RFID Supports Manchester Hotel Reopenings with Automated Linen Inventories

The Linen Group is managing the status of towels, bedding and other linens for its hospitality customers as they reopen their doors to guests following the pandemic shutdown.
Published: May 26, 2021

As hotels reopen throughout the United Kingdom after a lengthy pandemic-driven shutdown, they are challenged with managing the status of linens that were little used for months or a year. The hotels need to ensure the linens are available, serviced and returned to linen closets promptly, without the distraction of manual counting.

The Lowry Hotel reopened its doors on May 17 to approximately 50 percent capacity, and it is leveraging data provided by passive UHF RFID tag reads to view its available inventory of bedsheets, towels and other laundered assets automatically.  The Linen Group (TLG) began providing the service for customers as its business grew during the past few years, says Tarik Saleem, TLG’s managing director.

The Lowry Hotel

The Lowry Hotel is a five-star businesses named after artist Laurence Stephen “L.S.” Lowry. It caters to a clientele that includes actors and sports figures. The independent hotel contains 165 rooms and has been in operation for 20 years. As it resumes services, it will be using fresh linens supplied by The Linen Group, and it plans to employ the laundry service’s RFID data to view automated updates of the inventory it has onsite, according to Adrian Ellis, the company’s general manager.

The hotel’s long-term plan is to provide real-time data from its linen closets regarding which items require reordering. Initially, however, it says it will benefit from data that TLG collects at its laundering facilities, to ensure the necessary clean linens are always available for returning guests. “It should be very beneficial for our housekeeping,” Ellis says. “Previous to all this, it was all very manual. We counted the sheets and counted the linens, so it was very unproductive and time-consuming.”

Now, as the hotel reopens following a lengthy COVID-19 shutdown, it intends to be more efficient. With The Linen Group reading tags on every linen item the hotel uses, The Lowry Hotel can access data in the cloud-based software about linen stocks onsite, and it can then place orders as needed. Ellis’s goal is that the technology will save labor and ultimately make the hotel team more productive. “They will spend fewer hours counting,” he explains, “and more hours servicing rooms and serving our clientele.”

Manchester-based TLG owns and maintains the linens leased by its customers, Saleem says. The company, which launched 34 years ago, was growing exponentially in recent years, before the pandemic hit. It served hotels representing a total of 570 rooms in 2017, but by 2019 it had grown to 2,895 hotel rooms. That equates to a growth of 507 percent within three years, TLG reports, all based on customer referrals.

As the company grew, it has invested in equipment to automate processes and improve efficiency. Saleem says he saw the advantage of employing RFID to automatically identify each of thousands of fast-moving linens, whether clean or soiled—even those packed in rolling cages or bags. “When you’ve got just 500 bedrooms, you’re always relying on your staff of people,” he says. “Humans lose count.” Retrofitting its products for customers was manageable, he adds, when its clientele was still relatively small.

“The big companies have been slower to adopt such technology,” Saleem states, in part because many that process high volumes of goods simply do not count them at all. Without a way to automate the identification of items large and small, companies often must write off a percentage of goods annually that end up missing. For TLG, he says, that was not a tenable strategy, either for its own purposes or for its customers who count on having clean linens onsite.

So the company began experimenting with the technology around 2016. It acquired an RFID solution from laundry service software firm  ABS Laundry Business Solutions, located in Amsterdam, which consists of  Invengo RFID tags sewn onto linens, along with reader portals. The system comes with cloud-based software to manage the collected read data as tagged items are rolled in cages past the RFID reader antennas, or as handheld or desktop readers capture tag IDs.

TLG sews the tags onto its own linens in-house, and it has tagged 271,400 items thus far. The company offers two service models: some customers opt for automated replenishment, while others manually order a specific number of goods. In either case, the automated counting of items being received and then laundered and shipped helps TLG prevent errors or out-of-stock events.

First, goods are received at the laundering facility as the van carrying them enters at a dedicated entrance. They are wheeled through a tunnel reader, where tag IDs are captured and transmitted to the software to update each tagged item’s status. The linens then sit in a holding area. A ceiling-mounted RFID reader at that location also captures the tag IDs of all goods dwelling there. The software includes a module enabling users to view the status of each item so that TLG can obtain an update about a specific customer’s goods, or a specific item.

The goods are sorted manually after being received and bagged. When a bag reaches a weight of 60 kilograms (132 pounds), the facility’s robotics system lifts it into a lane leading to the laundering services. After being washed and folded, the linens are moved to another section of the facility, where staff members use a desktop UHF RFID reader. They can view orders on a PC running the software, while the reader captures the tag IDs of all clean items being packed to fulfill a customer’s order. Drivers could also use the handhelds to capture data indicating what has been loaded into their vehicle.

Saleem predicts that the use of RFID will serve a value in helping companies resume their operations after a closure or slowdown. “The technology will help us to scale a lot quicker,” he explains, by tracking items that come in for laundering after sitting for months in storage without being used, for instance. During the lockdown, the company visited its customers’ facilities and updated their inventory data’s status, known as its “aging profile.” In that way, the system knows which goods are not being used and thus are not subject to the usual wear and tear. Now, he says, hotels are relaundering linens that have remained in storage throughout the past year.

Going forward, Saleem says, “I’m confidant it’s going to be really busy, and RFID will help. Data is power—if you can look at your screen and know what’s going on, that’s a benefit for us and our customers. RFID is going to help us scale up much more quickly.” The solution has not only made counting more efficient and accurate, he adds, but has eliminated calls from customers seeking updates about the inventory they may or may not have onsite. In the past, such calls had required subsequent manual counting.

“When we had 500 bedrooms [in our client base],” Saleem says, “I would go out and do manual stock takes.” Now, if there are any questions, a member of the service staff can simply bring a handheld reader to the customer’s site and scan each floor’s storage room. Rarely anymore do customers call seeking inventory information, he reports, which has proved to be more beneficial as the company has gained customers. “As we’ve grown, we haven’t had to employ service staff,” since stock-taking is now faster and more efficient.

Eventually, TLG intends to add more RFID readers at its facility in order to gain real-time visibility into goods undergoing all of its laundering services steps, beginning with a reader at the entrance to the washing system. In the meantime, The Lowry Hotel is opening with approximately 100 reservations, and it expects weekends to be slower as the pandemic eases. “This year will be somewhat subdued,” Ellis says, “with about 50 percent of typical travel,” though he predicts business will bounce back to full recovery in 2022 or 2023.