How does a hospital laundry service with multiple clients keep track of all of the incoming and outgoing items to ensure that they get back to the right facilities, and in an efficient manner? The technology has grown increasingly sophisticated in the past couple of decades. Tracking systems are particularly crucial when dealing with unique items like personalized lab coats or uniforms, as a medical laundry service would.
There are two main types of systems: radio-frequency identification (RFID) and bar coding. RFID is the technology used in the microchips inserted into pets so that they can be identified and returned home if they get lost. Since RFID is the more modern, efficient one, we will focus most of our attention on how that works in tracking laundry.
In an RFID system, a tag or chip is attached to each towel, sheet, garment, or other item. In some cases, they are installed by the manufacturer. In others, items are tagged by the laundry. The tags/chips are available with low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF) or ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio bands. The tags have a strong, yet small, thin plastic casing that does not interfere with an item’s use, but can withstand harsh commercial laundry processes that use very hot water and chemicals for up to hundreds of washings.
How RFID Tracking Works
Antennas linked to readers are placed in locations where items pass by or are stored at key points during their time at the laundry service. This includes entrances, soiled linen bins, clean linen hampers, and uniform racks. Entire bins of linens can be scanned at one time. The reader is linked to a software system that collects and manages the data. The system also allows a laundry to inventory its hotel, restaurant, and hospital linens quickly and accurately, with little manpower needed.
Bar Code Labeling
Bar coding is an older, simpler technology than RFID. It is generally less expensive, but not as efficient for tracking large amounts of inventory. A bar code labeling system, which is essentially what is used in stores to bring up the price and other information on the items we purchase, records information on each item, such as when it was issued, how many times it has been processed, and when it was last turned in.
RFID versus Bar Coding
- Bar code labeling usually requires the labeled item to be within the sight line of the reader, and therefore necessitates that an employee is there to operate the reader. Most RFID readers remain in a fixed location, and items can be read even if they are not directly in front of it. Employees do not operate the readers.
- Bar codes can read just one item at a time, while RFID systems can read multiple tags simultaneously.
- RFID tags can be read at much greater distances (up to over one hundred yards) as opposed to about five yards for a bar code.
- RFID readers can read much faster – several hundred or more tags per second.
- A bar code is read-only, while most RFID tags can read and write, which means that new information can be written over existing information. It is something like the difference between readable/writable CDs and readable ones.
- RFID tags can identify each tagged item individually, while most bar codes can only identify the type of item.
Some large laundry companies, such as those that handle medical linens for multiple hospitals, put both RFID tags and bar code labels on each of their items. The bar code is there as a backup in case the RFID system fails to read an item. However, RFID tags are nearly 100% accurate.
How Tracking Improves Laundry Services
Tracking systems improve efficiency and reduce the time and effort involved in processing, shipping and receiving at a laundry facility. They allow business owners to track every item in their inventory from purchase to rag-out. They provide an accurate inventory, so that laundry companies never have to run short of healthcare linens, tablecloths or any items they handle. The more advanced tracking systems can even generate billing reports when items are shipped to customers.
As Steve Kallenbach, a former member of the American Laundry News Panel of Experts, notes, « If you don’t have good reconciliation processes, any of these systems will only allow you to know what’s missing! » However, tracking systems can go a long way towards helping medical laundry services and other laundry companies operate more efficiently.