Towel technology tracks users, reduces overhead

August 2, 2011
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The idea of how to stem health clubs' continual loss of towels emerged four years ago when Steven Molewyk's attempts at taking a mid-day nap proved in vain.

"I was frustrated and angry with the theft," said Molewyk, 37, who owns two coin-operated laundries in northeast Grand Rapids, the Creston Sit and Spin and Hillside Laundry.

"I was trying to figure out a way to deal with my customers, and it came to me and it became what it is."

What "it" became is a technology Molewyk developed, with help from a mentor, called Towel Tracker, a 7-foot-tall steel box that resembles a vending machine. It interacts with paperclip-sized radio frequency identification tags embedded in each towel and tracks the number of towels removed from each machine.

Fujitsu Ltd., a Japanese multinational computer hardware and IT services company headquartered in Minato, Tokyo, manufactures Towel Tracker's RFID chips.

"The chips basically act like a license plate or fingerprint," said Molewyk.

Users swipe an ID card and remove the towels they want from the unit. Within half a second, a scanning system reads the RFID tags in the towels and assigns them to the person. When used towels are returned, a system  in another machine scans the tags again to confirm their return. This information is relayed to the facility's computer using Wi-Fi.

The RFID chips' lifespan makes them cost effective, as well, Molewyk said. They average 10,000 wash cycles.

"They outlast the life of the towel," said Molewyk. "They can reuse them in the next towel."

The Towel Tracker system is designed to address three elements that typically make towel service costly, said Molewyk: staff overhead for towel distribution and pick up; theft; and sanitary towel return.

That's a key reason Towel Tracker relies on two components, said Molewyk. The clean towel unit holds 300 towels. The towel return unit contains a removable cart that collects used towels, keeping them out of sight and off locker room floors.

The machine, software and training costs about $27,000, Molewyk said.

Mary Key Sherman, customer service supervisor at the Walker Ice and Fitness Center, said she doesn't know how many towels may have been lost or stolen before she started using two Towel Tracker units at the center in June 2010.

What she has noticed is members are less inclined to leave wet towels lying on the floor after they're done with them. And they tend to take only the amount of towels they actually need, Sherman added, instead of indiscriminately grabbing a bunch as they did before the Towel Tracker system was implemented. That has saved on the cost to launder them, she said.

"It makes people more accountable for their towels," Sherman said. "I do find I have to order less of them. It's a better way to be green and more efficient."

Molewyk said the Avi Resort and Casino in Laughlin, Nev., formerly shelled out $400 in labor over a one-day period with a system that required its guests to wait in line for towels, register the towels they picked up and then wait again to confirm they had returned them.

"Their theft rate in a 10-day period by using our system is 0.57 percent per 100 towels used," said Molewyk. "They lose one and a half towels per a day, or $11 of product, versus $400 of labor per day, and they know who took them and can then bill them for the towels."

Towel Tracker has caught on enough for Molewyk to hire a sales team of three, including him, at an office/warehouse in Byron Township. Molewyk said he will soon need to relocate and is currently on the lookout for an office/warehouse of 6,000 square feet.

"What I'd like to do is put a lease on this product on a monthly basis so we have that recurring revenue," said Molewyk. "We can help a lot of health clubs reduce their costs dramatically."

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