The specialist in the field of textile logistics looks to the past, the present and the future. Helmut Czichon, Managing Director of THERMOTEX alongside Dietmar Nagel, takes us on a journey through time.
With many innovative ideas and the continuous development of the product range, THERMOTEX has established itself among the market leaders in the industry. Launched just over three decades ago as a specialist in textile marking products, the company today defines itself as a system provider for textile logistics. "With our solutions, we help the laundries in their central task of textile logistics and marking," says THERMOTEX CEO Helmut Czichon.
Helmut Czichon: There are certainly different reasons for our successful development. One is that we have been able to continuously develop our portfolio with new, tailor-made products for our customers. In the field of laundry marking, we started using laundry pens to mark labels 31 years ago and later introduced the first printer with a special textile print head and the QR code to the laundry industry. We have always relied on innovative products ever since the company was founded.
Equally important was and still is a high quality of technology. As before, our customers are not looking for the cheapest solution, but for one that can cope with the tough demands of their operations day in, day out. For example, a heat-seal machine that fulfils its task 100 percent, even over millions of operations, since customers greatly prioritise the factors pressure, time and temperature.
Of course, our employees were and are also decisive for our successful development. In addition to technical qualifications - we invest regularly in further education and training - and our team is characterised by a high level of loyalty. Last year, the THERMOTEX team included 20 employees who have been with the company for at least 20 years.
Czichon: When we started, marking was not an important topic in laundries. If laundry had to be marked, then with lead letters using a ribbon to stamp on a heat-seal tape. In order to keep the containers of the customers apart, the laundry staff helped with segregation. However, the laundry volumes were getting bigger, which made the individual item more important. Automation came into the laundries; more and more laundry lines were added to the factories. As a result, the importance of the topic of laundry marking grew.
Added to this was the fact that Rentex companies were urgently looking for a suitable marking system for residents' clothing. We brought together QR code, marking tape and printing technologies - the solution was ready. The marking system was later used in all Rentex operations, and only then was resident billing possible.
Czichon: Marking is still one of our priorities and an important source of revenue. This is already established in tradition, as we have been deeply rooted in this market for 30 years. Today we offer solutions for a wide variety of marking tasks, but this area is just one of our five mainstays.
Another pillar in the THERMOTEX range are emblems for high-quality refinement, for example for workwear and protective clothing. Different types of emblems come together in this area - currently there are 17 types - according to taste or depending on the customer’s field of application. Incidentally, more and more laundries are sending their textiles with emblems to us for refining. We offer this service if companies cannot do this themselves.
Since 1993 we have been dealing with transponder technology, intensively for more than ten years with our own development and products. Today we maintain a focus department on transponder technology in our factory 2 here in Schutterwald. We develop and realise transponders, antennas, reading systems and special solutions for different tasks and processes.
Thermotex's fourth pillar is machinery. Here you will find heat-seal machines, thermal transfer printers, dot-matrix printing systems and direct printing systems. Solid workmanship and precise factors - such as the right combination of printer, label material and ink ribbon - have a high priority in our engineering.
Our fifth mainstay is laundry logistics. These include laundry sorting systems for the incoming goods and expedition, laundry distribution cabinets and transport systems as well as commercial goods such as laundry bags and nets. Our Saturn laundry management software is particularly suitable for use in retirement and nursing homes, facilities for the disabled and smaller laundries.
As you can see, today our offers reach far beyond the topic of marking. The THERMOTEX product range has grown steadily over the last 30 years, and especially in the last 10 years. Today, our portfolio is exceptionally deep and broad, comprising about 110,000 items. The smallest item, a transponder, weighs 0.15 grams, the heaviest is a sorting system for residents' clothing, which weighs 1,800 kilograms. With this product range, we regularly supply around 8,000 customers in the field of textile logistics.
Czichon: Our customers include laundries, nursing homes, hospitals, hotels, industry, clothing manufacturers, fire departments, police and technical aid organisations. Today, THERMOTEX supplies in over 60 countries worldwide. Germany is still our most important market. However, we are also market leaders in Austria and Switzerland, and we continue to grow in the other international countries.
