Plant Design Primer (Part 2 of 2)

Bruce Beggs |

Experts Assess Basic Laundry Project Characteristics, Reveal Latest Design Trends

CHICAGO — Your company is weighing its laundry services options, and pursuing a new plant is a possibility. So what should the average laundry manager know about plant design?

American Laundry News recently invited several engineering, construction and consulting firms with laundry services expertise to respond to some questions about this issue.

ALN: How does designing a laundry for renovation differ from designing a laundry from scratch?


Phillips & Associates has to go through all of the discovery steps whether the project is a new design/build project or a renovation project. There is not much difference, except a renovation project already has a shell that could be renovated for use after the fact. A totally new project takes longer to plan and usually costs more money.


As mentioned earlier, planning for an entirely new facility allows the new operation to be designed from the inside out, ensuring the most efficient use of space and layout of equipment. The renovation of an existing facility, on the other hand, can be fraught with its own particular challenges, especially in maintaining productivity, efficiency and safety during the renovation process.

In these cases, operators need to be sure to include careful pre-planning of construction, utility upgrades, equipment arrival, rigging, installation and start-up schedules in order to have as limited an impact as possible on the existing operation.

Third-party vendors should receive training by your company’s safety director so that they are aware of your practices, rules and unique circumstances. Training should be documented and provided to all third-party workers prior to granting entry onto the production floor. Be certain that you also obtain appropriate insurance certificates listing your company as an additional insured.

Another instance to be considered is the one in which a new plant is desired but the costs associated with buying land, erecting a new facility and installing the necessary infrastructure are prohibitive. In this case, the best approach is to find a building that meets the production, staffing, utility and space requirements of the operation, but only after taking the critically important step of undergoing a rigorous and detailed pre-design phase to determine the specific requirements for the building search.


Well, consider that you have to “undo before you can do” and that’s the start of it. Can your facility withstand a major or minor construction delay to enable a retrofit? If it can, and there is enough space to accommodate all critical elements (sorting, washing, drying, clean transport, finishing, and packing of additional volume), then there can be a considerable cost benefit for a plant to retrofit, rather than build new.

Retrofit projects are also usually a much faster process during decision-making. A retrofit will limit what you might be able to do, and so with fewer decisions to make, decisions are made more quickly.

New plants take much longer in development. Since you might be able to do almost anything, you need to be diligent in what the new plant will be designed to do today—and then what it might need to be in the future.

Because of the budgets involved, there are many more stakeholders whose concerns will need to be addressed. Then there are the decisions related to construction: do you build from greenfield, modify an existing structure, do you own, or lease the site? Finally, a new plant often must get city planning and local code compliance reviews for traffic, noise and more, which can take months or years to clear.


The biggest difference is that renovating an existing laundry or converting an existing building into a laundry has certain inherent boundaries and constraints, including:

  • Building footprint and height
  • Building column spacing (distance between structural columns)
  • Existing utility sizes (water main, sewer, electrical main, natural gas main)
  • Floor slab thickness and condition
  • Quantity and height of docks
  • Dock location
  • Office location
  • Building construction

You need to either work with these existing constraints or work around them. If you build a laundry from scratch, these existing constraints do not exist. You get a clean palette with which to paint, and can customize the building footprint, height, column spacing, etc. to meet your specific needs.


Designing a renovation is completely different and a most challenging process compared to designing a laundry from scratch. When renovating an existing running facility, we have to ensure that we do not shut down the operation. All the work has to be done off hours or when the plant is not in operation.

Safety is another big challenge as all the construction areas have to be properly taped off and equipment must be “tagged and locked out” to ensure the safety of all the people working in the laundry plant.

Along with all the challenges come the rewards. Retrofitting/renovating an existing laundry is much cheaper than going out and building a laundry from scratch. We have seen approximately 50% reductions in project budgets/costs by retrofitting a laundry vs. building from scratch. As long as we have the space to expand within the same location and we can get additional utilities (if required) to support the new plant, retrofit/renovation of existing laundry is, most of the time, the way to go.

ALN: What aspect(s) of laundry plant design can be the most challenging and why?


One of the most challenging aspects of laundry plant design can be breaking people out of rigid thinking or the unwillingness to consider new paradigms. Our industry is plagued with an attitude of “That won’t work in a laundry” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” which has no place in the planning and design of a new facility.

We encourage our clients to think outside the box, offering and encouraging suggestions for solutions that, under old paradigms, might seem unworkable. Once all options are on the table, we can apply critical thinking, data collection, and analysis to determine which offer benefits and solutions considering the goals and vision for the project at hand.


I would say planning and budgeting are the biggest challenge. Whether a new plant build or a major retrofit, it is challenging to know all aspects to your proposed plan. Will there be utility constraints, access and rigging limitations, what items can be moved and what cannot, are there code issues that you may need to comply with, does your existing infrastructure support your goals?

