S'pore laundromat aims big with RFID

Singapore-based Laundry Network hedges on RFID to give the uniform management and laundry service vendor a competitive edge over its rivals and expand its presence in Asia-Pacific.

Laundry Network's gamble on RFID (radio frequency identification) appears to be paying off after it recently clinched deals to be the uniform management and laundry service vendor for Resorts World Singapore (RWS) and the country's inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

According to T. P. Chan, the Singapore-based company's CEO, the decision to integrate RFID technology into the business was driven by a need to "upgrade its laundry facilities".

He also pointed to the government's decision to build two integrated resorts--RWS and Marina Bay Sands--in 2005 as another reason to look into technologies that could handle the laundry load of big establishments.

Laundry by RFID

Company: Laundry Network, a Singapore SMB specializing in laundry services

What: Helped build a S$5 million RFID-enabled uniform management system and laundry service for Resorts World Singapore (RWS), which launders up to 20,000 pieces of garment daily. RFID readers were installed at chute where employees drop their used uniforms, which are then tracked by the system.

Savings: RWS reduced its staff requirements by two-third and floor space by 50 percent.

"People tend to think that laundry service just means customers sending us their soiled clothes for cleaning and we send it back to them after it's done, but we decided to change this perception," Chan told ZDNet Asia in an interview Monday.

The move to reinvent the company and utilize technology to boost its service has earned Laundry Network a five-year contract to manage and launder the uniforms for RWS, as well as for the Youth Olympic Village which will house the athletes and officials present for this year's YOG event to be held in Singapore next month.

To reinvent the company, though, Chan said he and his employees had to travel to places such as Europe and the U.S. to attend trade exhibitions and build up their understanding of RFID and other technologies that could shake up the traditionally low-tech industry.

The company also applied to tap the S$4.5 million (US$3.1 million) grant made available by Singapore's National RFID Centre (NRC) under its RFID Innovation Platform initiative. The NRC is an industry group that seeks to drive the development and adoption of RFID technology across local industries, including manufacturing, logistics, retail and hospitality.

After receiving a grant of almost S$150,000 (US$109,245) from the NRC, which was "about half" of the total development cost invested, Chan said, Laundry Network created a conveyor tracking system to increase efficiency and improve traceability of uniforms. This also enhanced customer service at laundry collection, he added.

Besides developing its own technology, he said the company is partnering U.S.-based White Conveyors--which designs and manufactures specialized conveyor systems--to provide a uniform management tool and laundry service for its enterprise customers, such as RWS.

This offering includes bringing in hardware and software from the U.S., installing the physical infrastructure, manually inserting the RFID chips into the garments and providing IT support for its customers, he explained.

Garment tracking at RWS
According to Chan, RWS invested S$5 million (US$3.6 million) in the uniform management system and laundry service which has allowed the integrated resort operator to reap savings from reducing its staff requirements by two-third and floor space by 50 percent.

An example of manpower and cost savings lies in the uniform management platform installed at RWS, which has a "two-way interface" with the laundry vendor's own IT system, he said. This setup allows his staff to monitor the amount of laundry entering its facility without having to go down to the resort.

Furthermore, the system automates the delivery order (DO) receipt for each day's garment delivery--sent and received--which helps free up time and manpower for his staff to focus on other areas of business, he added.

With regard to the sorting of garments, Chan revealed that RWS had installed RFID readers at the opening and end of the chute, where employees dispose their used uniforms, to track the movement of the clothing.

To achieve "99 percent accuracy", readers were installed in two directions so that they can better capture the signal emitted by an RFID tag even if the garment is crumpled as this would distort the signals, he said.

Garment tracking starts and ends at the uniform collection room so employees need not worry that their movements will be monitored throughout the resort, Chan said.

He said the RWS deployment is a "proof-of-concept" that illustrates Laundry Network's expertise and technical ability to launder and manage up to 20,000 pieces of garment daily. The company is able to handle loads of up to 60,000 garments daily, he added.

"We will showcase our technology [during the launch of our Woodlands laundry plant today] to hotels, with around 1,000 rooms and below, to see if they would be interested to engage our services," he added, noting that this hotel segment will be the company's main target audience going forward.

Its three-storey Woodlands building spans 24,000 square feet and is touted as the first laundry plant in Singapore to deploy RFID.

Laundry Network also has plans to set up two RFID-based self-service kiosks for consumers at both Anchorpoint and Parkway Parade shopping malls "later in the year", Chan revealed.

He said this service will be extended to a pool of "VIP customers" that will be given a RFID-enabled "prestige card". These consumers need only to drop off their soiled clothing at the kiosk, swipe their card through the reader and, once their garments are processed, have their clothing sent back to them.

Each kiosk will set the company back around S$20,000 (US$14,566) and S$30,000 (US$21,849), he added.

Asked about plans to use RFID to track individual consumers' garments, Chan said the company will only look to implement that in a year's time. He cited the high investment cost of around S$100,000 (US$72,830) and S$200,000 (US$145,660) as the reason why Laundry Network is reinventing its business in stages.

He added that he is looking to expand the company's design and consultancy business in the region. This will be conducted via another company under the Laundry Network family, Ladrin System Planners, he added.

RFID rising in Asia
Laundry Network's move to innovate with RFID is indicative of the Asia-Pacific region's increased awareness and adoption of RFID.

In an earlier ZDNet Asia report, Frank Dorrian, Asia-Pacific president of International RFID Business Association, predicted that the region will overtake Europe and be on par with the U.S. in deployment of RFID services in the next three to four years.

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