RIPON, Wis. — It’s just laundry. Items come into our area dirty. We then throw these loads in a washer to clean them. They come out wet. We throw them in the tumble dryer and remove that moisture. Pull them out, fold (finish) and get them back in service. There it is. In just 43 words, I described the entirety of what goes on in an on-premises laundry.
So, if I can walk you through the basics of how a laundry operates in a handful of words, how much innovation can be brought to this? I mean, has there really been much new technology introduced to the laundry in the last 10 to 15 years? Is there anything that is changing how we operate? Are there any features that make life easier or improve quality? Is my laundry more efficient today than 10 or 15 years ago?
While it may not seem that way, the industry and equipment most certainly has changed how we push linens out the other side of the laundry.
DELIVERING THE DATA
Access to data and information on the overall laundry has offered a window into how these departments operate, but the sheer amount of data we are able to see has changed how the laundry runs.
Laundries years ago, and many facilities even today, just processed loads without an eye on efficiency, overall costs or whether the proper processes and cycles were being used.
Technology over the last few years has risen to a point where management has a total view of the laundry operation. Many of these new systems even offer a real-time look at the laundry, where they can see what machines are running.
Data collection has changed the operation, bringing greater clarity and accountability. Laundries can now see where their costs are, identify areas to improve, compare against other facilities (if part of a larger chain) and much more. The bottom line is that management now has all the information to run the operation like a business—reducing costs, increasing productivity and recognizing areas where training is necessary to improve processes.
Just think about how something as simple as a report showing the highest temperature reached in a cycle can be important in the healthcare industry, as standards governing this begin to take root to prevent the spread of infection. Today’s laundry management systems put this information at management’s fingertips. Years ago, staff might have been filling a cup to measure the temperature.
DIALING IN THE DRYING SIDE
Over the last decade, technology has taken dryers from a utilitarian tool to a smart machine contributing to overall better quality and even better efficiency.
Years ago, the term “bone dry” was pretty appropriate to describe how towels and other linens emerged from the tumble dryer. Operators cranked the dial as far as it would go and dried every load to the maximum, regardless if the linens required that. We now know that over-drying actually degrades the fibers, and that contributes to a reduction in the life span of the pieces. In addition, it wastes labor (loads are in the tumble dryer longer than they need to be) and gas.
Technology changed all that and took the operator error out of the equation with moisture sensing. Now management can set the units to dry to a specific moisture level. The machines have become so smart that once the prescribed moisture level is reached, the unit shuts off. Linen life is extended, and the operation as a whole reaps additional savings.
In addition, the drying process has evolved as well. No longer are today’s units blasting loads at maximum heat for the entire duration of the cycle. Many now employ a step drying process that dials back heat as the load approaches the proper moisture level.
Fire suppression systems were another welcomed feature added to tumble dryers in the last 15 years. In the unlikely event of spontaneous combustion, this feature helps keep any fire contained to the cylinder by spraying water on it and sending an alert message to a manager.
RAMPING UP THE SPIN SPEED
Speaking of reduced drying times, increased spin speeds, particularly among hard-mount washers, have been another welcomed development over the last 15 years that have helped reduce drying times.
Previously, operations were burdened with the standard 140-G-force extract speed. Better manufacturing techniques, such as plasma cutting and robotic welding, have delivered tighter tolerances and, as a result, washers capable of handling higher spin speeds. That’s led to hard-mount washers that produce extract speeds of up to 400 G-force. The advent of inverter drives has also yielded a gradual ramp-up of speed that reduces electrical draw—another cost savings.
Technology has also ensured even out-of-balance loads reach the maximum extract speed, by going through additional rebalancing if the load calls for it.
CONTROLS THAT MAKE SENSE
Remember those faded posters taped, crookedly (in most cases), to the wall that displayed the cycle codes for staff to punch into the laundry equipment keypad? Seen them lately? Gosh, I hope not, or your laundry is seriously overdue for an equipment upgrade.
Controls today use real words. No more operator error picking the wrong cycle. For example, the towels cycle actually says “towels,” the heavy-soil sheets cycle is identified as such, and so on. It seems like a small advancement, but as anyone who has worked in an on-premises laundry knows, it is anything but. In addition, some controls also have the cycles listed in multiple languages—a welcomed feature for bilingual departments.
Within those controls reside greater flexibility as well to tailor wash cycles for the best quality results. For example, in the firehouse laundry, where any number of wash variables could impact the integrity of PPE, cycles, including maximum extract speeds and temperatures, can all be dialed in to protect these high-tech fibers.
And when it comes to service, controls can tell maintenance staff or servicers the last time the machine was serviced, when preventative maintenance was performed, offer troubleshooting information if a problem comes up, and much more. The benefits are a longer life of the machine, fewer service calls and generally reduced repair costs because technicians are able to diagnose issues more quickly.
Yes, water still flows into the wash cylinder, sloshes around and is spun out. True, the heated air is blown through loads in the tumble dryer and they emerge ready for finishing. What we do in an on-premises laundry hasn’t changed in the last 15 or so years. How we do things, however, has changed considerably and made the entire operation far more efficient, quality-focused, and significantly more streamlined.
Our industry has definitely progressed to a point where managers are truly equipped with all the information and machines to dial in processes to deliver the highest quality and hygienic results. No longer are laundries looked at as strictly cost centers. Advancements have helped them achieve a place at the table as contributors to the bottom lines of the facilities they serve.