In the current economic climate many businesses will find themselves under increasing pressure – and the laundry market is no exception.

As the economic slowdown takes hold, manufacturers could see some changes in the rate of purchase and upgrade of OPL washer-extractors.

The present and anticipated state of the economy is by far the most important factor, according to company director Tom Lowes at Armstrong Commercial Laundry Systems.

He says: “When replacements are made, the focus will be on value for money – now widely understood to be based on lifetime costs.”

He adds: “Most sectors of the OPL market have been stable in recent years with replacement installations greatly outnumbering new ones.” He believes this trend will continue as the building industry bears the brunt of the recession: “In many cases there will be financial pressure to “make do and mend” – to postpone machine replacements.”

Spencer Wallace, head of sales for Danube UK, agrees, saying that the market is becoming sensitive to the problems in obtaining credit.

He believes high-value projects such as equipment upgrades are coming under close scrutiny.

However, as Lowes at Armstrong points out: “There is a limit to how long an operator can economically prolong the life of an ageing machine, so any slowdown could be temporary.”

The arguments for and against operating an OPL have been rehearsed for decades, says Lowes. “There are no universal answers.

“We have OPL customers in the Outer Hebrides, for example, whose distance from a professional service means that outsourcing is out of the question. We have others who prefer to send their flatwork out but find an OPL the right answer for towels.”

Quality, reliability and cost

The fundamental concerns are quality, reliability and cost, says Lowes. “Each operator should decide on the standard of finish needed, compare the reliability of the potential external supplier with that of the equipment that might be installed, and look at costs.”

Lowes says the total OPL cost should include lifetime costs of equipment and staff costs. It is also important to consider probable future changes in energy charges.

Peter Marsh, managing director of Girbau UK says that the financial gains that hotels can make by establishing OPL can be very changeable depending on the size and requirements of the establishment.

“It’s not unusual for businesses to save 30% by bringing their laundry in-house. Commercially it is important right now for businesses to remain flexible.”

He adds that by switching to an in-house service . hotels are avoiding the constraints of a six-month contract with a laundry service. “They have a bit more flexibility over the amount of washing they are doing. Also, in some cases they can train existing staff to take over some laundry duties.”

There are other benefits: “Increasingly it’s on eco credentials that businesses are looking to market themselves,” adds Marsh. “A reduced carbon footprint is an important factor to mention in advertising.”

Danube UK’s Wallace says: “The advantages of bringing laundry in-house come down to cost, quality and control.”

Healthcare sector growth

Marsh at Girbau UK says his company has found the OPL market to be stable over the past year, and even notes some growth in the healthcare sector – a consequence of the increasingly aging population.

Lowes agrees, adding that: “In the healthcare sector demographic trends dictate there will be no reduction in demand for laundry services. Demand must be met and standards maintained or improved however the service is financed.”

Danube UK’s Spencer Wallace also notes growth in healthcare. “There is an increasing awareness of the dangers of superbugs, which means more hospital managers are looking at bringing in barrier washers to reduce the risk of cross contamination.”

Miele Professional product manager Malcolm Martin says that while the greatest quantity of the company’s washer-extractors sold are in the 6.5kg capacity range, 2008 saw a steady increase in the 10 – 20kg range, with the majority being installed in care and nursing homes.

Miele has developed programs specifically for processing infected laundry in care homes.

“These minimise the risk of cross infection, ensure fast turn-around times for linen and garments, and afford excellent protection of the laundry,” says Martin.

“Dump valve drain versions of the washer-extractors feature two sluice and thermal disinfection programs, which meet Department of Health Guidelines HSG (95) 18, and conform to the requirements of The Care Standard Act 2000,” he adds.

An optional extra on some of the larger Miele machines is an automatic weighing system, enabling water and dosing levels to be adjusted to suit the load.

Hospitality effect

Although some may be anticipating a slowdown in domestic travel, Lowes believes that the net effect of the recession on the hospitality sector is as yet uncertain. He says: “While tight money is clearly a depressing influence, the weakness of sterling against the euro and the dollar could make holidays in the UK more attractive.”

