A uniform approach to RFID

The Canadian Linen and Uniform Service’s implementation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is allowing the national uniform provider to manage its more than 500,000 garments without losing any of them in the wash.

The company’s Toronto Central plant – which officially opens this week –supplies and cleans thousands of manufacturing, service and hospitality garments each day. The facility is an amalgamation of two other Canadian Linen plants the company had previously operated.

Canadian Linen has been a relatively early adopter of RFID and has now embraced the tracking technology even further. At the new Toronto facility, which has been in use for just under a year, most of the business revolves around the processing and servicing of rented industrial uniforms. With the use of RFID at every step of the company’s production cycle, Canadian Linen says it’s been able to automate its entire operation and reduce labour costs significantly.

“In the areas where we were previously handling garments individually, we’ve seen about a 35 to 45 per cent savings on direct labour [in areas where chip-enalbed garments are scanned],” Anthony Coulter, district manager at Canadian Linen and Uniform Service, said. “And that doesn’t take into consideration the long term cost savings and the positive customer perception that we get from the increased accuracy.”

In the facility’s massive production area, the company cleans used apparel from clients such as the City of Toronto, General Motors of Canada, and Ferrero Rocher. The soiled garments – which are each embedded with the company’s proprietary Superior Apparel Management (SAM) RFID chips – are automatically scanned via RFID readers, classified according to their garment number and weighed prior to entering the production cycle. A computer system automatically moves the garments on an assembly line through the washing and drying process.

Before moving to RFID, Coulter said, Canadian Linen plants had to tediously scan each garment manually as they moved through the washer and dryer.

“If you were using barcodes, you would have to stop the production line and scan each item,” he said. “Getting rid of this has seen big increased in productivity. I compare it to having every car stop at a toll booth versus being able to drive through barrier free.”

The RFID chips are encapsulated in a small pouch below the collar of each garment to protect it during the laundering process. After being cleaned, the garments are sent to a marrying station for redistribution. With the information gleaned from the RFID scan, the uniforms are easily and automatically sorted according to individual wearer and company.

“With the system I have 500,000 individual pieces of information,” Coulter said. “I know whether the garments have gone through the system, whether they’ve been replaced or mended, and how many times they’ve been washed. I can even make a change on a piece-by-piece level, so it’s really important for inventory control.”

Coutler said the technology gives him the ability to provide real-time inventory management at a day-to-day level, rather than a quarter-to-quarter level. This is especially useful for providing detailed tracking invoices to Canadian Linen clients, he said.

And with Gartner Inc. recently predicting that worldwide RFID revenue will surpass US$1.2 billion this year, Canadian Linen’s deployment might just be a blueprint to follow for enterprises just getting their feet wet with the technology.

The research firm said that in addition to the 31 per cent increase from 2007 to 2008, RFID revenues will hit $3.5 billion by 2012.

“The market for RFID technologies has begun to transition from being compliance-oriented to being revenue-generating and innovative,” Chad Eschinger, analyst at Gartner, said in a statement. “Early adopters faced tight profit margins and pressed technology providers for lower hardware costs. Fortunately for the market, this trend has waned and innovation rather than cost is becoming a key driver for adoption.”

Now, according to Gartner, the RFID market is heading into its second wave of adoption. Businesses are moving away from their initial pilot programs and are dipping their toes in what Gartner is calling the “exploration phase.”

Coutler said he’s noticed the chips have recently gone down in price and estimates Canadian Linen is spending about $1.50 for the chip and to keep it protected in the washing cycle. In the long run though, he said, the company is coming out much farther ahead in terms of maximizing its mechanical technology and keeping its customers happy.

With files from Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld (US online)

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