Czichon: Transponder technology is becoming more and more important and currently we are seeing a real hype. There are several reasons for this, but one thing is certain: The laundries are under a high, permanent price pressure and are looking for solutions to minimise their costs. Transponder technology is a way to optimise processes and thereby achieve savings. For example, laundry equipped with UHF transponders can be read quickly and automatically in large quantities regardless of location. On the other hand, laundry with QR code or barcode has to be scanned manually - that involves personnel and time expenditure.
We carry a wide range of transponders for a wide variety of tasks. Our HF transponders are ideal for the fully automatic identification of textiles. You have a worldwide readable and unique identification number. Together with software, this number can be used to assign the name of the wearer, the number of washing cycles and washing requests as just some examples. RF transponders can also be read in the stack, and are currently widely used in practice.
UHF transponders have a wide range of applications because of their long range, especially in container and bulk detection. In the optimum combination with antenna, decoder and reader, individual textiles can be selectively read in and out. UHF technology has just opened up a new dimension for flat laundry items, but it is also suitable for workwear and resident’s clothing. For special requests, we also have LF transponders in our assortment, which can always only be read individually.
Our strength lies not only in being able to offer the optimum chip and matching reading systems for every application. But we can beam rooms in such a way that the interaction between the antenna and transponder achieves the best results under all conditions in the laundry, vehicle, hotel, hospital, etc. i.e. very high reading rates.
Of course, the transponders must also be applied to the textile. We have patches, bags and passe-partouts for work clothes, shirts, etc. in the assortment. Here, too, our technical expertise is combined with our textile know-how. Every year we produce about 1.4 billion labels. For decades, we have been developing tailor-made solutions to securely fasten them to the laundry.
Our sales reps, currently 15 colleagues, and 4 application engineers, advise the customer on-site about the possibilities of transponder technology. Once the requirements have been defined, our employee will explain possible solutions. This includes recommendations regarding the type and size of the transponder as well as its arrangement. Through his knowledge and experience, it is always ensured that the technology can be used successfully in practice. For this optimal solution, we work together with 32 software partners worldwide.
Czichon: That is very diverse. Among other things, it is used to identify and read work clothing, PPE, resident, hospital and hotel laundry. By the way, when it comes to hotel laundry, the interest in transponder technology is emerging more and more from the hotels themselves. For example, to find out the causes of their laundry losses. This is only possible if you can clearly determine the input and output of the laundry.
Increasingly, clothing manufacturers also use transponders to track their textiles, which are produced abroad. This allows the clothing manufacturers to monitor whether the parts in the ordered quantities also reach their destination. With the technology, it is now possible to read in an entire pallet with all the boxes - without having to open them.
This also applies to laundries. If the new laundry is equipped with transponders, the laundry can immediately check on delivery whether it has arrived in the ordered number. We have designed and built a box for this task that can pick up and read the complete range. This means that no boxes have to be unpacked and textiles counted by hand. This also saves working time, minimising the costs and the risk of errors.
The demands on transponder technology are different and are always new. That's why, for example, we have developed a UHF transponder for residents' clothing that combines two technologies: Reading the QR code manually with a scanner or automatically with a reading antenna - this makes it very flexible depending on the process.
The transponder technology and the processes that can be implemented with it already give us many benefits today. Laundries can further their automation whilst gaining data and information in the processes. For example, you can register and measure items at the bag loader, count again at the tunnel finisher, etc. Thanks to this information, statistics can be developed or cost centres assigned. For a professional workwear leaser, it's hugely important to know how often am item is turned around in a service, and how much money it earns.
Basically, all types of marking - whether with transponders or barcodes - increase transparency in the laundry processes. High process transparency inside and outside the company highlights problems, mistakes and bottlenecks. If these are rectified and eliminated from the laundry, customer satisfaction increases. This is also important for customer loyalty. Finally, the subject of transponders in tenders is becoming increasingly important. That is why today more and more small and medium-sized laundries rely on transponder technology or increased marking in order to keep control over losses, avoid mistakes or activate processes.
