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Cleaning Up With RFID

InterfaceFlor is embedding RFID tags in its carpet tiles to make them easy and cost-efficient to maintain—and to corner the commercial flooring market.
By Jennifer Zaino
Jun 18, 2008— Award Winner: Most Innovative Use of RFID

June 1, 2008—In the $14 billion carpet and rug industry, carpet tiles are the star of the show. For the past three years, carpet tiles have been growing faster than any other type of flooring. Last year, InterfaceFlor, the world's leading manufacturer of carpet tiles, said its fourth quarter was the best in the company's history, and president and CEO Dan Hendrix credits the demand for modular carpet, both domestically and internationally, for helping to drive an 18.2 percent increase—to $1.1 billion in sales—in annual growth

To help keep its edge, LaGrange, Ga.-based InterfaceFlor developed IntelligentFlor, an RFID system designed to bring efficiencies and cost savings to commercial carpet maintenance. Carpet cleaning, it turns out, is a huge issue—for the customer and for InterfaceFlor, says Chung Hsien Zah, director of Interface's analytical labs. Sometimes customers return carpet tiles, complaining about defects in the material. When Interface analyzes the carpet tiles, it often finds that poor maintenance, which results in soil buildup from foot traffic, is the reason they've lost luster and color.

IntelligentFlor, still in the prototype stage, can detect which carpet tiles were vacuumed and which weren't. An RFID passive tag is embedded in the corner of each carpet tile. When a vacuum equipped with an RFID interrogator passes over a tag, it sends information on the tag's location—as well as the time—via a Bluetooth connection to a computer software program that maps the tag's location on a grid. Armed with a visual display, building property managers can take steps to keep their carpets cleaner, such as pinpointing for the evening's cleaners the areas of the carpet that weren't vacuumed the previous night. And that, Interface believes, will make managers less likely to consider wood or vinyl flooring, which they might otherwise perceive as being easier and less costly to maintain.

Interface's choice of RFID technology to solve the maintenance problem bucks some industry trends. Zah says carpet industry trade associations, such as the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), have certified cleaning chemicals, machines and maintenance contractors to assure commercial customers that they're getting the highest-quality service. But Zah believes this approach may send the wrong message to customers, which could view the need for such certifications as evidence that carpets actually are harder to maintain than other kinds of flooring.

More important, Zah says, it doesn't get to the heart of the problem. When Interface discussed the issue with various maintenance industry associations, the company learned that all cleaning companies operate under the same economic model in order to make a profit on their maintenance contracts: Basically, cleaners must work quickly, vacuuming 1,000 square feet in six to eight minutes, so they typically turn their attention to areas that look dirty. But that means they miss a lot of places, allowing dirt to build up and damage the carpet surface.

Interface believes its RFID system will enable cleaners to do a better job in the same amount of time. Otherwise, building managers dissatisfied with how their carpets look will continue to try different cleaning companies until they give up and opt for another type of flooring. "That's hurting our market," Zah says. "That's the reason we say you have to identify the real problem and solve it."
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