CHICAGO — Automation, simply put, is the use of various types of control systems to operate equipment and processes—without human interaction being necessary.
Automation is seen in the production of cars and trucks, food and beverage processing, even in flying an airplane.
The laundry industry has turned to automation as well.
A main objective of laundry automation is to reduce labor costs by reducing the “number of physical touches” that employees have with the linen, which results in increasing PPOH (pounds per operator hour), according to David Carter, vice president of North America sales for equipment manufacturer Pellerin Milnor Corp.
He says another objective is to reduce utilities usage per pound processed. Finally, the automation should help manage linen inventory levels and related investment without compromising customer service.
“Automation has become very important in the laundry with the drastic increases in labor costs,” says Tony Jackson, director of national accounts for equipment maker Kannegiesser USA. “It is much safer for employees, especially in the washroom, to not manually load washer-extractors in large batches.”
Joe Gudenburr, president of equipment manufacturer G.A. Braun Inc., agrees that automation can afford a laundry operation a great many benefits. Improvements can reduce labor, overall operating hours, and energy, water and chemical consumption, and result in improved inventory control and turn rates and better finished-product quality.
He says the improvements can be achieved and sustained as long as the appropriate process controls, discipline and operational maintenance protocols are put into place and factored into the design and implementation of any automated solution.
“A failure to design, plan and optimize the strategy for implementing automated solutions will result in a less-than-desired outcome,” Gudenburr says. “In some cases, it can actually negatively impact operational efficiency. The importance of due diligence, and a qualified process for designing and implementing solutions, cannot be overstated.”
If a laundry decides that automation would benefit its operations, then it needs to take the next step: purchase the right equipment.
When it comes to selecting automated equipment, Carter recommends that a laundry establish specific criteria. He says the automation should be “scalable”; the investment needs to result in a specific payback.
“Typically, the higher laundry-processing volume provides the opportunity for justification of the capital investment in automation,” says Carter.
He also says that automation equipment should have real-time feedback that provides production data, utility consumption usage data and linen inventory levels.
“When compared to defined standards, real-time management information systems enhance the opportunity to take corrective actions to improve laundry operation performance,” he says.
Gudenburr says it’s important that an automation strategy is well-defined and that it takes into consideration all of the input and output variables and process areas before it is implemented.
“This helps prioritize the sequence by which solutions are implemented and assures that the maximum return is achieved from said products,” he says. “Make certain that you fully evaluate solutions from a supply chain perspective. Make certain that the solution provider is a healthy and proven entity. Take the time to go and see the solutions in use, to understand how they are designed, produced and what the long-term support systems and services are for said solutions.
“It is great when a solution gets implemented and works, but it is not good when it becomes unsupported and overly complex to own and operate as it ages.”
Seth Willer, national sales manager for equipment manufacturer Girbau Industrial, says there are always two costs when a laundry buys automated equipment: the cost of the machine and the cost of ownership with or without that machine.
“The cost of the machine may seem like a lot, but what’s its operational impact?” he says. “Compare your finance payment to operational cost savings. Many times, the difference in labor costs will make up for your financed equipment payment each month.”
“Manufacturers, such as Maytag Commercial Laundry and ADC, engineer a wide range of their washers and dryers with automated technology that can help laundry operations maximize throughput and run more efficiently,” says Steve Hietpas, international sales manager, Whirlpool Corp. Commercial Laundry.
He says that microprocessor controls are highly important to the laundry operation and offer an easy-to-use system with one-touch program selection that can control all aspects of the washing process. This helps to minimize user error and maximize efficiency.
Programmable water levels and cycles allow smooth and seamless staff efficiencies, removing some of the guesswork, and can also help reduce the overall laundry spend, Hietpas adds.
Residual moisture control measures moisture in a load and reduces the heat input, while continuing to run the tumbler—helping to prevent overdrying, increasing linen life and reducing utility costs, according to Hietpas. Single-phase reversing helps to reduce dry times and, therefore, utility costs.
Chemical injection systems help to ensure the optimal amount of detergent and chemicals are precisely dispensed, taking additional guesswork out for staff, he says.
“One of the best ways to incorporate automation and improve laundry efficiency is by using multi-load, high-speed washers,” Hietpas says. “Extracting water in the washer instead of the dryer allows linens to dry more quickly and gently, and decreases the amount of energy consumed.”
He recommends that facility owners and managers look for soft-mount washers with a G-force, or spin speed, of at least 350 for a high level of performance.