Then once you have what appears to be a good plan, look seriously at the constructability issues and develop a budget that is reasonable and achievable for the goals you want to achieve. If you are not certain what brand or type of equipment you might get, then your budget needs to take into account the worst-case scenario. Asking for too little during budgeting and then needing to compromise can mean missing your goals considerably and risk having your project cancelled or fail.

Lastly, know enough about your design that if a budget issue cuts or limits your project, you can identify the essential elements and keep your targets in site.


Designing a mixed laundry facility (linen and industrial) is very challenging. The diversity of product mix, the different pieces of equipment and material-handling systems, and the various product flows within the same building make the process of designing the plant to be both flexible and efficient very challenging.


Getting the laundry owner/operator to understand the benefit of new technology and the value of his investment is one of the most challenging aspects. More often than not, the owner/operator tends to pursue the cheapest option rather than the option that provides the best value (return on investment). It becomes part of the job of the laundry consultant/designer to clarify the benefits of new technology, provides pros and cons, and explain why the new investment is critical for the future business needs/growth.


Usually, the powerhouse requires the most time to plan and execute. The powerhouse is the heart of any laundry and, if it is not done correctly, can cause the most aggravation during the start-up phase of the plant.

ALN: How might the design of an on-premise laundry differ from the design of a textile rental plant that serves clients across a broad area, and vice versa?


An OPL is usually limited by space because it serves only a few outside customers (if any), but if we are discussing an off-site cooperative or central laundry vs. commercial, there is almost no difference if they are processing the same type of work (healthcare vs. hotel resort, etc.). The only real consideration is that an OPL or co-op will be highly specialized, while a textile rental plant might be set up to take on a broader mix of work.

Generally, a textile rental plant will be physically larger, as a commercial laundry business can serve hundreds of customers and therefore needs considerable more storage, inventory and cart-assembly area. A commercial business will also have more trucks for routes for those deliveries.


On-premise laundries are typically built to process smaller volumes of goods with a limited number of classifications. They are built for a specific purpose: to produce laundry for the “mother ship.” They typically use less automation, more labor, and more utilities (per pound). This is partially due to the fact that they are processing less laundry, which means the up-front investment in automation has a longer ROI. I would say OPLs are typically more “old school” in their design and operation.

Large rental plants are more flexible in their design. They process a higher volume and greater diversity of products. Reduction in labor and utility costs due to automation and utility conservation is more prevalent. Systems to track, control and offset inventory losses are used to reduce costs. Productivity tracking systems are used to improve employee productivity and production scheduling. Rental laundries are typically more “new school” in their design and daily operation.


The biggest difference is the amount/volume of work that is being processed through each plant. The typical OPL is designed for low volume and more flexibility in the operation, while a central textile rental plant is designed for high volume, similar type of work, and high productivity. The ROI on high-productivity, high-efficiency equipment is much quicker in central rental plants when compared to most OPLs.


If an on-premise laundry is being considered, that is fairly easy since the presumption is the facility has a central power plant and a big chunk of time can be eliminated from the planning scope. In essence, the planner only has to deal with a production facility, thus eliminating work in another area.


There are two critical differences between the design of on-premise laundries and off-site facilities (whether company-owned, co-op, or textile rental). Specifically, on-premise laundries often offer challenges of space, without the logistical demands that are placed on off-site operations.

ALN: Are there any particular laundry design trends that have become more prevalent in the last few years?


In recent years, the pendulum has swung from all-steam to steamless laundries. However, the trend seems to be moving back toward a hybrid solution of using less steam instead of going steamless. Steam still makes sense for certain types of equipment and systems (steam tunnels, presses, tunnel washers, etc.). Using steam, but on a limited basis, helps reduce long-term fuel consumption and up-front installation costs.

Wide ironers are becoming more prevalent. A wide ironer gives you the ability to do two lanes of tabletops simultaneously, which equates to a lot more productivity per ironer. Self-contained thermal ironers are also popular. They can maintain higher temperatures and operate at high speeds, again equating to greater productivity.

Press-to-dryer rail systems are becoming more prevalent. This is an efficient, cost-effective way to store work-in-process goods after they come out of a tunnel extraction press. The goods drop into slings, are queued on a rail, and are then loaded into a dryer automatically. This system allows you to use fewer dryers with your tunnel washer system.


Shuttle-free wash rooms, use of self-contained thermal ironers, and use of tunnel washers with extra-wide presses are some of the design trends that have become more prevalent in the last few years. Also, the trend of steamless/less steam laundry plants has started to pick up in the last two years. All of the aforementioned ideas are tried and true and the payback can be considerable when compared to the “now” obsolete typical ideas that have been used for years. If your budget can handle it, then you should absolutely investigate it.


After years of discussing water shortages, water reclamation, rising energy costs, gas conservation and the like, laundry operators are finally starting to see the practical side to some of these issues. A complete dissertation could be written on this topic alone.


One of the most significant trends we’ve seen in recent years is an increased emphasis on the health and safety of our industry’s production employees, and this translates directly into the design process of new laundries.

