Automation for Greater Laundry Efficiency, Reduced Costs (Conclusion)

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(Image credit: Alissa Ausmann)

“How can automation help improve operations? Alternatively, what are some reasons a manager might prefer a human to do the job, rather than a machine?”

Chemicals Supply: David Barbe, U.N.X. Inc., Greenville, N.C.

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David Barbe

David Barbe

Everyone realizes that automation can save labor. But I think automation can improve operations beyond that.

For instance, I would look for ways to eliminate mistakes. As an example, soil-sorting systems that weigh bags automatically and alert employees before they can be overloaded will save the labor of weighing each bag, but more importantly, improve the quality and consistency of the wash.

Having the washer automatically select the formula on a chemical system, rather than manually selecting both the washer and the chemical formula, will eliminate errors. This can also improve quality and consistency while saving a little bit of time. 

Anytime automation can eliminate steps employees have to do, that’s great. On the other hand, automation that adds extra procedures may eliminate labor, but add more variables or mistakes to your operation. 

Obviously, as an equipment designer, I like machines. However, a skeptical look at automation is necessary to keep from making an expensive mistake. If the cost is low for a device or system, and installation or implementation is simple, you can try new things and see how they work with the operation.

The more expensive the automation option, the more thought has to go into the decision. Perhaps the vendor has a nearby location you can visit to see the system and talk to a user.

Maybe the vendor will even allow a trial period. Ask for references and do your homework. Consider not only cost, but maintenance, space requirements, backup operation if it breaks, etc.

One of my favorite things about attending the Clean Show is observing the new automation offerings. I’ve watched machines trying to grab towels out of a bin and feed a towel folder automatically. Sometimes they work well, and sometimes, not so much.

In the future, employees may be relieved of the back-breaking and boring job of feeding goods to ironers and folders. But in every laundry that I’ve been in recently, people are still grabbing goods with their hands. Apparently, in those cases, it’s still quicker and/or cheaper.

The second part of this month’s question brings up one of the most important considerations: quality and customer satisfaction. Obviously, wrinkled or poor-quality goods are unacceptable. 

And have you ever called a business and been subjected to the automated phone tree? After about five options, did you remember the first ones? Did you go through multiple levels, get frustrated and just hang up? I have.

If your automation directly affects your customers, think about the perception it conveys of your company. The neatest and most efficient sorting, handling, billing or inventory system can sink your profits if it annoys your customers. 

After all, a totally automatic handling system might not even notice the beige or wrinkled napkin mixed in with the pretty white ones. Humans are still smarter than any machine. 

Commercial Laundry: Rick Rone, Laundry Plus, Bradenton, Fla.

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Rick Rone

Rick Rone

I believe labor is the No. 1 item on most laundry budgets. With Obamacare and general increases in hourly labor costs, automation is something we all need to review closely. If we can achieve higher productivity, the additional labor costs can be negated. 

Automation is definitely one way to gain additional capacity, which should translate to additional profit. Properly utilized, automation can offer better control of production with newer available reporting programs. 

Most laundries track pounds per operator hour (PPOH). The acquisition of newer, more productive machinery should afford our laundries the ability to achieve higher PPOH numbers. Some pieces of equipment seem to make a marked impact on productivity. 

If your laundry is at a point where an automated tunnel washing and drying system might be a potential acquisition, there can traditionally be large savings, which come from a multi-faceted approach. 

First, let’s focus on potential savings in labor. A quick recap of the numbers will show that if you had a 12-module, 50-kg tunnel operating at two-minute transfers, you would theoretically be washing and drying 3,300 pounds per hour. Providing that you might not have the room for a sling or bag system, this productivity could be accomplished with one person loading the conveyor to the tunnel. 

With the automated system moving the laundry from the wash line to the dryers, you might expect a theoretical 3,300 pounds being processed with one worker. If we momentarily ignore the old adage that says “figures lie and liars figure,” one could say that you’d have a PPOH of 3,300.

The second area of savings involves the substantially lower water usage per pound of laundry processed. Another substantial gain can potentially be derived from the use of a spreader-feeder in front of the ironing line. 

Automation can be achieved in numerous areas. There are, for example, great programs to automate your scale (weighing) area. These not only provide generous amounts of information, but can be utilized as a great method of asset management. With the use of these systems, we can know exactly where all of our laundry carts are at any given time. 

Laundries must look at their individual needs, requirements and space availability when making these major decisions. 

Consider the ability of your existing engineering department to keep all machines in proper, safe working order, or the availability of properly trained technicians to assist you in that endeavor. 

You’ll also need to think about availability of capital to acquire this level of automation. Will my ROI be acceptable? Also, is there space in the plant for the additional equipment? Consider, too, the utilities necessary to support the added machinery. 

And don’t forget what is possibly the most important question: With this automation, how will quality be affected? With automation, we usually have fewer human eyes looking at each piece to confirm that it meets all of our quality-control standards. This can easily create a negative impact on the goods leaving the plant and, ultimately, on the bottom line. 

I personally know of a few pieces of equipment that would enhance our PPOH, but would risk a substandard product leaving our laundry. If one is to run a professional laundry with the intent of providing the utmost in quality, then it will always be a balancing act—quality vs. productivity vs. price.

Equipment Manufacturing: Kelly Outram, Kannegiesser USA, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Kelly Outram

Kelly Outram

I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous laundry facilities that process customer-owned goods (COG) or customer-specific rental linen, as well as traditional rental-linen operations. I have seen a number of labor-intensive methods for tracking each customer’s goods throughout the whole production process.  

In my experience, a lack of automation seems to steer managers toward heavy human involvement for this task. However, ongoing advancements in laundry technology now allow for fully automating and synchronizing batch data transfer, customer information and material flow throughout a laundry’s entire production flow process.

The goal of this kind of automation is to have the ability for multiple customers’ linen to arrive in the pack-out area of the facility by means of the highest potential machine utilization and PPOH. 

This can be accomplished by gathering information at the soil-sorting area where the batch information is subsequently tracked through processing machines, which communicate with a central database. Automated customer, category and weight information flows throughout the washing and drying process, and then the information is converted to piece-tracking in the finishing department, which benefits rental and COG plants alike. An added benefit for COG operations is the ability to then also automatically track and separate final folded stacks of linen for customer-specific cart make-up.

In a fully integrated machine system approach, all data can be transferred through a central on-site server. The monorail system, belt conveyors and shuttles are fully synchronized for automated linen transport, and all machines’ parameters are automatically transferred and changed to match each customer’s specific requirements. All told, this automation provides for a consistent, steady flow of goods to each machine, and it automatically sets machine programs and tracks customer changes to minimize any idle time from an operator’s task at hand.

Another benefit of this integrated database system is that it provides for a full array of reports back to management of each operator’s performance. A visual productivity display can also be equipped at each workstation to provide constant feedback to the individual operator for ongoing reinforcement of their hourly/daily throughput.

How automation can help improve operations is shown in part by this type of technology. Automation can assist plant operators in reducing lost time and capacity of production equipment by minimizing machine idle time, through automatic transfer of data and constant linen flow to each workstation, and by secure tracking of customer batches throughout the complete production process for safe and timely clean-linen cart pack-out and shipment.

Miss Part 1? You can read it HERE

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