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’s coming in terms of laundry data, and how will laundries make use of that information?
WARE: Data will be the key to operating the laundry as cost pressures will continue to increase, and knowing that information in real time is critical.
Many systems will communicate with each other, talk to your providers, order products and parts when needed, and provide predictive direction by data-mining information faster than any human could. Knowing when a problem may occur and getting direction to correct it before all hell breaks loose will be important to successful operators in the future.
Today, many college and professional football teams use data mining to help prepare game plans. Helping to predict your competitor’s tendencies and preparing your team for the upcoming battle will soon come to our industry.
ANDRESEN: There are many obvious competitive advantages by controlling data. The laundry can ensure that they treat and wash the clothes properly so that it lasts longer. That is good both environmentally and economically, and you can do that when you track each article. Also, there is the possibility of reducing inventory to a minimum, where only what is needed is purchased. With tracking, there is control over what is coming into the laundry and what is going out.
When data about the individual piece or article is stored, the washing instructions can be easily adjusted digitally. In addition, there is a guarantee that the garment returns to its proper owner, and it is essential (for) all companies that have personal uniforms.
Finally, some clothes only last a limited amount of washing cycles before they need a replacement for safety reasons. Here, the system can keep track of when a replacement is needed.
GUDENBURR: Data is a topic that many in our industry are still lacking to grasp and efficiently make use of. There is a great deal of “low-hanging fruit” that can be captured and turned into profits through the proper use of data and metrics. As our industry catches up with others in this regard, data will and should play a significant role in all aspects of plant operations.
Changes will continue to come in how we expand access to information, how we present it so that it affords operators the ability to make timely decisions with it, and in how we simplify the architecture and systems designs associated with it so that information exchange between operating environments is seamless.
A great deal has been accomplished in this area, and the first step is getting plants to use it and make it part of the disciplines associated with running a plant in a proactive manner. As the use of data progresses, so, too, will the technology to feed the expanded appetite for it.
BROOKS: I think moving forward, we will see more on-premises laundries making use of this data to improve efficiency. Laundry management systems will become the norm. Access to data has impacted so many businesses and departments within them. Laundries will continue to embrace this level of technology and reduce operating costs.
CARTER: Laundry data will be economically scalable, meaning different levels of laundry data-reporting systems will be easily available to small laundries and large laundries at an affordable cost. Laundries will focus on real-time data that will report exceptions to the expected laundry operation, allowing the laundry operators to focus on their customers with fewer employees.
Where do you see changes in terms of tracking?
BROOKS: RFID (radio frequency identification) is already being used in many areas. For instance, it is, and will become, hugely beneficial in the fire industry to track the service history of PPE (personal protective equipment). I could see this also coming over into healthcare and hospitality, where towels, sheets and other linens and loads are tracked as an aid to knowing when they need to be pulled out of service.
CARTER: Tracking laundry data will be cloud-based, real-time, allowing management the opportunity to improve production in real time. Laundry will be processed using “just in time” techniques, allowing management the opportunity to eliminate excessive linen-inventory investment.
NETUSIL: RFID UHF chips will become a standard feature on new linens from the manufacturers. Handheld scanners and tracking software within each laundry will be commonplace.
WARE: The tracking of linens, productivity and costs will be real-time, so managers can act immediately when there are issues. Knowledge of the complete inventory throughout your network and how to reposition these items in real time could save laundries significant time and money in distribution.
Knowing immediately which process or piece of equipment is not up to standards allows you to react to the issue, rather than reviewing the results at the end of the day or the next day. If a laundry is going to miss a production target by a few thousand pounds, it would be important to know this information as it happens so you can correct it immediately.
ANDRESEN: RFID chips and similar technologies will develop and become smaller, more efficient and cheaper. We will see an increased use of visual recognition of those products where chips are not suitable for one reason or another.
GUDENBURR: Chip technology, and the next generation of said technology, will play a significant role in operations. We all have seen the benefits of being able to accurately track what comes into the plant, how it moves through the plant, and what goes back out to the end-user. This will only expand to the point where processes will be able to track all aspects of a piece of linen, garment or mat.
