CHICAGO — It would be nice to have a crystal ball that could reveal what the laundry and linen service business will look like in 10-20 years.
Technology hasn’t advanced that far, yet.
So, the best avenue available is to talk to those with experience in the industry, who have seen where it’s been, and can offer an educated look into the future.
American Laundry News reached out to many experts in the industry. Interestingly, the laundry operators contacted deferred to equipment manufacturers, distributors and consultants when it comes to prognostication about the future. So that’s where we went for insight.
Following are some of the laundry and linen service industry forecasts from David Carter, vice president, North America sales, for Pellerin Milnor Corp.; David Graham, senior consultant, Performance Matters; David Netusil, manager-sales support and marketing for Jensen USA; Joel Jorgensen, Continental Girbau vice president of sales; Keith Ware, vice president of sales for Lavatec Laundry Technology Inc.; Mads Andresen, CEO of Inwatec, for which JPE Inc. is the exclusive representative in the United States and Canada; Joe Gudenburr, president of G.A. Braun Inc.; and Bill Brooks, UniMac national sales manager.
What do you think a laundry washroom will look like in 10-20 years? How will the equipment change in terms of physical equipment? In terms of technology?
GUDENBURR: Undoubtedly, there will be perpetual changes as a result of technology over this period of time, just as there has been over the last 10-20 years. The real question is how significant this change will be. There is no doubt that automation will continue to play a role in this change; the application of safety equipment/procedures and more disciplined operating practices will also play a role in what the washroom will look like.
As is the case with all processing environments, change is often dictated by the inputs to the processing area. When we look at equipment, a great deal of the evolution will be governed by advancements in fabrics, aqueous chemical processes and how OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) address each to promote solutions that can do more with less (water, energy, chemistry, etc.).
The one thing that is for certain is that technology and these operating environments will not go unchanged. I can see equipment changing with these technological advancements, and quite possibly through the use of advanced materials of construction. Who would have thought 20 years ago that cars would have so many space-age polymers and materials like carbon fiber in them today?
JORGENSEN: Laundries will continue to be pressured for space and pushed for more production and efficiency per labor hour. Equipment will become more compact and technologically advanced to conserve water, electricity and natural gas. It will also deliver more production per square foot and simpler operation.
Control systems will evolve to simplify management, servicing and maintenance of equipment. This will make it easier for management to keep tabs on laundry volume, efficiency, cycle lengths, pounds per operator hour, etc. Additionally, equipment operation will simplify, so entry-level and disabled workers can perform most functions. This is a trend we are seeing now.
BROOKS: Overall, I think we will see a focus on managing the labor dollar. This is the largest cost to running an on-premises laundry. Physical equipment and technology will unite to reduce labor costs.
CARTER: The laundry washroom in 10-20 years will maintain the similar laundry wash equipment components (washer-extractors, CBWs [continuous batch washers], etc.) that are currently used. The washer-extractor/CBW system will be robotically sorted and loaded into the washer and/or CBW system. The wash equipment will continue operating using water, chemistry and mechanical action.
I anticipate that water reuse and/or recycle systems will be one of the standard features of the wash aisle equipment that will significantly reduce water consumption.
The washer controls will be more efficient in optimizing fill levels and actively treat the water pH levels to improve maintaining consistent wash-quality results. In addition, the drying function could be incorporated into the washer operation and eliminate the separate dryer completely.
NETUSIL: The laundry washroom in 10-20 years will look very much like today’s washroom, with the exception of the number of batch washers used in lieu of washer-extractors, thus increasing the level of automation. Water will become even more scarce, which will drive the industry toward water-saving technologies, such as batch washers.
Textiles, chemicals and wash formula technology utilizing UV lights is rapidly advancing, which will ease many of the processing challenges we presently face. The components used will become more energy-efficient, reducing required resources.
We have always placed a heavy focus on the operational safety of our equipment; however, in the years ahead, this aspect will introduce a level of safety never seen before. The machinery controllers/processors will become incredibly advanced. Troubleshooting, data tracking and remote services will further increase equipment’s uptime and user-friendliness.
WARE: Automation will continue to grow, and machines will get smarter and more predictive. This includes determining the health of the equipment and alerting the operator to what mechanical items need attention.
Laundries will continue to get bigger, as the cost of automation and labor savings may be cost-prohibitive for smaller plants. Environmental issues will affect how laundries operate and how the efficiency of the machines will improve with new technologies.
ANDRESEN: There is no doubt that the laundry business is already changing. There is an increasing focus on efficiency, sustainability and the workers. Because of that, the use of automation and robotics is increasing quickly. The machines will take over many of the heavy, fatiguing and monotonous tasks—in the long run. Machines will take over all the dirty work.
GRAHAM: One would think with all the artificial intelligence being developed and promoted that in another 15 years, we will be automated in most operational areas. I believe that we were in 2002, are in 2017, and will be in 2032, still a “blocking and tackling industry.”
While the current generation is more inclined to want more automation in every aspect of their lives, it is difficult seeing this except in our plants. Equipment-wise, we will nibble around the edges over the next 15 years. ROIs (return on investment) will still determine our best path forward, not gut instincts.
What will a future finishing department look like? How will that equipment change?
JORGENSEN: There will be more options for feeding, ironing and folding systems, as well as growing compact options and all-in-one machines. Finishing is based on the volume of the application. Just like today, production automation will bring quality and production to finishing departments with improved ergonomics and fewer labor/operator tasks. Quality will get better and better thanks to new technologies.
BROOKS: In the finishing area, we will continue to see more automation, again with an eye on reducing the amount of labor necessary to perform the task. While finishing equipment is already getting smaller, I believe manufacturers will look to reduce the size of the footprint it takes up to make the pieces a fit for more laundries.
CARTER: No more employees required to operate the flatwork ironer and small-piece folder equipment. All of the current employee operations will be replaced with robotics. The heat source will be generated by microwave. There will be no need for guide tapes, so tape marks will be eliminated, resulting in a high quality of finish.
NETUSIL: If the minimum wage rate continues to climb as it’s expected, the level of automation in the handling of flatwork and full-dry goods will increase substantially. The European market faces this daily, implementing several levels of automation to decrease FTEs (full-time employee) and increase PPOH (pounds per operator hour).
WARE: More automation will lower the number of employees, with the eventual implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) reducing the need for workers. As the potential for linen and fibers becomes more adaptive to wash processes, the cost and energy to finish should improve.
GUDENBURR: Arguably, we are starting to see/experience this today with the advent of microfiber being used in not only towels, but now bedding products. This is altering the plant design, and could eventually result in plants that have far less, or maybe even absent, the use of flatwork ironers.
Again, who thought years ago that clients would accept the use of baggers for folded small-piece items? Today, many have altered their expectations, and/or their requirements, for said items.
The economy, and hygienic processing standards, may well play an equivalent role in what the future holds for this area. A strong economy drives the populace to desire the finer things, and as a result, we could see a resurgence in the F&B markets, and a higher demand for higher-end finishes.
This is good for everyone in our business, but we must remember when times are tough, buyers typically make the decision to source only what they need, and make tough decisions to compromise on quality in exchange for savings.
Check back Thursday for more future insights on data, tracking and laundry employees.