Health Clubs Halt Towel Loss With RFID

Russian fitness centers have reduced the number of lost towels from 150 per month down to only five or 10 in three months, thanks to an RFID-based solution from ISBC Group.
Published: September 24, 2018

Approximately a dozen health and fitness centers have launched a passive UHF RFID-based solution from Russia’s ISBC Group that aims to manage and prevent the loss of towels. The system, which was developed about six months ago, provides shrinkage prevention for towels, says Olga Anisimova, ISBC Group’s manager, while also enabling the fitness centers to manage when the towels are used, when they are returned soiled and when they require laundering or replenishment. While the system is being used by health clubs, she notes, it also works for other vertical markets, such as hotels and health-care facilities.

The average fitness center incurs a recurring expense regarding the replacement of missing towels. In fact, the company’s prospective customers have indicated that a typical-sized club may replace as many as 150 towels monthly. The towels might make their way home in a gym bag, mixed with a member’s clothing and other supplies, and often inadvertently. Prior to installing the RFID system, the facilities lacked a reliable way to prevent such removals from happening. Any kind of electronic article surveillance (EAS) tag, for instance, would not survive the laundering process that towels undergo, and manually tracking towels as they leave the premises would not be feasible.

When a person takes a towel, its ID number will no longer be read by the reader antennas, and the system will associate that towel with that individual.

ISBC developed its RFID system as a solution that could track towels and other frequently laundered and hard-to-manage items, such as uniforms and specialty clothing, Anisimova explains. The company was launched approximately 15 years ago as a provider of smart cards, ticketing solutions and RFID for transportation, hospitals and other customers. “The main business directions are people ID, object ID and livestock ID,” says Dmitry Kornienko, ISBC’s marketing director.

Users of the Moscow and St. Petersburg underground rail, for instance, are employing ISBC’s contactless card system each time they board a train. The firm’s solutions—which are installed throughout Russia and 22 countries around the world—also include truck-weighing, laundromat-management, jewelry-management, fur-tracking and smart-warehouse systems. Altogether, Kornienko says, ISBC Group has implemented more than 5,000 projects throughout more than 300 cities. “Today, more than 50 million customers are using ISBC products daily.”

In recent years, however, the company has expanded beyond tickets and access control. ISBC also offers systems for vehicle weigh stations, toll collection and yard management. It initially began working with a Moscow health club known as Fitness Club Zebra, and has since installed the system at other centers, such as World Class Fitness and Orange Fitness.

The fitness centers can either apply the UHF RFID tags themselves, or have a third-party laundry service attach them. ISBC provides Datamars passive UHF RFID tags, which can be applied as a customer requires, such as being sewn to towels or adhered via an adhesive, for example.

ISBC also provides the UHF RFID readers that are mounted at the fitness center’s entrance. For most installations, a tag isn’t read unless the towel to which it is attached leaves the site. The tagged towel data is managed in ISBC’s cloud-based or locally hosted server, and if no tag is read, the system knows the towel is located on the property. If an individual attempts to leave with a towel, the reader at the entrance will interrogate that tow’s tag, then forward the ID number to the server via a cabled connection.

Next, the software prompts the sounding of an audible alert at the door, and a worker at the front desk can ask the individual to check his or her bag for a towel. Typically, Anisimova says, clients remove towels inadvertently. Once reminded, they usually return them to the staff and are less likely to make that error again.

Once a user is finished with a towel, he or she can discard it in the drop box at the back of the wardrobe.

Reading tags through wet laundry and water bottles in a gym bag posed a challenge that required some engineering, Anisimova says. Engineers had to factor the high presence of water into the development and installation of reader antennas, she adds, so as to ensure they could reliably read tags at the required distance. According to Anisimova, the system works effectively at a read rate near 100 percent.

Some fitness centers plan to install an ISBC ESMART UHF RFID-enabled wardrobe that could allow them to manage towels on site. With the wardrobe in place, clients who need a towel could use their ID card (provided by the centers) to open the wardrobe’s door. Software would then be updated to indicate who had accessed the towels.

Once a person takes a towel, its ID number will no longer be read by the antennas, and the system will thus associate that towel with that individual. After the visitor is finished using it, he or she can discard the towel in the drop box at the back of the wardrobe, which also has antennas built in to detect RFID tags. The software is then updated, indicating that the towel was returned.

If the soiled towel level becomes too high, the software can issue an alert to employees that the dirty towels need to be collected for laundering, or that the number of clean towels need to be restocked. The wardrobe is built to hold 200 to 300 clean towels, which is what many health clubs typically have on hand at any given time. Since the dozen health clubs took the RFID system live, Anisimova says, some have reported that the number of lost towels has been reduced from 150 per month to only five or 10 during a three-month period.