There still is a significant opportunity to reduce waste, theft and premature linen disposal. To put things in perspective, all are far costlier than some of the nominal savings that we tend to focus our energies on. As these technologies evolve, and the costs associated with them come down, they will dominate the landscape. Also, the information that comes from this could well influence the next generation of equipment and processing advancements for the industry.
What do you think the laundry employees of the future will look like? What will their tasks be? What skills will they need?
GUDENBURR: As plants automate and eliminate labor-intensive manual tasks, employees must be “top-graded” from the perspective of skills needed. Today, our best operators understand this and have already elevated the capabilities of their team members, and paid up to make certain that they not only can hire such talent, but, more importantly, retain it.
Automation drives a higher level of technical aptitude and the need for more specialized skills. This is not to say that general maintenance capabilities will not be required; this is far from the case. Equipment will still leverage motors, pumps, bearings, compressors, solenoids, PLCs (programmable logic controller), etc. It is simply the fact that these will become more advanced, and as such, those who interact with them must advance with them.
This will require a bit of a paradigm shift for some plants, especially if they want to optimize their ability to compete and remain profitable.
BROOKS: With all the technology being built into equipment now and into the future, it would be easy to say that employees will need to be more tech-savvy. However, I think it’s the opposite. Automation and management’s access to data will take much of the decision-making out of employees’ hands. The work should become less technical.
JORGENSEN: I think laundries will be able to hire more entry-level and disabled workers as equipment operation simplifies over time. The time and expense involved in employee training (to get employees up to standard production) will also reduce as a result.
CARTER: Robotic employees will be employed in the next 10 to 20 years. As a result of robotics, the new laundry employee will be college- or technically educated, computer programmers and/or computer hardware technicians, working in a control center overlooking the laundry operation. They will be responsive to maintaining the robotic activity and address/eliminate any production bottlenecks in real time.
NETUSIL: From the operator standpoint, pretty much a carbon copy of what we see in today’s laundries. The reason is that equipment will become even more user-friendly, allowing management to staff positions with a more readily available team of non-skilled labor. From the maintenance and engineering staff point of view, with higher levels of automation comes the requirement for a higher skill set.
Twenty years ago, the maintenance and engineering team member skill set was more in the mechanical realm. Today, and in the years to come, the required skill set will be in both the mechanical and computer/digital realm.
We think the tasks will be pretty much the same as in today’s laundry. Perhaps the more mundane, repetitive tasks will be automated, leaving human intervention to perform the tasks that require a little more thought. The biggest differences will be in the cart make-up area with sorted stacks of tracked goods being delivered to specific pickup points, and, of course, the increased production levels due to automation.
WARE: As the industry moves to more and more automation, the laundry worker of the future will need to be more skilled in operating systems and processes. Similar to an auto manufacturer where 20 years ago a plant would require 5,000-6,000 workers to operate, today’s auto plants now utilize workforces of 2,000 or less. Many of those employees are managing the machines that build the cars and not physically doing the work.
If laundry companies could build and operate plants with almost no employees, they would. It will require a better educated, more technically savvy employee to manage the automation in a production process.
ANDRESEN: The laundry of the future is a much more attractive workplace, where employees will focus on management, quality assurance and developing their customer service concepts.
GRAHAM: This is our most serious challenge, and in 15 years, the millennial generation will dominate the work landscape. What to do? Millennials in 2032 will fall between the ages of 28 to 50. Start today in understanding who they are, what they want and what they bring to the table.
Also, do you venture into the plant and talk to your teammates? Do you greet service reps in the afternoon or on a cold January morning? Lastly, are you providing all the safety gear and education that you need to keep people gainfully employed? In 2032, these will still be the basics.
Miss Part 1 on future insights on data, tracking, laundry employees? Click here to read it. Check back Tuesday for the conclusion of the series with business insights and final thoughts.