When bosses at laundry company Berendsen UK say their biggest challenge is ‘speed of cycle’, they’re not referring to the giant washing machines they fill with one million bed sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, napkins and towels every day, later to be returned from whence they came.
Due to the cyclical nature of Berendsen’s business, it’s vital the company has complete visibility into where items are, what state they’re in and when they’ll be needed again. Keeping tabs on it all was proving to be quite challenging.
However, it’s a challenge the company has now got to grips with, thanks to advances in radio-frequency identification (RFID) microchips and the use of the Microsoft Azure cloud to store and analyse the data they generate.
Here’s how it works. Each item of linen contains an RFID tag. When it arrives on site for laundry, it is typically held in a giant rollcage with up to 1,000 similar items. The rollcage is pushed through a large arch shaped scanner – similar to those found in security areas at airports.
These scanners read and log every RFID tag on every item in the rollcage, and that data is sent to the Microsoft Azure cloud for processing in Azure HDInsight, the Big Data analysis stack based on Hadoop, via the Microsoft Internet of Things (IoT) Hub.
In doing this, Berendsen has essentially undertaken a Big Data driven IoT project, but one in which the ‘things’ are not smart fridges or industrial sensors on a utilities network, but ‘intelligent’ linen.
It’s only recently become possible to make laundry items ‘smart’ in this way, through the use of tagging that identifies them and their location. While Berendsen UK has used RFID tags before on high value items, it’s now possible to apply tagging at scale and in large volumes, says Duncan Macmillan, IT director at Berendsen UK.
This is due to the falling cost of individual tags, which is now in the region of pennies, rather than pounds, and to new levels of durability, which make them robust enough to withstand being washed hundreds of times. “We just had to wait a while for the technology to catch up,” Duncan comments.
“At the very least, an RFID tag has to outlast the item of laundry to which it is attached, and one of the big differences between domestic and industrial laundry is that we don’t use dryers. We use industrial presses that exert around 60 tons of pressure on bedsheets and so on, to squeeze the water out, so a tag has to be pretty robust to withstand that kind of treatment on a regular basis.”