Companies Deploying RFID Smart Cabinet for Workwear
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 09, 2023IRG Systems and Pozi Technologies (PoziTech) have teamed up to offer an RFID-enabled cabinet system for managing workwear on jobsites. The solution consists of a set of smart cabinets for the workwear, software enabling dispensing automation and managing the inventory data, as well as a built-in RFID reader and antenna from technology company Keonn. The cabinet system was designed to automate the distribution of clean uniforms and collection of laundry in medical facilities and industrial sites. However, the cabinets could also be used for other goods, such as surgical instruments or other small items that are checked out and returned.
Traditionally, uniform management in healthcare or factory settings has been a manual process. Companies often employ workers to distribute and manage uniform inventory, as they are used and returned. Often, storage rooms are required and workers managing the uniforms need to be available 24 hours a day.
This process isn’t just costly – it is prone to errors. Handling, dispensing, and sending uniforms to laundry or repair often leads to low inventory accuracy, says Károly Lendvai, Pozi Technologies’ CTO and head of development. In addition, he says, “Due to the time needed to perform the manual administration tasks, inventories were tracked only based on uniform types and quantities, with less transparency.”
IRG and PoziTech worked together to develop a digitized cabinet aimed at solving these challenges. IRG provided the mechanical design, development, production, and quality assurance of the cabinet system components, along with supporting the selection of the UHF RFID reader components.
PoziTech produced the architecture and system design, including the system application, communication, and electronics with embedded firmware and software. IRG helped PoziTech select the Keonn RFID reader system to ensure accurate, reliable RFID tag reads to automate detection of items entering or leaving the cabinet.
Companies using the cabinet are often part of what IRG and PoziTech call the “last mile” of an RFID-based textile monitoring and management system. In fact, the solution they developed covers all the steps of the laundry operation process cycles. Customers use their technology, for example, to track uniforms or other textiles through the laundry and repair service with RFID readers deployed at tables and gates or on trucks and containers. Companies also use handheld readers to track the identify, location, and status of goods as they move through laundries and distribution centers. It’s all part of what Lendvai calls a complex software ecosystem, used for automatic process tracking with low administration efforts.
The cabinet system deployment consists of the server where uniform inventory data is managed (either residing in the cloud or locally) and the cabinets, which typically are arranged into groups. The cabinet groups are comprised of dispenser and collector units and are controlled and monitored by dedicated terminal units which workers use to interface with the system.
The cabinet itself has a built-in UHF RFID reader, with an antenna installed on each shelf. It includes multiple connectivity options to a server, including WLAN, LAN, or cellular networks. To maintain a reliable communication channel, the cabinet system is designed to manage multiple network connections in parallel, says Lendvai, in case of incidents such as network outages.
By the time uniforms are stocked in the cabinets, each has a washable UHF RFID tag sewn in. Each tag is encoded with a unique ID that links to data describing the item in the backend software. The reader and antennas built into the cabinet read the tag ID of each item, and this data is updated in the inventory software.
To access a uniform, an individual uses a touchscreen terminal on the front of the cabinet to gain authentication, either by entering a pin code or presenting an access card. They then view the uniform choices and select the items and sizes they need. Based on the selected uniforms and the actual inventory, the appropriate door of the dispenser units unlocks, and the user takes the items they have requested.
After they close the door, the dispenser checks the remaining inventory by reading all RFID tags still in the cabinet. Any tag ID that is no longer being read is updated as having been dispensed to the individual who last used the cabinet.
When users are finished with their uniform, they return the items to the collector unit built into the system. They simply deposit the clothing into the bin, and the built-in motion sensors record this action and trigger an RFID tag read to identify what has been returned.
When the cabinet needs to be replenished, operators can see inventory data in the software and identify what is needed before going to the cabinet to restock. They then use the same process of authenticating themselves at the cabinet door, at which time the latches are released, and they can put clean items inside. When they close the door, the cabinet reader again identifies what is inside and updates the inventory.
The technology was specially engineered to accommodate what is a challenging application, the companies say. One such challenge was the confinement of the RF fields within the cabinets “to provide reliable compartment-level inventories,” says András Balogh, Pozi Technologies’ Solution Architect, R&D Engineer, and RF Specialist. In addition to selecting the reader components provided by Keonn, the engineering team customized the entire RF architecture and mechanical parts, Balogh says, “along with specifically designed algorithms and procedures – not mentioning the tremendous amounts of RF field measurements and calculations.”
The technology was designed to be portable and easy to deploy but also cost-efficient and scalable, according to Balogh. The cabinet system was intended to come with a cost that was comparable with that of paying a dedicated laundry worker to dispense and collect uniforms.
One customer using the system is a municipal hospital in Hungary, employing the cabinets to automate uniform dispensing to healthcare workers. The cabinet system and the uniforms are provided as an addition to a complete laundry service. The cabinet system is also being deployed by an unnamed industrial company for workwear management.
For those using the cabinets, early results are showing multiple benefits, the companies say. For one thing, those already using RFID in their laundry service or distribution management can now extend that functionality to their customers (healthcare or industrial companies).
The data from the cabinet system can help users – whether they are the end-using company or the uniform or laundry provider – better monitor and manage their services over time, as well as understand details such as usage and refilling rates.
In the case of laundry service companies, they can offer the cabinet solution as a part of their existing services. In addition, if a laundry service’s customer does not yet use RFID technology on its uniforms, the service could provide the integration of RFID tags into the already available textiles of their customers, and then deploy the cabinets at the customer’s site.
Key Takeaways:Using the CabinetEarly Gains include Accurate Inventories, Lower CostKey Takeaways: