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Is Big Brother washing you? Company says microchip in uniform aids laundry, not snooping

Wednesday, August 18, 2004 By Chris Knape The Grand Rapids Press

There's a microchip in your pants.

At least if your work uniform comes from Grantex Inc., a supplier to Steelcase Inc., General Motors Corp. and other companies.

Wyoming-based Grantex has become a pioneer in the controversial field of Radio Frequency Identification, known as RFID, by sewing tiny microchips into every garment it handles.

Don't worry: Grantex isn't watching what's in its trousers or where shirts go once they leave the company's plant in Wyoming.

The "smart tags" used by Grantex are low-frequency chips that require each garment to pass within a few inches of the company's scanners to register.

About the size of a quarter, the tags are sewn into low-wear areas of garments where they are unlikely to bother the wearer.

Privacy advocates have assailed the technology as Big Brother-like.

They fear the tags could be used by companies to track customer movements and buying habits or by law enforcement agencies to track citizens.

The 2002 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report" has scenes some say show the extreme possibilities of RFID.

In the film, electronic billboards adjust themselves based on the person who is moving past, and surveillance systems track someone's every move. At Grantex, there are no sinister motives, President Douglas Singer said.

The company makes no secret about its use of RFID. It even developed a cartoon mascot named Chip to market the advantages of its "smart garments."

Grantex uses the chips to automatically track and sort clothing it rents to companies.

It is considered a more efficient version of the bar-code system.

After being programmed, a computer can keep track of how many times a garment has been laundered, whether a garment is missing, or if it needs to be repaired or undergo special cleaning.

Away from the Grantex's sorting facility, the chips are useless for keeping track of garments or their wearer, Singer said.

"With this you get better quality. In turn, you get a better reputation," Singer said. "We built this company on reputation and referrals."

Singer is the third generation of his family to run the company, founded in 1923 as Grand Rapids Coat and Apron Services.

RFID technology gained greater prominence in 2003 when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it wants all suppliers to adopt the technology to better manage inventory.

By the end of this year, Wal-Mart wants to use RFID technology to track products at the pallet and carton level.

Eventually, the RFID could replace bar codes on individual packages. Imagine running a cart full of groceries through a checkout line without needing to put them on a conveyor.

The technology has been around for years and is used to make computerized cards to enter buildings, parking lots and ramps.

But smaller and less expensive versions have made it feasible to deploy on a larger scale.

"It's going to take time for its acceptance, but it's one of the fastest growing technologies in the U.S. today, and it's going to get to the point when it's exponential," said Herb Markman, chief executive of Positek RFID in Norristown, Pa.

Positek sells RFID systems to companies like Grantex.

People should be concerned about the potential for abuse of the technology, said Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN, a consumer-advocacy group focusing on privacy issues.

It is not unthinkable that a company would install scanners in floors or doorways -- even restrooms -- to track employees, she said.

"It's things that people are actually spending real money to do already," she said.

At the least, employers should tell their workers about how RFID is being used, Albrecht said.

"It is just about as worrisome as having a tracking beacon in your flesh, because you are required by your employer to wear them, and you can't get away from them," she said.

Singer said he and Grantex Vice President Gordon Reynolds became interested in the chips after realizing how much they could simplify the task of tracking the company's thousands of uniforms, from Gaylord to Elkhart, Ind.

"It works better than I do," Singer said.

Less sorting time meant more efficiency, lower labor costs, more capacity and more time to spend with customers.

A few skeptical uniform wearers removed the tags early on, but the company was able to persuade them the tags posed no danger to their privacy, Singer said.

"The first thing people thought we were doing is following and monitoring them by satellite," Reynolds said. "Really, only one or two people out of thousands were concerned."

Installing the 70-cent tags in Grantex's 270,000 garments took about six months.

Grantex spent more than $3 million to add RFID and other automation when it moved into the Kent Industrial Center three years ago.

The efficiency gains, which also come from highly automated laundering systems, were dramatic.

A garment that may have taken three to four days to process in the past can now be washed, sorted and ready to go in one day.

The company's capacity also more than doubled without the need for huge increases in its payroll.

Hundreds of people from many industries have visited Grantex to get a better understanding of the technology.

Grantex is "as aggressive of an RFID rollout as anybody has done," Markman said.

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