What is laundry operation all about?

What are we put in this world for? That is one of the most crucial questions you can ask a laundry, so you would think that the answer would be relatively unambigious. It is not. Here is a suggestion that contains practice and premise, and which most people agree on: To prepare textiles to be reused at the customer’s site, aimed at fulfilling an economic goal, whether it is to make money in a private company or to minimise costs in a public one.

Industrial laundries usually own the linen. It is a cultural thing. Industrial laundries’ customers are not the hotel guests who leave tomorrow, but the cleaning staff. They are the ones who depend on when the linen and uniforms are delivered, how much is delivered, how heavy it is, whether it is completely clean, how it is folded, how easy it is to use, how it is transported, and when the dirty pile is picked up again. Take a picture of a cleaner and you have the laundry customer. Easy to remember, easy to communicate with. Put him/her next to a bag jockey, and you have two tiers of the supply chain: The laundry and the laundry’s customer. The important third tier in the chain is the laundry suppliers, because they set the technological preconditions for the operation of the laundries.

What is the role of the supplier in the industry?

To give a consistent and relatively uncontroversial answer, the supplier’s role is to enable industrial laundries to prepare textiles to be reused, aimed at fulfilling an economic goal. It does not tell what characterises the individual supplier or distinguishes him from his competitors and neither is it a mission statement or a set of core values, but it gives a clear perspective of the suppliers’ role in the industry, and it tells what they compete on: Which supplier is best at enabling the laundry to prepare textiles for reuse? Traditionally there is a dilemma buried here, a trade-off between quality and price. Or is there?

If the machines, chemicals, and textiles become too good, they typically also become too expensive. They must work well enough, for long a enough period, but no more than that. They must be functionally fit. This is how most industries work and always have. I wrote about this in LCN back in 2004. The laundries expect the suppliers to deliver the machines at the right place, at the right time, put them into operation, and that’s it.

If you ask the suppliers what happens upstream, sidestream, and downstream of their solutions, the answer is: “None of our business”, even if some of them are able to supply entire turnkey laundries. Flow of goods and value chain? “Not our responsibility, nor something we know anything about.” And it works. Functional fitness works. It has driven the technological development to where we are today, with all consumptions significantly lowered and all speeds significantly increased. The largest suppliers have record revenues and record returns. There is no better proof that the functional fit-model is a winning concept.

A self-in­flicted dilemma

But then this medium-sized Danish textile supplier developed a completely different way of seeing its relationship with the laundry. Who they are is not important. It’s the principle we’re after here.

They don’t produce themselves. They develop, design, and sell, but, unlike, for example,IKEA, they don’t focus on sales prices. They are interested in the differences in the operation of the laundry with and without their products. They develop textiles that weigh less and are easier to dewater because that increases the number of items in a batch, lowers the residual moisture after extraction, and increases the ironing speed – without reducing the user’s experience of quality. Difficult, but not impossible. It is complicated, because it requires the laundry to be able to increase the flow of goods to and from the ironer to get the most out of the textiles, so there are a number of consequential decisions involved, but these decisions centre around ways the laundry can be run more efficiently and more profitably. Interesting? You bet it is.

The supplier shows up for quantifying test runs, has opinions on settings of washing machines, tumblers, and ironer lines, shows the laundry how it can increase speeds and lower consumptions along the entire process line, qualifies the future in simulation models, and when they go home, the laundry’s bottom line has improved. By looking at the context in which their solutions operate and raising the bar to operational fitness, they make themselves a partner with the laundry, someone who works together with the laundry to optimise the laundry’s operations. What do their towels cost? Is that even interesting?

Their way allows us to see the role of the supplier in a larger context, to provide a bigger answer that eliminates the trade-off between quality and price. Their example shows us that the traditional, narrow concept of functional fitness has boxed laundries in and that the trade-off between quality and price is self-inflicted. Operational fitness allows suppliers to develop solutions that are better and more competitive in operation. Who pays the bill? The water supplier, the electricity company, the chemical supplier, the labour, and so on – anyone but the textile supplier.

They have spent years developing their product range to be operationally fit, but operational efficiency potentially relate to differences between products in general, even between existing products. There is considerable value for laundries in knowing the operational differences between existing technologies, sizes, and specialisation, so much so that large laundry groups develop concept laundry models, moulds for new builds, prototypes that they continuously optimise as new insights are gained.

So is operational fitness enough?

By focusing on the operational fitness of products, suppliers can help unlock the potential in laundries that comes from insights into the combination of machines, products, data, and production, across organisational and technological boundaries, with a focus on the economic goal. It’s easy to test two different batches of towels against one another. It’s harder to test two different batch washers, so operational efficiency is just as much about the ability to visualise the differences for customers, but there are ways today to test and find the overall solution that is better than each of the individual ones.

These kinds of operational analyses and collaborations have the potential for development of concept laundries in general, but especially in markets that are facing major changes, such as:

  1. conversion from customer owned textiles to textile rental, for example, in the Arabian Peninsula,
  2. raising living standards in tier 3 countries (GapMinder’s categorisation),
  3. building new infrastructures, maybe in tier 2 countries,
  4. rebuilding infrastructures, such as in Ukraine after the Russian invasion,
  5. in the development of new forms of industrial laundry concepts that, for example, eliminate climate footprints.

This involves software, but we are already facing the task of wrapping our minds around simulation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, which will play as big a role for future productions as digitalisation has played for the current ones. Increasing amounts of data will blur the boundaries between technology and the way technology is used, shifting the balance of technology content in solutions from mechanics to knowledge.

It’s exciting and easy to get carried away, but it’s as if we’re stuck in old habits, old ways of thinking, blind to the threats we face, to challenges that have way more serious and far-reaching consequences than ever before.

Return on investment and equity should not be the company’s or the industry’s ambition. Operational fitness is not enough – as the indications of climate breakdown are showing us. Any discussion about that is kicking open doors open.

A crash big enough

The 1930s were the relatively most dangerous time to fly. Today, the accident rate from back then would equate to around 7,000 air accidents and just over 1 million fatalities annually. In 2022 there were 5 fatal accidents globally among 32.2 million flights (IATA figures), and 158 fatalities. That is 1.6 accidents per one billion flights. The difference? In 1944, the aviation industry decided to work together to reduce the risk of accidents by committing to make accident reports and sharing them to learn from each other’s mistakes.

We are in the midst of a much more severe climate accident. We have repeatedly shown that we can do almost anything when we need to: eliminate aircraft accidents, remove lead from petrol, stop the use of CFCs, close ozone holes, develop Covid vaccines.

The Danish textile supplier in my example took a big step in the right direction, moved the box walls, asked a bigger question, and put their products into their context. We need to put all technologies into a wider context and make the entire laundry environmentally fit.