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.
This time, they talk about staffing, delivery and changes/improvements in automation.
Q. What areas of a laundry operation do you think will always have to be staffed?
Polatsek: Customer care! Okay, not exactly, but my long-term vision is a laundry that has very few people. What will remain is maintenance staff, custodial, truck loading and unloading, drivers, mending, and repair, rewash.
Netusil: Technology is advancing rapidly. Within the next decade, we will see several positions being performed with automation. With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) into the laundry industry, we are seeing that anything is possible.
In terms of forever-staffed positions, operations management and engineering/maintenance staffing are just two that will most probably always require a human. Beyond that, it is highly likely automation can do all else.
Willer: At a minimum, laundries of the near future will still require operators for sorting, feeding ironers and towel folders, and packing stacks from conveyors into carts.
In laundries where a high-quality finish is required, you’ll always see more labor than automation. There’s technology out there that can detect tears and stains on ironing lines, but in premier laundries there will always be a need for eyes on the product.
Q. What areas currently staffed do you think will become automated in the future?
Polatsek: Receiving—utilizing RFID technology, receiving is simplified where staff just maneuver carts. Soil loading and sorting—this already has some proof of concept development. I believe that with smart linen, this can be in place in the next two to three years. A robotic system would eliminate errors and reduce staff very significantly.
Auto machine feed and fold—this area is already tapped-in on small-piece folders for towels and washcloths. As the imaging technology improves, this will continue to advance to larger pieces and garments. Pack-out—at EcoBrite we are implementing a fully automatic bundling assignment and labeling process over the next six months. This will remove any handling from the feeding process until cart loading. The preassigned bundles will be brought to operators in a central location, and all they have to do is load the carts. We foresee in the not-to-far future a robotic cart packer as well. That technology is out there already in other industries.
Staging—this is an area where I expect to automate in the near future. Being able to utilize a three-dimensional automatic storage and retrieval system for laundry carts can free up a considerable amount of real estate and reduce labor and human error exponentially.
Netusil: Other than the aforementioned, technology will allow full-dry terry products to be picked, fed, folded, stacked and conveyed in a fully automated fashion. We are on the right track in accomplishing this task. In addition, the auto-handling of product stacks in the bulk storage and cart make-up area.
At the JENSEN-GROUP, we are auto-handling full stacks of goods from the finishing areas into a bulk stack storage system and can auto-pull those products based upon a particular end-user’s linen order and convey them to the cart make-up area.
Ware: As labor rates increase, laundries will be forced to utilize more automation and labor-saving equipment in order to be cost competitive. Many states and cities have implemented a $15 minimum wage, which will impact plants that are more manual. The challenge is, the laundry industry lags behind other industries in utilizing automation and artificial intelligence due to pricing, and low margins of the industry hamper this type of investment.
The future, with tighter labor markets and increasing labor costs, will help to drive operators into improving the bottom line through investment in automated plants.
Willer: We’ll see more automation with overhead rail systems, rather than manually moving laundry around, and with quality control. Automation technology will improve for rejecting tears and stains on finishing systems.
Q. Do you think automation could impact pick-up and delivery (e.g., auto loading and unloading, driverless vehicles, etc.)?
Polatsek: I think that this is probably further in future—more than 10 years.
Netusil: Auto-loading and unloading, possibly. Driverless vehicles? Europe presently utilizes driverless vehicles and buses, and are not far from fully autonomous vehicles, so this is a something that will happen. It’s just a matter of time.
Another facet of forward-thinking technology are drones. They could be used to make emergency deliveries of small quantities of items to a customer in need.
Willer: Absolutely. I think driverless vehicles are not that far off. Unloading can be done by customers’ staff.
Q. How to you think current laundry automation will change/improve in the future?
Polatsek: I expect a significant change in communication and diagnostics. The majority of the newer equipment is lacking in sufficient diagnostics, and when it comes to networking and communication in real time as well as reporting, the industry is very fragmented. A uniform system would have a huge impact on productivity and efficiency, and this is long overdue.
Netusil: Laundry automation improves literally every day. With every passing day, we are more aware of what we have to work with and what technology improvements are just around the corner.
We often take for granted some of the technology we presently work with, forgetting how it was just five to 10 years ago. There are countless technological advancements that have been introduced into our industry, and so many more will arrive in the next few years.
Ware: The cost of automation continues to drop due to improved controls, software and data management. But these improvements will also require more sophisticated and better skilled employees with higher skills in the engineering fields. Many manufacturers are working on improving the ability of machines and controls to become even more automated.
Currently, the washroom seems to be the most automated operation in the laundry, with full automatic washers, shuttles and dryers on the unload side of the plant. These systems have been around for years and continue to improve.
The future will be to eliminate the high labor costs of the sorting department with automated rail systems, bags storage and product mix analysis of the sorted loads. Some locations are testing automated sorters that select the linen on the sort belt, utilizing cameras, scanners and mechanical appendages to pick out the linen by specific product type and place it into the corresponding sorting bin.
Other developments are attempting to automatically feed sheets and towels into ironers, eliminating the need for a worker to handle this labor-intensive activity.
Automated warehouse systems are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Amazon has half million-square-foot fulfillment centers being run with autonomous pickers that travel around the multitude of shelves picking products we all buy, and bring them to a worker for final packing of the order. This labor savings process was so vital to Amazon’s growth, they bought the company that provided this technology.
Unfortunately, our industry is not a large as the warehouse or fulfillment industry, so you will see laundry manufacturers piggyback off this technology as it becomes more widespread and prices drop.
Willer: Technology will become more affordable and reliable, readily available, accurate and simpler to maintain.
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Check back next Tuesday to read about benefits, concerns, balancing staff and automation, and the future.