Girbau UK’s Marsh believes the hotel sector is now beginning to show more interest in developing OPL capacity in an attempt to reduce costs, noting particular interest in more efficient machines, eco-wash programs and low-temperature washing, including ozone systems.

Miele’s Martin has also observed that large hotel chains are moving towards easycare fabrics to save time.

Spencer Wallace at Danube UK says: “Ironically, during an economic downturn, bringing the laundry operation in-house can become increasingly attractive to the hotel trade. A lot of commercial laundry contracts are based on an estimate of a fixed amount of laundry each week. If this is based on say 100% occupancy and there is a downturn to 70% occupancy, the laundry bill remains the same.” He concludes: “It has been estimated that bringing the laundry in house can enable savings of up to 60%.”

Performance and flexibility

Customers are increasing expecting higher performance and greater flexibility from their washer-extractors. Marsh says the introduction of microprocessor-controlled programs has made this more achievable. He adds: “Efficiency is a key requirement in OPL washers. Customers are looking for shorter wash cycles, lower water consumption and, in some cases, water recovery systems. They are also looking at using cooler water and ozone systems to save energy.”

Lowes believes that choosing the right machines is essential when going the OPL route. “Armstrong offers three product ranges comprising several dozen models from 5 –300kg so that any requirement can be economically met,” he says.

From 50 – 300kg, the Lapauw range of industrial grade build washer-extractors has developed a loyal following in large OPL installations such as prisons, while the middle sector of the OPL market is served by the Primus range.

The company offers both freestanding and floor-secured models in a range of capacities.

It also offers the 6.5 kg Schulthess WS6151 washer, which forms the basis of Amazon Laundry Centres.

“Obviously compliance is an absolute must, although, in fairness, practically all machines on the market do comply with statutory legislation,” says Danube’s Wallace, adding that efficiency also comes high on the list of requirements.

“The best modern machines can calculate the exact amount of water and detergent to use, which cuts costs, including electricity and gas, and of course there is increasing awareness of ecological factors,” he says.

Some have noted a growing focus on cutting excess capacity. Marsh says it is therefore essential that downtime is minimal, and Girbau offers a same-day support service to make this possible.

He adds: “In challenging economic times many customers are choosing to opt for fixed-price maintenance packages to allow them to predict annual budgets accurately.”

Lowes says many operators want to conserve capital and Armstrong’s range of finance options and its fixed-price rental scheme can help companies achieve this.

“For suitable customers these schemes offer the security of knowing exactly what the outgoings will be over the lifetime of the contract. As with so many finance products it pays to shop around. Armstrong does not rely on outside sources of finance and when one customer switched to Armstrong she made a saving of thousands of pounds,” says Lowes.

He adds: “Unlike commercial and industrial launderers, most OPL operators rely on their supplier to keep the equipment running and, in addition to the fixed-price rental, where the support is included, Armstrong offers an installation service, a range of maintenance packages and a highly regarded express spare parts’ service.”

Miele has introduced remote diagnostics. If there is a fault a message can be sent to the service department via a remote service assistant module. This module can be linked to up to six Miele machines and enables an engineer to make an initial diagnosis remotely.

Wallace also stresses the value that support services provide for customers.

“Obviously, reliability is imperative but, in the unlikely event of something going wrong, the customer wants to know that there is a team of experienced engineers on call and that parts can be accessed on a 24-hour basis,” he adds.

Taking the first steps

“Calculating capacity and designing the optimum layout for OPL laundries is complex,” says Marsh at Girbau UK. “Mistakes can be expensive and lead to long-term inefficiencies.” He adds that Girbau UK offers a full planning service that covers machine loading and includes the production of full CAD drawings.

Armstrong also works hard to meet clients’ needs: “We have such a wide range because users have such a wide variety of requirements ” says Lowes.

He adds that sizing equipment is not straightforward and this task should be left to experts, along with planning a laundry layout.

Likewise, Danube has experts who help customers choose the right machine with the features they need, and who can help design the laundry layout.

Through its network of partners, Miele is able to undertake a site survey to fully understand its customers’ needs.