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.
AREAS FOR AUTOMATION TODAY
So, what areas of laundry operations are “most popular” and gaining industry interest for automation these days?
“After a piece is sorted in soil, getting it washed, dried and to the feeder—as long as the laundry is willing to make the investment, the available equipment makes it easy to automate this process,” says Curtis Nichols, general manager of HandCraft Linen Services in Richmond, Virginia.
“Laundries are recognizing the cost savings and reduction in physical labor. It’s an easy choice. I would say garment sortation systems have come a long way, and linen pack-out systems are gaining momentum and improving, specifically in the non-acute space.”
Gerard O’Neill, president/CEO/owner of American Laundry Systems, a laundry consulting business in Derry, New Hampshire, says that laundries are automating many areas of their operations, including material handling (soil side and clean side), garment sortation, washrooms, automated garment finishing and automated linen finishing, route makeup, and stockrooms.
“Because in order of the above, these are the best bang for the buck with the best return on investment,” he shares.
“Soil sort automation is now becoming more popular as vendors work out the ‘kinks.’ We are not quite there, yet, but I can see a ‘hands-free’ laundry in the not-so-distant future.”
“I believe automation of your linen distribution routing to your packaging department is most popular, especially if you have a COG (customer-owned goods) plant with a mix of rental,” observes Patrick Garcia, president of Division Laundry & Cleaners in San Antonio.
He says that folded and stacked linen bundles are best routed off production equipment to a centralized conveyor line long enough to capture fluff-dried and ironed linen bundles to be able to capture a large COG account’s product to get all the products at the same time every day.
“It has to work like a clockwork,” Garcia points out. “For rental, you route all your loaded carts to a staging/shipping area with dedicated staff building individual account orders.
“Maintaining an efficient flow is highly important as you can streamline your operations.”
Speaking from the food and beverage side of laundry, Mario Stagliano, managing partner of Arway Linen & Uniform Rental Service in Philadelphia, says that possibly in a few years the industry will see automatic napkin feeding.
“Napkins are our biggest rented item,” he points out. “When you look at, per piece, what we rent on a weekly basis right now, we do a million pieces a week and more than half of that is napkins, that’s your biggest labor item.
“We touch a napkin 11, 12 times before it gets out the door. So, if you can figure out how to automate getting a napkin out the door, that’s the next automated area where we really see an ROI from.”
VENDOR PARTNER SELECTION
Key to adding new automation or upgrading equipment is for an operator to work with the right vendor/supplier partner or partners.
“I would choose partners that have experience in the laundry industry,” says Nichols. “That said, I think it’s also good to look ‘outside’ the industry for ideas as well.
“As far as selecting a vendor, I think it’s important to visit other projects they have completed and do your due diligence.”
O’Neill says it’s important for laundry to “do its homework” when it comes to vendors.
“Hire a professional who can write the specs and develop an RFP (request for proposal) so that you can evaluate all the vendors that can supply this equipment,” he says. “Check the service capabilities, including spare parts and service techs.
“Do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or similar type of analysis and stay neutral, keeping opinions out of your analysis.”
Garcia recommends making use of all the tools available to laundry operators for choosing vendors, including by word of mouth, visiting other laundries, going to The Clean Show, reading laundry periodicals and reaching out to organized laundry associations.
“There are a lot of companies out there, so it’s just the service and the support that you’re going to get while you’re getting open,” Stagliano says.
“I think it’s mostly the support that we feel like we’ll get on our level and with the amount of money that we’re spending.
“I think maybe a JENSEN or a Kannegiesser can, maybe one or two other companies, are companies that can do a complete laundry and that are the farthest ahead with automation.”
Miss Part 1 on important factors to consider for new or updated equipment? Click HERE to read it. And check back Tuesday for the conclusion on overlooked factors and maintaining quality and service during enhancements.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].