Mention the Internet of Things (IoT) and the images conjured up are sensors on lamp posts or assembly lines being constantly monitored. Bed sheets and pillows cases less so.
However, for textile management firm Berendsen IoT is now core to its operations, helping it track the millions of items of laundry it processes every day for hotels, restaurants and hospitals up and down the UK.
With so many customers the firm is on a constant cycle of receiving dirty items, cleaning them, and shipping them out again, in what the industry dubs the "linen cycle".
Working in this way means as many as a million items a year were prone to go missing, as the firm struggled to know where items where in the cycle, as Duncan Macmillan, IT director at Berendsen, explained to V3.
"Most sites handling large volumes of material know where it is and where it is coming from, they have a more "sensible" supply chain. But we have material coming and going at all times, usually over a million items a day are being processed. This means that keeping tabs on everything was very hard."
Keen to tackle this the company set about finding a solution to help ensure it had more insight into the location of its good, and turned to RFID tags to help it answer four key questions, as Macmillan outlines.
"We wanted to know, do we get it back, how fast do we get it back, how long does it last, and how long does it take to go through the linen cycle."
Of course, findings tags to go into millions of items that can survive the linen cycle was not easy.
"It did take a while for the technology to catch up. The tags have to survive being washed hundreds of times and being pressed in giant presses when we get the water out of the sheets."
Eventually, though it found what it was after from a US company called Tagsys, enabling it to plant thousands of tiny tags inside its laundry. "A few will fail but by and large they outlast the linen, which is what we need."
Having the tags in place gives the firm much "greater visibility of the linen cycle" as Macmillan explains.
"We want to know how much stuff we've got coming in each day as soon as possible so we can process it and get it back out to customers.With the tags in place we can scan huge batches of sheets, say 1,000 at a time, so we can quickly get a sense of how many items we have and which orders we can fulfill."
"It also means we can ensure when we send a batch to a customer there is the right number of sheets included."
This not only helps the firm keep tabs on what is coming and going, but what needs to be returned too.
"We don't want customers to have linens stored away they are not using, so by tagging everything we can see if a customer has more than they need that is perhaps forgotten about somewhere," he said.
However, finding the tags was only half the issue. With so much data now up for grabs, the company needed to have the right systems in place to store, process and analyse it all.
"With north of a million tags, and growing, we had to have the right processes to store and handle all this, and we didn't just want to constantly have to be buying more and more [storage] discs."
To tackle this, the company looked to the cloud and ended up choosing Microsoft's Azure platform.
"What Microsoft brought to the party was the software and data handling capabilities that we could not have on site."
So as well as using Azure to store the data the firm is also using its HD Insight and Power BI software to help analyse the data it is gathering and make decisions based on what it shows.
"Using dashboards in real-time means we can start doing more sophisticated analysis to work out how often a piece of laundry has been washed and if it may need replacing," Macmillan explained.
"The average piece maybe lasts for 200 washes so by tracking its lifecycle we can see if it's only had 100 washes and is damaged something may be going wrong, or if it's still being used after 300 washes maybe it needs replacing.
"We can know understand what is going on with our half of the linen cycle and ask 'how long is it lasting, is it being used as best as possible, are there items we have not had back' and so on."
Macmillan said it is this close analysis of the data to help not only track the location of its linen but understand how it is being used that is the truly beneficial use of the IoT.
"The trick is to know on the business side what you want to get out of an IoT project before you start," he said.
"I think we did very well to make sure we understood the problems we were trying to solve and the information the business would benefit from having."
Macmillan said this is a key lesson from the work he has overseen at the firm and he urges other companies on the cusp of IoT projects to ensure they remain focused on the business benefits of such projects, and not just using technology for the sake of it.
"The lessons for me is to hide the complexity and focus on what it can do for the business. You can talk about the databases and the technology it runs on and so on for as long as you want, but that won't make you money," he said.
"The thing that makes you money is giving the people who make money a simple set of measures to help them understand how the business is performing.
"It's very easy to focus on the technology and not the goal of the business, but it is the business process that needs improving so everything must revolve around that."
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