Garment finishing is now beginning to open up in Italy, Spain and Portugal, where the trend for establishing corporate identity in industry is building – and laundries are responding by going increasingly into workwear.

Well-established in the USA and north European countries like the UK, Germany, France and Scandinavia, the development of garment finishing varies from country to country. For example, in Italy, says Uwe Priester from Kannegiesser, workers in industrial settings are now prohibited by law from washing their garments at home, because of concerns about waste water.

In the USA, sending industrial workwear to a laundry is common practice but sending out hospital garments is a new and growing sector. Healthcare is a well-established sector in Sweden, where nurses change their uniforms every day, but in the UK most nurses wash their uniforms at home.

In addition, Priester says, in some countries there are many, smaller laundries that specialise in workwear.

The type of technology selected depends on the size of the laundry, the type of garments they are finishing and the standard required.

Smaller companies are more likely to go for small tunnel finishers and folders. Martin Rauch, director of garment technology at Jensen, says smaller laundries often have a broader mix of garments that have to be processed on a single machine and for them a manually operated folding machine is likely to be most suitable. They may also use steam cabinets and dollies until they grow large enough to graduate to steam tunnel finishers.

For medium to large companies, energy saving and improved workflow begin to become more of a concern. They want more sophisticated automated machines that can cope with the flow of garments to be processed at the same time as providing a good standard of finish.

If a laundry processes mostly industrial workwear, for example, it needs to have a machine that is made to handle heavier materials. Those that process nurses’ uniforms will be looking for machines that are suited to lighter materials.

Easier automation

According to Rüdi Kobel from Biko Engineering, automation is easier in the healthcare sector because garments are more standardised. The differences are in the range of sizes, not the styles. In industry, however, there can be much more variation in the types of clothing to be processed, making automation more difficult.

Machines with multi-programs enable the laundry to vary the conditions in the tunnel, according to the garments it is processing. Automatic feeding and take-off systems can be added front and back to increase machine efficiency.

With developments in barcodes and RFID, the type of garments can be automatically detected and processed accordingly. In addition to efficiencies in throughput, garment-finishing technology is responding to the need for laundries to reduce energy costs.

Macpi has developed a batch tunnel that creates a sealed unit – doors close keeping steam and heat inside while the batch is being processed instead of allowing valuable energy to escape, says Robin Ree, the company’s UK agent and an independent consultant on garment finishing.

Ree says that the batch tunnel uses much less energy than an open-ended tunnel, as it does not to have create additional amounts of steam. The machine is multi-purpose, enabling the program to be changed for each batch, according to the type of garments that are being processed. Because the garments go into a “wardrobe”, the machine has a smaller footprint than many others.

Kannegiesser’s XMT finisher can provide an energy saving of around 35-40% compared to previous generations of the machine, says Uwe Priester. It recovers energy and reuses it in a stabilisation process to cool down the garments so they are easier to work with when they come out of the machine.

Jensen has also developed a machine that recycles warm air from the final drying cycle, bringing it from the outlet to the inlet zone. “The inlet zone changes, therefore, from a steam zone to a pre-heat and steam zone which uses the energy that is normally evacuated over the roof,” says Rauch.

According to Jens Bröhldick from Ecotex, a supplier of rebuilt equipment, while water, gas and electricity costs may be a real concern in Europe, they are less so in many countries where the costs are not so high. In areas where labour costs are cheaper, it is less expensive to use several manual machines than spend money on automation.

There is pretty well universal agreement among suppliers that tunnel finishers offer a smoother and gentler treatment of garments. Jensen’s Rauch explains the three processes that a tunnel finisher uses.

“ The pre-heating and steaming section opens the fibre and brings the garment surface towards drying temperature. Then there is the drying section with integrated moisture evaporation. The drying section is equipped with high-capacity ventilators that create an extremely high and even airflow, thus giving a perfect finishing result. Finally, there is the separate cool-down section where the fibre can relax and is brought to ambient temperature.”

Uwe Priester says tunnel finishers provide a more comfortable finish for the wearer than ironers. However, he adds that there are still many places that have not switched over to tunnel finishers – in Japan, for example, laundries use ironers, accompanied by a folding machine. In Australia, ironers are still popular in the healthcare sector.

The advantage of a tunnel finisher is that it takes fewer people to operate and can be equipped with automatic sorting and folding, and with hanger loading stations.

Biko has developed a new hanger that has been adapted to hang all different types of workwear, says Rüdi Kobel. The company’s Maria Overall folding machine is now available with the Maria Robot which automatically feeds the clothes into the machine and collects data about the garments that have been processed, the time it has taken and any problems encountered.

Robin Ree says tunnel finishers can be gentler on fabrics because they do not come into contact with the fabric like an ironer does. Because they rely on fabric memory, they may not provide as crisp a finish as actual ironing.

Macpi has developed a carousel/conveyor press to meet the need for a high quality press following a tunnel finish. In addition, it has developed an automated finisher for trousers such as those worn by hospital orderlies – a four-station machine that can process seven pairs a minute in one operation, and a carousel for high-quality pressing of nurses’ uniforms.

Kannegiesser’s garment dispensing system is also used the healthcare sector. The system provides a dispensing machine for uniforms, which can be programmed to recognise an individual’s identification code and therefore dispense only that person’s garments to them.

Integrated solution

To remain competitive, suppliers are looking at how they can offer their customers a complete service – an integrated solution that improves workflow and helps them to meet their own customers’ needs.

This means developing and supplying integrated packages that provide a complete solution from washing to delivery, as well as enabling easy and full control of the process. As automation increases, so there is also a demand for real time data – “track and trace” – to manage the production process, according to Jensen’s Rauch.

“This not only optimises the overview of the laundry process, but also leads to a more accurate and complete delivery towards the customer,” adds Rauch.

Jensen’s Metricon garment transport and sorting system includes Metricon Live, real-time visualisation software that provides a full graphical overview of the system, providing information about its status, giving the operator control of all functions and enabling engineers to use it for trouble shooting.

Kannegiesser has also developed software systems to help laundries “bring information on-screen into the laundry”, according to Priester.

Although the technological developments in this sector may not seem dramatic, it is making advances that will improve both efficiency and quality.