We are also seeing a greater emphasis on automated systems, which clearly also impacts the design of new and renovated plants. The industry’s vendors have done a nice job of stepping up the sophistication, productivity, usability and affordability of automated systems. At the same time, our industry is doing a better job of educating production, maintenance and management personnel.

Finally, at least among our clients, we are seeing a trend toward leaner, balanced operations with less work in process. Whereas clients used to tell us that they wanted to design material-handling systems and floor space to accommodate four (or more) hours of work in process just in case something went wrong, now clients are designing their plants considering Lean Manufacturing and Lean Six Sigma principles of “pulling” work through the plant, rather than “pushing” it through. The result is less wasted space, smaller rail and conveyor systems, and more pounds processed per square foot of facility.


While there is a certain buzz around steamless or “less steam” laundry design, I think the two biggest trends have been the size and sophistication of monorail sortation and clean distribution systems, and batch washer size.

When I began in the industry in the late ’80s, sort decks for healthcare were 12-16 sort classifications. We now see 36-54 sort classifications on automated sort decks. This ability to achieve the lowest common sort type makes large plants highly efficient, even with small classifications.

Large batch washers (those over 50 kilograms or 110 pounds) entered the North American market in the mid ’90s. Most new plants consider 150 pounds the new minimum, with 220-250 pounds the new maximum. While washing is one consideration, it has been the extraction of those larger loads that has challenged the industry. With wider presses achieving lower moisture levels and faster cycle times, large batch systems will be the norm for plants at 15 million pounds and higher.

ALN: What advice can you give a laundry services manager who is being asked to be involved in plant design for the first time?


Listen, listen, listen! Do not go down that all-too-familiar road of “This is the way we/I have been doing it for 20 years.” This attitude must change if you are to take advantage of the new ideas and concepts that are being used in our industry today in the cutting-edge plants that your competitor is building. If you want to stay in business for a long time and stay competitive, then listen to what your “consultant” is saying and see for yourself the results that your peers in the industry have been enjoying for quite some time.


Take the lead and plan, plan, plan. The laundry services manager will have to live with the plant for some time to come, so it is imperative for the laundry services manager to contribute to the planning discussion. Phillips & Associates has developed a complete design-planning checklist that could become the basis for an entire article on the planning process.


I can offer three key pieces of advice:

1.  Speak your mind— As an experienced laundry services manager, you understand the day-to-day needs and challenges that you’ve faced in your operation. Consultants, engineers, architects, equipment providers, and others involved in this process need your perspective and experience to ensure that the final design meets all your requirements. Do not hesitate to provide your opinion and perspective, because just as there are no dumb questions, there are no wrong opinions!

2. Ask questions and listen to the answers— Involve your staff in the plant design processes and ask them their opinions on designs, solutions, equipment, etc. Just as your experience can aid the professionals you’ve brought in to assist in the technical details, the experience and opinions of ground-level team members oftentimes result in some of the most innovative solutions.

3. Keep an open mind— Time after time we hear people in our industry telling us, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “That may work someplace else, but it won’t work here.” In some cases, they’re right, but in others, they were glad that we pushed back and encouraged them to take a second look at an idea and the data that supported its implementation. Considering the realities of today’s world, it pays to be open-minded and consider options that, at first blush, may seem a bit out there. The result may just be a safer, more efficient, more productive, and more profitable laundry.


First, know what your goals are and be clear on them. Then get your passport updated, get a good suitcase and hit the road—start visiting plants similar to your type of work. See things for yourself, talk to plant folks who do what you do. See what works for them (and what does not) and get educated about what might work for your new plant or retrofit. These road trips will be invaluable, and you can defend your decisions one way or another with your management team or board with first-hand understanding.

If traveling is not an option, get a reputable independent consultant that can help you navigate this process. Making key decisions without the experience to know if your approach is viable can be costly. Before you finalize your plan, seek an independent review of the project by your peers who have gone through anything similar. You may not take their advice, but having a few sets of experienced eyes take a look at your project is always valuable.


Remember three letters: SRM. They stand for Simple, Repeatable and Manageable. Your laundry design should be simple. If it looks complicated on paper, it will be even more complicated in practice. The design should allow your processes to be repeatable. If you can repeat the same efficient, high-quality process day after day, you will be successful. Lastly, it should be manageable. A manageable laundry is flexible and able to meet your customer’s ever-changing needs.

It’s OK to be on the leading edge of technology and push the envelope. But don’t get out on the “bleeding” edge of technology. That’s where people get hurt.

Surround yourself with experience and expertise. But remember, you know your own business better than anybody. You need to determine the final course and direction for your laundry.

Click here for Part 1!

About the author

Bruce Beggs

American Trade Magazines LLC

Editorial Director, American Trade Magazines LLC

Bruce Beggs is editorial director of American Trade Magazines LLC, including American Coin-Op, American Drycleaner and American Laundry News. He was the editor of American Laundry News from November 1999 to May 2011. Beggs has worked as a newspaper reporter/editor and magazine editor since graduating from Kansas State University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications. He and his wife, Sandy, have two children.


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