Deciphering the code – A look at barcoding to aid in garment cleaning from a layman’s prospective

For most of us the first we become aware of a bar code is when an item doesn’t scan at the till during a shopping trip.  We watch bemused as the item is tilted one way and the next until the till attendant gets fed up and enters the numbers at the bottom of the bar code.

This is in fact the end of the technology cycle and whether it is a can of soup or a shirt from a loyal customer given for washing, the processes are much the same. An item is assigned a series of numbers and/or letters in a particular sequence and then that assigned set of alphanumeric digits are given attributes. Depending on which type of barcode system is used, this set of numbers only or alpha numerical sequences are the turned into a series of lines of different thicknesses forming a bar code.

This is where the similarities end.  The needs of the food industry are very different from the needs of the Cleaning industry.  We want to track the garment to be cleaned through our facility and make sure they are returned to their rightful owner and therefore, need to assign attributes relating to the owner of the garment as well as any physical attributes of the garment itself.  Even if the exact same garment came in from two different owners we need to know which one belongs to which owner.

In the case of the soup can it is usually the manufacturers name, contents, weight etc. Every soup can of the same manufacture, weight, contents etc. has the same bar code. The sequence of digits is then assigned (leased) to the owner of the code by a relevant controlling body.  It cannot be duplicated by another manufacturer so the supermarkets are assured.  The controlling body also sets up the way sequences are set up and assigns numbers.

So who’s the controlling body for the cleaning industry?

Well, there isn’t one that I could find.  We are left to our own devices which, on the one hand, saves us from having to lease barcodes but then leaves it to the industry to decide the best type of bar code and best use.
Looking at the bewildering array of bar code types out there, our options were the result of polling two suppliers, SPOT Computerised Systems for our ePOS system, and Renzacci UK Plc for our Metalprogetti Assisted Assembly system.  The resulting shortlist of bar code types where 128, type 39 and 2/5 interleaved.

Examining the benefits of each reveals that type 128 is a very robust code as it has a check digit in front and at the end of the main code.  These check digits are a mathematical value of the numbers present in the sequence and when read with a scanner, will confirm that the entire code has been read.  If the maths don’t add up then the sequence is not entered.  The operator can then represent the garment in a different position and/or check if the barcode itself is damaged.

Type 39 or Code 39 has an option for a single check digit but mainly relies on a start and end character thereby “Self Checking”.  Both 128 and 39 have been adopted by the US’s Health Industry Business Communication Council for use in the Health Care Products industry.

2/5 Interleaved is a little different in that most other codes, 128 and 39 included, only read the width of the black bars.  2/5 Interleaved also reads the spaces between the bars.  An option is available for check digit as well.  I understand that some other ePOS providers prefer this code above all others due to its accuracy of reading.  The actual barcode is very compact compared to 129 or 39.
At the time, we took the recommendation of our supliers and went with type 128.  Since then, we have seen the emergence of Data Matrix codes or as I like to call them, bar codes for the 21st century.  You may know them as QR codes.  These are very compact and rarely misread.  At the time of our installation, we rejected Data Matrix as the 2D scanners they required were much more expensive than standard ones.  Since then, the price has fallen significantly.

Once we had chosen the barcode type we were then set to start integrating it with our ePOS and Assembly systems, or so we thought.  Turns out choosing the barcode is a single step into what became a bit of a journey.

The first question to answer was who was going to supply the printed barcodes. 

For expediency we purchased pre-printed barcode permanent labels and a heat seal machine.  These were sequentially numbered so when reordering we would have to advise the supplier of the last number used so we didn’t duplicate numbering.  We have since purchased a dedicated thermal transfer printer from ThermoTex and their specialist software, so we can preprint rolls and have the added benefit of putting the customer’s name on the label.  Our next step is to do away with the specialist software and actually use SPOT to generate the heat sealed permanent labels complete with the customer’s name and a bar code.

We then had to address what information to assign to the bar code in our ePOS software.

We ended up assigning the owner’s name, garment colour/pattern, manufacturers name and any specific issues (delicate, tear on sleeve, etc.)  SPOT was especially suited for this application and stored the information with relative ease.

The final step was to make sure that the bar code was assigned to the individual lot.  Again this was something that SPOT handled with relative ease.

Collaborating with SPOT and Renzacci made the entire process pretty straight forward.  The last thing we needed to do was to set up a system for the operators in the tagging area.

When garments were received from regular customers, the operators were trained to look for the bar code heat seal labels in predetermined locations on each type of garment (i.e. bottom of shirt buttonhole seam…).  If we had already applied a label, we simply scanned the bar code and the tagging process ended.  This saved us enormous amounts of time.  If no label was present we simply applied one in the same time it took us to pin a tag onto a garment and registered its attributes into SPOT.

At the end of the pressing cycle, we simply scanned the garment and the automatic sorting and bagging stations from MetalProgetti took care of the rest.  We experienced an immediate reduction of misplaced items, lost items and mixed lots.  In addition we started to notice some unexpected benefits.

Having the ability to assign specific attribute to a garment via the bar code meant we were able to alert customers of issues with their garment at a much earlier stage.  With this even if a customer had forgotten we had advised them of a tear in their garment three clean cycles ago, when they called to complain we had a record in our ePOS of when we first alerted them and their response at the time.
We had been providing a dirty clothes bag to our most loyal customers but had no way of making sure the same bag went back with their cleaned lot.  By applying bar code labels to these bags they were simply added to the lot in our ePOS and this ensured they were recycled time and time again.

Analysing our customer’s patterns, namely, what frequency their garments were cleaned, how long/how many washes before they discarded a garment, what types of garments did they get cleaned/never send by omission, etc. helped us to identify promotions which were very specific and of most benefit to our customers. All this was the result of some lines of different thicknesses called a bar code.

As I stated in the beginning, I am no expert when it comes to this technology and urge you to seek the advice of those in the know to properly guide.  In my case, they were the suppliers of the machinery, Renzacci UK Plc and ePOS software, SPOT Computerised Systems.

So what’s next?

We are looking at implementing both a RFID and Data Matrix code for our customer’s domestic linen.  Hopefully I will be in a position to share my experiences with these new systems in a future article.