Automation for Greater Laundry Efficiency, Reduced Costs (Part 1)

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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?”

Textiles: Cecil B. Lee, Standard Textile, Cincinnati, Ohio

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Cecil B. Lee

Cecil B. Lee

During my laundry career, there have been two phases of productivity automation that have greatly influenced me. These are overhead rails and the combination of small-piece folders and spreader-feeders.

Regarding overhead rails, I have seen the transformation of about 14 jobs in a plant as a result of the move from pushing carts to what I call a “managed” overhead rail system. This system relies on a staging computer and the subtle manipulations of individuals.

My goal is to manage as little of the plant (20%) on a daily basis as possible, and have the rest (80%) happen as a result of setup. This setup determines the plant’s production flow and decides the plant’s success. In this example, the savings/payback is quantifiable, quick and ongoing.

Additionally, the dumping or discharge points for the monorail system become a monitoring system of their own. I have managed two plants where I would walk onto the production floor and the first thing I would do is look up. 

That glance upward would answer a lot of questions. How is the plant running (in terms of staging)? Is there enough work to keep associates busy? Is the linen mix correct? What is needed, or what can we do without for a few hours? It also demonstrates whether the operator and management understand what they are supposed to be accomplishing—processing linen efficiently.

Small-piece folders and spreader-feeders today are phenomenal. They are generally quiet, and they handle an abundance of fabric types without creating significant transition or downtime. The control devices make it easy to change from item to item. 

This automation helps to take away some of the excuses employees give for not being able to complete their work, and helps to keep the production conversation simple. Thus, we are helped in our battle to convince associates that they “can do it.”

After many years of production and plant operations experience, I recently began working on the textile manufacturing side of the business. This change in vantage point affords me the opportunity to offer some additional thoughts on the impact of automation.

Automation is also enhanced as a result of the changes in fabric, which can cause productivity to change. Our company has a focus on developing and manufacturing fabrics and products that yield the lowest cost per use. For me, instances where these products were lighter in weight have allowed for larger loads, faster processing, less drying time and greater productivity in pieces. This is true for sheets, pillowcases, blankets or scrubs, and even cubicle curtains are starting to experience this as a result of fabric changes.

Good plants are about systems and automation being used properly to save on costs and the wear and tear on our most valued commodity—people.

Hotel/Motel/Resort Laundry: Phil Jones, Sheraton Vistana Resort, Orlando, Fla.

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Phil Jones

Phil Jones

Automation can certainly help improve laundry operations, but there are questions that need to be answered before jumping onto the automation bandwagon. 

Every laundry is different, and what may be a huge improvement for one laundry may not work for another. You should look at your individual operation and ask what you would like automation to do for you.

As much as I would have liked to put in an automated rail system and tunnel when I started renovating eight years ago, space and ceiling height made it difficult and potentially costly. 

Now, with the rapid changes in technology, more efficient and space-saving systems are available that might make sense moving forward. 

Keep up with what is happening with equipment, and be willing to explore new options. Whether I am purchasing new equipment at the time or not, I always attend the Clean Show to get a look at what is happening in the industry. 

Simple automation has helped my laundry operation, as we have our ironer and towel-fold area attached to a conveyor leading down to where bins are loaded. 

When we first started, one ironer and three towel-fold machines required four catchers to handle the products. With the simple addition of a conveyor, we then only needed one catcher for all of the products, which reduced the hours needed for catching by 120 hours per week. 

We later added a second ironer and had it attached to the conveyor, which only required an additional 20 hours per week to assist with catching, instead of needing a full-time catcher.

This brings up a potential concern when automating: You may well be affecting people’s lives through reducing staff needed in the laundry operation. Is the return of automating worth the cost of potentially putting people out of work? 

In my case, automation allowed me to add a second shift to take on more work and no jobs were lost. Thirty new positions have been created as a direct result of the automation installed in the last eight years.

