ROANOKE, Va. — I have spent the last 20 or so years writing a monthly column for various trade publications. Recently, I have fielded a number of questions about flow racks and whether their use in laundries is a good idea. I first wrote a column about flow racks 10 years ago, so I decided to revisit it and have made some minor updates. I hope you find it interesting and useful.
Of all the equipment that a manager can purchase for his laundry, I believe that the flow rack receives the most hype. In theory, it is an unbeatable piece of equipment that provides a sure-fire way to ensure that linen moves through the storage system on a “first-in, first-out” basis. I have seen many laundries purchase them because the potential benefits for these items are so high, though it’s been my experience that the theory does not hold up in practice.
My first concern is that the inventory system is violated the minute that more than one row of the flow rack is used for an item. It is normal that large-volume items take up more than one row at a time, so then it becomes almost impossible to maintain a first-in, first-out system. Instead, one or two rows at the most convenient height are used most frequently while the other rows, normally the bottom and the top, get little usage. And the linen on these shelves will become covered with lint that settles out of the air.
In theory, the trays, aided by gravity, flow easily from one end of the rack to the other. In practice, this does not happen often. The wheels that the trays run on can become damaged or filled with lint, creating excessive friction. Also, when trays are filled to maximum capacity, linens from parallel rows can touch and create a roadblock that prevents the linen from making it to the other end of the flow rack.
Employees quickly adjust to the latter by finding long-handled poles with hooks on the end so they can reach up into the flow rack and pull the trays down. Occasionally a tray will get pulled too much to one side or the other, causing it to fall off the track and discharge its contents onto the row below.
Then an employee has to crawl into the flow rack area and remove the logjam created by the fallen tray. This can be difficult because several rows of linen will need to be emptied before that can be done.
I have also found it is difficult to keep a flow rack clean. It accumulates lint underneath, in the rollers, on the bottom row of linen and on the very top row of linen. To really clean it properly, all the linen needs to be taken off the unit on a regular basis. Because it is not easy to climb inside, its cleaning simply does not get done as often as it should.
I have had the opportunity to work with flow racks in my last three laundries, and I diligently tried to make them work. I actively put the theory to the test. In Milwaukee, we had a flow rack 100 feet wide by 20 feet long. We operated a large exchange cart system out of the laundry. I worked there more than eight years and by the time that I left, there wasn’t a single piece of flow rack still in use. The major reasons for removing it from that laundry were the need to better utilize the floor space, its cleanliness, and the need to reduce staff.
In Alabama, where I worked for almost five years, we tried to use the flow rack for about a year before giving up. That laundry was based on bulk deliveries, and it made little sense to put the linen on a flow rack and then into a bulk cart instead of just putting it into a cart. In my Roanoke, Va., plant, we just took down two-thirds of the flow rack after trying to use it effectively for 18 months.
The flow rack simply does not live up to its theory in practice. I have found that it simply becomes an obstacle to smooth production and good laundry management.