Czichon: For example, when introducing new transponder technology in a company, it is a good idea to equip a new customer with it. You can also start to equip individual customers or individual textile types with this technology. Among other things, we have customers who have implemented this for “mop” items. They had high losses due to the items disappearing and therefore equipped their mops with transponders. We also developed and built special conveyor belts with antennas in front of the wash lines. They have a special shielding so that the antennas have optimum reception. Now the mops are dropped container by container onto these belts and read automatically.
Previously, the mops had to be counted by hand. That meant deploying staff and also the risk of mistakes. The transponder technology provides exact information, for example, about the life of the mop, when it has reached the laundry and when it has left again - or whether it is still on its way.
Even if you only equip part of the laundry with transponders, this runs normally through the processes. It can be found, identified and sorted out at any time.
Czichon: Our main task is to provide laundries with solutions that guarantee the highest possible level of control of their textiles. This includes systems for error prevention. That's why one of our developments is the Sortexx sorting shelves for residents' clothing. Two control functions are important here: A control light indicates that the employee has selected the right compartment for a laundry item. Then he has to put it in as well, otherwise a light barrier will indicate an error signal. As a result, incorrect sorting is not possible.
Today the competition in the laundry industry is huge and prices are low. Wrong deliveries and the resulting costs cannot and can no longer be tolerated by companies today. At the same time, the processes of concentration in the retirement home and care market have made the customers of the laundries become larger and larger. A dissatisfied customer might therefore mean that not only a company, but several of its locations are lost.
Czichon: Basically, it will go in the direction of process-oriented marking. That's why transponder technology will become even more important over the next few years. It represents exact, safe and error-free processes.
In the companies, automation will continue, new media will be introduced. Perhaps holograms will then be made available to employees to specify work steps or make processes even easier and error-free - for example, to position a transponder or emblem exactly on a workwear item.
Our development work is not just focused on the future. It takes place every day. New developments in chemistry and technology are regularly entering the laundries. Again, and again, new demands are placed on emblems or labels with regard to washing technology, skin friendliness, elasticity, etc. Dryers, mangles and finishers work today with ever higher temperatures. This increases the risk that the label will detach from the textile. Currently we work with different heat-seal temperatures of 140 to 210°C, but textiles are damaged from a temperature of 230°C. Our window is therefore relatively small. This always means new conditions and requirements for our products. Therefore, they have to be developed further in order to survive the processes of the Sinner Circle.
No laundry can do without marking today. If there are problems on a larger scale, then this is a huge disaster for the company. We have to offer solutions quickly, and we usually can. Our customers also appreciate that. Marking is a matter of trust for THERMOTEX's customers, and we take responsibility for it every day.
Czichon: For THERMOTEX, we need to continue to develop new ideas, advance technology, look for solutions that perfectly support the automated processes of the industry, and uncover today's unknown customer needs - as we've done in the past three decades.
It will be just as important to further develop solutions and concepts. Maybe over the next few years clothing manufacturers will not just sew our transponders into their clothes to track them on their way to the laundry. But the laundry will continue to use exactly these transponders. They will have a new job; go through the processes together with the laundry over and over again until they are sorted out after a specified number of cycles and fed to a recycling process.
Later this year, we will conclude two projects with textile distribution systems for textiles with our software partners. Then, as a systems supplier, we will monitor entire rooms in order to optimise items circulation and thus costs.
In the future, we would like to take an even closer look at resources and the environment and involve ourselves in our thinking and actions. We have pushed various environmental projects, for example an insect hotel and a hive with flower meadow are being created on our premises. Thanks to the new Packaging Directive, the subject of the environment has become more and more important to the industry. We are also working on: which packaging is sustainable? Nevertheless, our customer can expect in the future, of course, that his new purchase is neatly packed. Here too, we try to create added value for our customers.
Source: WRP laundry + cleaning practice