UHF RFID Reader Systems Capture Laundry Tags in Motion

Datamars' new UHF Portal Plus is designed to read up to 500 tags on textiles as they are transported at average walking speed, without requiring users to stop or open and close cabinet doors, while the UHF Open Tunnel reader fits directly on top of a conveyor to interrogate tags as they move through the packing process.
Published: January 11, 2019

Identification solutions company Datamars has released two new RFID readers for its laundry-management solutions that are intended to make the reading of linen or workwear tags faster, as well as provide greater accuracy, for large-scale laundry businesses. Both serve the clean textiles management process, after laundry has been washed and dried and needs to be sorted and shipped to a customer. The Open Tunnel and UHF Portal Plus follow the 2017 release of a small UHF RFID tag known as the FT401 Laundry Chip.

The new technology is being used by industrial laundry companies in Europe and the United States, according to Julien Buros, Datamars’ textile product and service director, in order to gain a faster and more accurate view of the cleaned textiles that they pack and deliver to customers: hotels, hospitals and elder-care facilities.

Datamars’ Open Tunnel

Datamars, a Swiss technology firm, has provided laundry-management solutions for workwear since the firm launched 30 years ago. More recently, with the adoption of UHF RFID tags by the laundry industry, Datamars has been able to expand its solutions to enable the tracking of linens, such as bedding and tablecloths, for hotels, hospitals and resorts. “We’ve seen the market growing quite significantly,” Buros says, in part due to the value UHF RFID has brought to laundries during the past five to seven years.

One of Datamars’ offerings is a UHF RFID reading system that captures the tags of linens and uniforms, after they have been washed, to ensure the items are properly sorted, shipped and billed. That requires the capacity to read up to 2,000 tags on a single trolley. This highly dense tag-reading environment is challenging for readers, and Datamars’ closed cabinet reading system can capture tag ID numbers in such an environment, with the help of its cabinet doors, to prevent stray reads.

The loaded trolley is wheeled into the reader, the cabinet doors are closed and the tags are then interrogated within a matter of seconds. The closing of cabinet doors ensures that there are no stray reads of other tagged items in the area. To read this trolley, the most reliable solution had been to use closed cabinets with the reader’s power set as high as it could go. However, Buros says, that process still requires a slowdown in laundry processes.

“What we’ve noticed is this is interrupting their flow,” Buros states. “The accuracy is very good, but you need the operator to put the trolley in the cabinet, close the door, accomplish reading and then get the trolley out.” The read takes only 3.5 seconds to complete, but the opening and re-opening of the cabinet to remove the trolley adds approximately 10 seconds to the process of washing, sorting and folding linens for customers. When hundreds of trolleys are processed daily, he notes, that step can result in a significant cost in labor hours.

Therefore, Buros says, Datamars developed a solution “that works on the fly.” Its UHF Portal Plus is a reader portal through which a trolley of tagged textiles can simply be pushed at normal walking speed, and up to 500 tags within that trolley are automatically read. (That speed provides about one second for tag reads as the trolley passes.)

The Portal Plus is designed not only to interrogate the tags quickly, while they are still in motion, but also to prevent any stray reads. That function was achieved via hardware selection, as well as software that identifies each tag’s transmission and location. “We’ve also done lots of work in choosing the right RFID reader components and software,” Buros states. The company is using RFID reader hardware from Impinj, as well as other technology suppliers, he says.

The UHF Portal Plus will typically be used in the last step of processing, when cleaned goods are shipped to customers. The Open Tunnel is also aimed at making the capture of textile RFID tags faster and more accurate, Buros says. This tunnel reader is designed to be part of the process by which conveyors transport washed, dried and folded linens and clothing to be packed for shipment to customers.

Users can simply place the UHF RFID Open Tunnel structure on top of an existing conveyor belt. Then, as packages of tagged items pass through the tunnel, their tag IDs are captured, enabling the laundry company to identify the items that have been packaged for shipment to customers. A package of textiles on a conveyor typically contains between 10 and 50 tags, and a single conveyor carries up to 15 packs per minute. Each pack has been assembled to contain a specific number and type of textiles for a customer. The reader system’s built-in software can identify the tags in each package and thereby enable the laundry to confirm the accuracy of an order before it ships.

“The open tunnel provides reliability” when added to a conveyor system, Buros says, as well as improving customer service and preventing re-deliveries. But when using the system, he adds, “You can be sure what you’re delivering is what the customer wants.” The solution provides a way for the laundry and its customers to view what was processed and delivered to a given customer, without having to count items one by one.

The new readers are focused specifically on improving efficiency and accuracy of a business’s clean laundry side. The soiled side of the laundry operation, Buros adds, is less demanding since the laundry only needs to know that a given textile has been returned. Datamars has validated the new reader system’s performance with laundries in Europe and the United States. Portal Plus is currently in use at an industrial laundry in the Netherlands. The Open Tunnel will be installed there in January 2019.

While most industrial laundries own the textiles that they then rent to hotels and other customers, some larger hospitality or health-care companies own their own textiles. In the latter case, a company may want to install its own reader to capture an automatic count of goods as they are received from or shipped to the laundry. In this scenario, the cabinet reader is likely to be the best option, Buros says, since it can read the tags in the trolley, while opening and closing a cabinet door isn’t as impactful on schedules, because there is a much smaller volume of textile tags being read.

In 2017, in order to enable the tagging of small items, Datamars released its FT401 UHF label. According to Buros, the label is built for mechanical resistance and electrical performance, in order to achieve at least 200 wash cycles or three years of use, but with a much smaller form factor. It measures 1.3 millimeters in thickness, 70 millimeters in height and 10 millimeters in width. That enables the tag to be discretely sewn into small items, the firm explains, such as pillow cases, napkins and socks.