CHICAGO — Artificial intelligence.
Most people have heard the phrase, but what does it mean, exactly?
David Netusil, manager-sales support and marketing for laundry equipment manufacturer JENSEN USA, says, “We simply define AI as ‘the ability to perform typical human intelligence tasks such as visual perception and decision-making.’”
“On a systems level, AI is the decision-making process of automated devices based a series of inputs or sensors to achieve a successful or desired output,” adds Ed Kirejczyk, president of laundry equipment manufacturer Sea-lion America Company.
What about artificial intelligence in a laundry operation?
Bill Brooks, director of customer solutions and business development for laundry equipment manufacturer Alliance Laundry Systems, which focuses on on-premises laundry (OPL) machinery, says AI is defined as technology used to learn, plan and problem-solve a productive laundry operation.
“An on-premises laundry (OPL) is not a great setting for expensive robotics, but it is a very good example of how analytic data can provide great operational savings,” he points out.
“In the laundry, (AI) could be a shuttle of a tunnel washer system making the decision of what dryer to choose to transfer its load,” Kirejczyk adds.
“On a machine or device level, AI is the intelligent learning of processes through a collection of data compiled by the running of algorithms. In the laundry, this could be a machine collecting data on its own operations to improve its performance.”
“Artificial intelligence is a broad term but in general it is referring to automating tasks that would normally require human intelligence to accomplish,” says Carol Tyler, director of marketing for Chicago Dryer Co., a provider of separating, feeding, ironing and folding flatwork finishing equipment. “Robotics, for instance, to accomplish these tasks will be one of the technologies laundries will be considering in the future.”
TAKING THE AI PLUNGE
Tyler says that laundries will have to evaluate what is practical and logical for them when deciding whether or not to invest in equipment with AI technology. AI and high levels of automation are not right for everyone, and everything comes at a cost.
“Laundries will have to evaluate the cost to purchase, install and operate the advanced technologies,” she says. “They will have to consider the internal and external support necessary as well as maintenance costs.
“A true ROI (return on investment) will have to consider the support personnel required. If IT and higher-level maintenance people are required vs. a traditional laundry where this is not as necessary, is the ROI in line with their goals? That is a case-by-case situation.”
“With our soil-sorting systems, our healthcare customers typically weigh the added safety factor against their workman’s comp claims, as well as their struggle with the increasing minimum wage and reduced available workforce,” shares Netusil.
“With our Jenscan Plus linen scanning system, our healthcare and hospitality linen producers weigh the ability to virtually guarantee that each piece of linen delivered is going to be a usable piece of linen, virtually eliminating linen rejects.”
“Owners should invest in AI that is most appropriate for their operation,” Kirejczyk says. “This determination should be based on a number of factors, including improvements in quality, efficiency and ROI.”
AI isn’t industry-specific for laundry operations, Tyler points out, but some services will find better rewards for employing these technologies.
“The higher volume the laundry processes, the more likely it will be that it will make sense for them,” she says. “Due to the cost and support that will be required, much of the advanced technology will not be practical for smaller laundries and OPL laundries but some will.
“Automation is already employed in many of these cases. An OPL that adds a small-piece folder can be an example. As additional technologies become available and affordable then they will be utilized.”
“An appetite for change is the biggest obstacle, not cost,” Brooks says. “An OPL is often only the focus when a problem occurs, and historic costs are the benchmark. Establishing if the benchmark is best-in-class or worst-in-class is the needed step.
“Establish OPL best practices by using technology, and then monitor and measure the best practice to assure the OPL is operating correctly. Savings in the tens of thousands of dollars yearly have occurred in regular capacity OPL that embraced change with technology information.”
However, Brooks shares, in an OPL setting, the cost justification typically requires a volume only seen in very high room count properties and not the average OPL.
“AI, or simply process intelligence, can be gained on today’s equipment with minimal costs, and help to improve operational efficiency,” he says.
“Examples like processing times, which can be reduced through a moisture-sensing feature in a dryer, spray rinse, high G-force and proper load sizing in a washer, also predictive analytics, all when properly used can provide operational intelligence, perhaps not true AI, that can save an OPL time, and assure wash quality, which equals money saved.”
Brooks says the OPLs will continue to evolve and become more efficient with the rapidly changing pace of technology, combined with lowering of costs.
“The simple phrase of ‘you can’t improve what you can’t measure’ will hold true,” he says. “As technologies advance, the ROI story will evolve with the technology.”
Netusil says the future of AI in the laundry and linen services industry is “quite bright.”
“We at JENSEN-GROUP and Inwatec are moving forward daily to improve and increase the use of AI,” he shares. “There will be several new products available from the JENSEN-GROUP as time marches forward.
“AI can change the way you look at linen processing for the better, not only from a safety point of view, but from an employee count point of view. The need for fewer full-time employees is usually a good thing.”
“The integration of Big Data and ‘IoT’ (Internet of Things) will drive companies to invest in the capabilities of AI to improve their operations,” Kirejczyk says. “Smart robotic devices will replace humans in more and more menial, repetitive tasks and allow machines to become intelligent through the collection and analysis of operating data.”
Tyler agrees that technology, in general, has advanced in the laundry industry and will continue to do so.
“Barcoding and RFID in linen is not new technology and has certainly been successful,” she says. “Is that AI or automation? To an extent, it is both. So AI will have a place in the right applications.
“We will never totally replace the physical workforce nor should we want to. But when necessary, it will be important to further automate tasks to stay profitable and viable in the future.
“Successful laundries will find that balance as they always have.”
Miss Part 1 on AI vs. automation? Click HERE to read it. And click HERE to read Part 2 on AI benefits.
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