CHICAGO — There are several factors driving automation in laundry/linen services. Labor issues, the need for efficiency, cost control, technology and more have resulted in more automated laundry equipment and processes.
But just how automated will laundry operations be in the future?
American Laundry News posed that question (and more) and heard from four experts in the field of laundry automation: Brian Polatsek, CEO of EcoBrite Linen in Skokie, Ill., which provides laundry services for skilled nursing facilities; David Netusil, manager of sales support and marketing for JENSEN USA in Panama City, Fla.; Keith Ware, vice president of sales for Lavatec Laundry Technology Inc. in Beacon Falls, Conn.; and Seth Willer, national sales manager for Girbau Industrial in Oshkosh, Wis.
Last time, the experts talked about staffing, delivery and changes/improvements in automation. In this post, they talk about benefits, concerns, balancing staff and automation, and the future.
Q. In your opinion, what are the benefits of increasing automation?
Polatsek: Reducing labor, which will reduce dependency on the labor market, rising labor costs, union challenges, labor shortages and the human error component.
Netusil: Automation benefits range from increased productivity to operational cost reductions to reducing labor staffing challenges to processing a consistent quality product daily. It could also reduce, if not eliminate, several health and safety issues. All of these substantiate the quality and professional improvements and image of our industry.
Willer: Like any technology, as it improves it becomes more affordable. Simultaneously, production and capabilities increase. There are many examples of this throughout history. Farmers used to plow fields with horses; now they farm quadruple the acreage with automation in a fraction of the time.
Q. In your opinion, what are the downsides/areas of concern regarding increasing automation?
Polatsek: Utilizing more automation will require more equipment, which will require a larger number of skilled maintenance staff. This comes with a challenge. We are currently dealing with a significant skills gap in this area, and the new automated processes will require more staff with greater technical skills.
Netusil: We only see an increase in development opportunities for our industry.
Willer: As automation increases, more employees will lose their jobs, and we don’t like to see that. However, as the market demands more competitive pricing, laundry owners have a responsibility to maintain profits. So, they either automate or move to an area with cheaper labor.
Q. How can a laundry maintain balance between benefitting employees through staffing and automating operations?
Polatsek: The age-old fear of automation and robotics to eliminate the demand for labor has never come to pass. It started in the industrial revolution, and that rhetoric keeps coming up. The reality is that the labor force just shifts and new opportunities open up. Right now, we are in a major labor shortage, so anything that will alleviate this will be helpful.
Netusil: In some cases, it could come down to a business requiring automation to maintain profitability, keeping it solvent and those employees gainfully employed. In other cases, automation can allow a laundry facility to take on additional business beyond their current production capabilities, making them stronger within their marketplace.
Willer: If they add automation, yes, they’ll need fewer employees, but they’ll keep higher-quality employees and possibly enter them into new opportunities at that company. For example, a high-quality employee might be trained on automation maintenance at a higher wage.
Q. When you picture automated laundry operations of the future, what do you envision?
Polatsek: If you would walk into any modern automotive or food manufacturing plant, you can see the future of laundry. There is so much opportunity in just utilizing existing technology. The innovation is coming up with the ability to adapt for the needs of laundry. There are definitely challenges and hurdles, but they can be overcome.
Netusil: The automated laundry of the future will look very similar as one does today, but with more streamlined and efficient processes. Soiled goods will be auto-sorted, small pieces will be auto-fed into flatwork ironers and small piece folders, and washcloths will be auto-stacked. These tasks require some of the highest labor staffing in any laundry.
Ware: This is very hard to predict, but technology and the speed in its development has been rapidly increasing. Similar to self-driving cars, the timeline may seem like well into the future before we can all sit in our vehicles to work, sleep and eat, but many experts predict within the next five to 10 years, it will be common.
Automation in the laundry industry will continue to progress, but the dream of many operators to see a laundry operating without employees is much further off than we would like to realize.
Working with soft products in multiple shapes and sizes is a very difficult challenge. It will eventually be overcome by new technology, and laundries will continue to see enhancements in automation and data collection.
Lavatec has provided new software that allows a customer to monitor and view its plant remotely and see hourly, daily reports when away from the office. Our team continues to look for cost effective methods to reduce labor and operating costs through automation of our equipment.
Willer: If you compare laundry room technology with the technology of other industries throughout the world, we are seriously lagging. Eventually there will be technology where a laundry resembles a highly-automated manufacturing plant with an assembly line. At some point, the technology will completely replace labor on the laundry room floor, but I think we’ve got a few decades to go before that is our reality.
People mentioned in this article
Miss Part 1 on staffing, delivery and changes/improvements? Click here to read it.