handling them

Introducing HF Tags: the first technology to allow touchless bulk reading

In the 2000’s, a new tracking technology called HF (High Frequency) RFID was first introduced in the laundry industry. HF tags can be scanned when they are within 0.5-1M distance of an RFID reader, without any particular interaction. HF was the first technology that allowed for touchless bulk scanning, marking a fundamental turning point for the industry. Finally, a solution that allowed laundries to safely scan soiled textiles, while drastically reducing scanning time.

The transition to UHF technology: greater accuracy and faster read rates

UHF (ultra-high frequency) RFID technology, first introduced in laundries during the 2010’s, helped increase efficiency even further. UHF technology allows for a much wider read range than HF technology. When compared to HF, UHF technology allows for:

– A quicker and easier scanning process, thanks to the ability to read hundreds of items within seconds

– More accurate readings. Several reading points can be installed throughout the logistic process, which allows for more accurate reading of all the linen contained in dense bags, thus avoiding the possibility of “misreads” (missing some tags during the scanning process).

Many laundries also saw an increase in customer satisfaction after introducing UHF technology. What drove this trend?

Speed, accuracy, and efficiency

Since UHF technology makes it easy to scan items and generate data, laundries have access to more information about inventory, usage, and losses than ever before. The ability to easily scan items throughout the logistic process makes it possible to know their location at all times.
This unparalleled level of transparency enables laundries to help customers pinpoint areas of loss and abuse, and take the necessary remedial actions.
It is a true win-win: both laundries and their customers can leverage UHF technology be more efficient, reduce costs, and make more informed decisions.
Some additional benefits of UHF tracking and inventory control include:
– a significant reduction in the overall textile inventory (approx. 30%)
– up to 90% reduction in unplanned replenishment costs – if you have a constant oversight of your inventory and its stage in the lifecycle, you will be able to plan purchases a lot more effectively;
– continuous monitoring of usage to optimize pickups and shipments;
– guaranteed availability of all items;
– reduced risk of infections, thanks to reduction in soiled handling

Since 2006, ABG Systems has pioneered many RFID textile tracking solutions that have brought tangible benefits to the world of laundries and hospitals. ABG has followed the evolution of tracking technologies over the years, with the persistent goal of developing new applications that can help laundries and hospitals leverage these technologies in the most effective manner.

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