I am a strong supporter of always considering what any degree of automation can do for a laundry operation. There continue to be improvements on existing automation technologies and on new types of equipment coming to the market.

Uniforms/Workwear Manufacturing: Scott Delin, Fashion Seal Healthcare, a Brand of Superior Uniform Group, Seminole, Fla.

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Scott Delin

Scott Delin

During my recent holiday break, like many of us, I took time to take stock of what’s been accomplished and/or what’s changed in 2014. What stuck out specifically was the exciting transformation over the last year of technology and methods of selling.

Whether we like it or not, smartphone technology is here to stay. I saw an increase in my own personal productivity due to this type of automation, from the way I prepare and submit my reports to how I communicate with customers and my corporate office. I saw an immediate improvement in my time management and what I could accomplish on a daily basis.

In 2014, I witnessed a major change in the way many laundry operators were processing their product mix, whether it was healthcare, linen supply or dust control. It seemed that as our economy changed, the workforce in some geographic areas was depleted. Everyone was looking for a distinct advantage to process more quickly, more efficiently and more economically while decreasing their workforce. The solution? Automation.

As laundry operators made upgrades and improvements to their existing plants through automation, immediate results were seen, such as cost savings for labor and energy, increased pounds per operator hours, less labor and, in some cases, increased quality of product.

In my travels, I have witnessed automation change how soiled linen is sorted, how it’s laundered and processed, how it’s transported through the plant, and how it’s folded and put up for route distribution. For those who can afford the added expense of automated equipment, real-time savings and return on investment make competing for that almighty new business something worthwhile. However, don’t think that there are no problems with automation.  

As many of the new automated pieces are run by small computers, there may sometimes be some internal glitches that cause “hiccups.” With a smarter engineering team, these hiccups might be averted. 

Prior to automation, more visual inspections of products and product quality took place. It was up to the operators to visually check for inferior quality and pull those pieces aside. Many plants still have quality audits on product being processed in an effort to catch any inferior product that may have passed through the line. 

Successful managers and operators realize that not all jobs and tasks performed by humans can be replaced by automation. For many plants of various sizes processing different products, the personal touch and inspection by a real person cannot be replaced. 

As we move into 2015, I am sure that we will see an “automation explosion” take place in our laundries. As we strive to be successful and profitable, while producing a quality product for our end-users, we will see more and more operators hop on the automation train and ride it to a more profitable business model. 

Textile/Uniform Rental: Angelo Crespo, Cintas Corp., Westland, Mich.

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Angelo Crespo

Angelo Crespo

In early 1913, Henry Ford pioneered the birth of automation, opening up the first assembly line in his automobile plant, which increased production and lowered costs more than he could have imagined. Before Ford instituted the automatic assembly line, it took his skilled and non-skilled workers 12 hours to build just one car. Afterward, his production increased to one car every 30 minutes. That is roughly 46 more cars a day. That was a huge production increase, which translated to a lot more dollars.

In today’s world, automation is definitely a key factor in cutting labor and product costs and increasing production and revenue. A good automated system designed for your specific needs can dramatically change the dynamics of your business. So why are some businesses still operating with manual labor? Why aren’t all production facilities completely automated with machines handling every task? The answer is because we are human. 

Following are several factors that continue to drive manual production lines:

  • There’s no design for automated technologies to do some of the things manual labor is handling.
  • Companies care about their employees and don’t want them to lose their jobs.
  • Automated technologies come with a huge learning curve for employees who have worked on a manual system for years, including managers and supervisors.
  • Conversion costs to automation can be prohibitive.
  • Automated production lines require a high level of maintenance and repair that company mechanics/engineers are often not trained to troubleshoot or fix.
  • Automated technologies can shut down an entire production line due to one simple problem.

It has been proven time and again that an automated application can help cut labor and product cost and increase production and revenue. But all those increases can take a plunge if employees don’t understand the equipment, or there is a lack of training and understanding from management and engineers. Maybe that’s why some managers would prefer a human to do the job rather than a machine.

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion! 

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