CHICAGO — The laundry and linen services industry has been automating its processes for many years.
But with recent labor challenges and a renewed focus on quality and profitability, many operators are taking a closer look into automation options to decrease the cost of manpower and increase quality and earnings.
Harbor Results Inc., a manufacturing industry advisor, did research for the Association for Linen Management’s (ALM) LaundryMarks benchmarking program and found some interesting details when it comes to automation.
First, automation alone will not drive profitability. In theory, automation in the finishing area will drive profitability sooner than automation in the soiled area.
Second, automation must correlate with business size. If a $10 million business and a $50 million business have the same level of automation, the $10 million laundry will likely be more profitable.
So then, how can a laundry best evaluate its automation needs and requirements, select the right vendors and equipment, and maintain operations and quality during a build or upgrade?
American Laundry News communicated with four industry insiders (three laundry operators and a consultant) to help with the automation process.
For Curtis Nichols, general manager of HandCraft Linen Services in Richmond, Virginia, important factors to be considered when evaluating a laundry operation for new or updated automation include floor space, scalability and return on investment (ROI).
Other elements to consider include the quality of work, cost of maintenance and integration with existing processes.
“It’s really just a matter of applying math and simulating the process as best you can,” Nichols points out. “How many pounds or pieces do we need to do in a shift? What equipment is required to do it the labor-intensive (hard) way? What equipment is needed and what is the added upfront cost to do it the automated way? How much time and money is saved every shift doing it the automated way?
“Run the numbers and decide whether the ROI is worth it or not. Of course, there are other factors to consider like employee morale, but the simple math is the best place to start.”
Gerard O’Neill, president/CEO/owner of American Laundry Systems, a laundry consulting business in Derry, New Hampshire, offers the following list:
- Internal capabilities. Are you and or your staff capable of operating or using this equipment as it is intended and/or to its full potential?
- Maintenance cost increases. The more automation, the more maintenance needs to be done.
- Maintenance capabilities. Does your maintenance department have the necessary skills to properly maintain this level of automation?
- Backup plan. What is the plan for when this breaks and you can’t get parts for a month or more?
“Have a grasp of your own time and motion studies and concepts,” says Patrick Garcia, president of Division Laundry & Cleaners in San Antonio. “Then bring in a third party (equipment manufacturer or consultant) to draw out a new configuration of a layout to discuss available space and benefits.
“Benefits would be lowering production hours and a more productive workflow. Also improving safety in work areas with high frequency of injuries could be a benefit.”
Regarding an existing facility, Garcia says if the objective is to improve the efficiency of soil sorting, then a discussion should take place regarding the steel structure.
“It would be prudent to hire a company that specializes in coming in to torque all the bolts in the entire structure, especially in the area where the sling system will be installed,” he says.
Then a structural engineer should be hired to come do the math calculations regarding the goal. What is the brand of system to be installed with specs and weights?
“It is almost imminent that the structure will need support, and you should be prepared to reinforce the steel structure and you would do the same thing on the clean side of the plant if you have intentions to install a sling system there as well,” says Garcia.
Regarding the finishing side, which he says would entail small-piece folding and the flatwork, examine the current layout to look at how the operation would perhaps rearrange the equipment in place and possibly add equipment.
“The next important step in preparing for more automation would be how to deliver the products that are discharged from the folding equipment,” says Garcia.
“This will give an opportunity to redo the layout and where you utilize conveyors and re-distribute the products coming out of all the folding equipment to a centralized packaging area.”
Mario Stagliano, managing partner of Arway Linen & Uniform Rental Service in Philadelphia, which is in the process of building a new plant, says his first question is, “Can I do more with less? Meaning, will this allow me to increase volume with less hands, ultimately?
“The analogy is, I’m going to run two tunnel washers with one person versus 11 conventional washers with six or seven people. I’ll be able to wash double the amount of volume in the same eight-hour shift as I do with my conventionals.
“That’s ultimately how we are. Evaluating what makes sense for us. More with less.”
Stagliano says that on the food and beverage side, there are many different calculations used to help understand the financial picture.
“A lot of people use pounds per operator hour revenues, per pound, that kind of thing,” he says. “These pieces of equipment are insanely expensive, and there’s not many small independent laundries that can write a half-million dollar or a million-dollar check for a new piece of equipment.
“So, in the event we finance our equipment, we say, what’s this going to cost us per month, based on the financing terms we’re going to get? Will this increase our pounds per operator hour, and if so, what’s our new margin versus the old margin?
“I think to answer the question specific to ROI is a calculation of will it increase pounds per operator hour and, in turn, will it increase your throughput so maybe you can absorb some more volume because of it?”
Check back Thursday for Part 2 on determining areas of a laundry to automate and selecting vendor partners.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].