One could be forgiven for assuming uniform rental has evolved very little over the years. After all, clothing is clothing. But go behind the scenes and you discover that uniform rental in the 21st century is vastly different from what was practiced even just a few decades ago. Today’s uniform rental is not your grandfather’s.
Today’s industry utilizes a range of technologies to improve everything from garment manufacturing to weekly laundering. In the arena of inventory control, the industry has evolved from the early days of name tags to modern tracking methods relying on barcodes and RFID transmitters.
All You Need Is a Name Tag
Salt Lake City-based Alsco was the first company to offer uniform rental in the U.S. They were doing it as far back as the late 1800s. Way back when, all uniform rental companies needed to track inventory was a simple name tag. Each piece of clothing was fitted with a tag; each tag was noted and recorded when soiled uniforms were picked up and clean uniforms dropped off.
Attaching name tags to each and every garment was labor-intensive. So was manually tracking the garments via those tags. So when barcodes became mainstream as inventory control devices back in the late 1970s, uniform providers began jumping on board. They began stitching barcode labels into their garments in order to facilitate tracking without name tags.
All You Need Is a Scanner
Replacing name tags with RFID tags eliminated the need for so much manual tracking. Delivery personnel only needed scanners capable of reading the tags and transmitting information. However, this sort of system requires a robust computer network capable of tracking and transmitting data in real time.
How does it work? Each garment is fitted with a barcode tag. Encoded in the barcode is information about that particular garment. Garments are assigned to customers at the start of their rental agreements, thereby linking barcode data directly to customer and employee.
All garments are scanned prior to leaving the provider’s plant. When they are retrieved from the customer for laundering, they are scanned again. In some cases, uniform providers also scan the garments during every stage of the laundering and finishing process. This creates a permanent record of a uniform’s journey every time it is picked up, laundered, and returned to the customer.
Barcodes are more efficient and reliable than basic name tags. But they are not perfect. Thus, uniform companies are now starting to turn to RFID tags.
All You Need Is a Receiver
RFID is an acronym that stands for ‘radio frequency identification’. For the purposes of this discussion, think of it as a radio-activated barcode. Uniform providers attach small RFID tags to each of their garments. These are passive tags, meaning they are not continually broadcasting information. The tags are embedded with the same type of information found in a barcode.
Delivery drivers carry receivers that are constantly scanning for the passive tags. Because passive tags are short range, you have to be up close and personal for a receiver to find them. But once found, the receiver identifies a particular garment and sends the necessary information to the computer network.
Yes, uniforms themselves have changed very little since Alsco first began delivering them. But the way uniforms are manufactured, laundered, and tracked has changed quite a bit. Technology has made it easier for everyone to contribute their piece to the uniform rental puzzle. Increasingly, RFID is making up a larger part of the puzzle. But alas, something will eventually rise up and take its place too.