In addition, Hietpas says operators who have safety top of mind may want to invest in machines with a Sensor Activated Fire Extinguishing (S.A.F.E.) System. The S.A.F.E. System senses heat rise representative of a spontaneous combustion, turns the fan off, and tumbles the drum for 99 minutes to self-extinguish—helping to eliminate fire concerns.
“Overall, it is very important to talk to your distributor,” says Hietpas. “As technologies continue to advance, keeping up-to-date on all machine features will help benefit laundry operations.”
Keith Ware, vice president of sales for equipment manufacturer Lavatec Laundry Technology, says there are a few questions to answer and some key items a laundry needs to understand before selecting an automated piece of equipment.
“Laundry automation should be carefully chosen by any laundry operator, and they should not get caught up in the latest and greatest without proven results from the supplier,” Ware says.
First, does the system provide the results you require? He says automation should result in an improvement over any current manual process; if there is not a large enough variance, reconsider the purchase.
Next, can the team manage the automated process? Ware says automation often requires more planning, preparation and understanding of the entire process being utilized.
“For example, when operating a wash deck with washer-extractors, you can change the wash pattern of goods to be washed. When utilizing an automated process, you need to understand the impact these changes have on the entire system,” he says. “Many times, the finishing side will request more sheets. The tunnel operator often runs sheets for 20 to 30 transfers, so this affects your throughput since the dryers are often left empty with no dried items being processed through the system.
“To catch up on towels, the operator then runs 30 transfers of toweling, often overloading the dryers and causing the system to go on hold, which affects overall plant throughput.”
Another question Ware deems important: Does the return on investment justify the purchase?
“Don’t just factor in the cost of the equipment,” he says. “Ask what the startup and training costs are, plus the maintenance cost of keeping an automated system operating. If these all pencil out, then your selection is a good decision.”
And finally, is the engineering staff capable of maintaining more sophisticated equipment? Ware notes that automation often requires control and programmable logic controller knowledge.
Gudenburr says that the first step for any laundry looking into automation is to understand its processes, core operating metrics and its operating costs. By doing so, the process of identifying non-value-adding operations, waste and inefficiency can begin.
“As this effort advances, operators will be able to gain a clear understanding of where the ‘low-hanging fruit’ lies, and it will help them prioritize those initiatives that afford the greatest financial return to the business,” he says. “Typically, in the laundry these opportunities result in some form of process automation being implemented.”
Gudenburr says taking a comprehensive approach to evaluating the operations affords the ability to think beyond the immediate opportunities, so that a structured plan for improvement and possible automation can be developed.
“This ensures that sequential initiatives build upon those already in place, and that the infrastructure is in place to support future site enhancements at the lowest cost possible,” he says. “Businesses must perpetually be evaluating their cost structure, quality of the products and services they provide and looking at ways to raise the bar on performance. This is a must to remain competitive, and for the business to grow in a prosperous manner.”
Gudenburr recommends that a laundry investing in automation also invest in team member skills, training and the support infrastructure before implementing automated solutions. In order to be most productive, plants must be able to achieve self-sufficiency once the original equipment manufacturers have completed the implementation and training of staff members.
“Too often, staff skills are not retained due to excess labor turnover, and sites fail to take ownership of automated solutions because they are either intimidated by them or lack the skill level and resources to support them,” he says.
“During a recent tour, many operators were excited about a new ironer feeding process,” Gudenburr says. “All said they wanted to buy one of these, so we then asked the chief engineer of a plant how he liked the system. His words were, ‘Hate it, hate it, hate it.’ When asked why, he spoke of the labor needed to keep the automation operating, the cost of parts and frequent downtime. His real-world experience did not match the promises of automation.”
As a laundry automates, Gudenburr says it is important that operators “embrace the reality that their world will change.”
“There will be a need to break from historic operating norms, the old brute force and manual intervention process, and to top-grade the skills and abilities of those who will be tasked to operate and maintain said solutions,” he says. “Once again, if this reality cannot be embraced, the implementation of an automated solution will fall short of its intended objective. There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to achieve operational success.”
Gudenburr stresses that automation can help advance capabilities, but to sustain them and build upon them, a great deal of operational discipline must be put into place, either while or before implementing any solution.
“If the laundry and its staff can make this shift in operating discipline and structure, the benefits will quickly manifest in operating efficiencies, and profits,” he says.
“Automation is a wonderful opportunity for a laundry to help lower labor costs, improve operator efficiency and plant throughput, but it’s like choosing a pet,” says Ware. “Make sure you make the right choice for your operation. Technology is great until it doesn’t work.”
Miss Part 1 on what areas of a laundry to automate? Click here to read it.