Integrated thinking15 August 2016
The backbone in development of modern societies is, says Steen Søgaard, the washing machine – a threshold technology increasing living standards in emerging economies, which presents our industry with an unprecedented opportunity
Through the ages, washing has been one of the most gender-specific tasks in both North American and Western European cultures. More often than not, no women meant no washing. Since the advent of the first washing machines appeared, we have seen things change. At the time of the gold rush, 8-12% of Scandinavian women were employed as domestic servants. Today it is fewer than 0.1%. Back then, only 4% of North American women worked outside the home. Today it is approximately 90%.
Few developments have had a more profound impact on western economies than that of women's entry into the labour market, made possible by the mechanising of the more labour demanding household tasks. As Hans Rosling, professor in International Health at Karolinska, Stockholm Sweden, puts it in his TED Talk from 2010: "The washing machine is the industrial revolution's most important invention," (cf.:https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine).
Increased hygiene demands, especially in the health and food sectors, and also in private households, has and will increase the volumes of laundry. At the same time an industrialised, high-tech country is using more than six times more drinking water to wash clothes in than for survival. Even though living standards in Western Europe are among the highest in the world, our water consumption relating to laundering - measured in litres per kg of laundry - are among the lowest in the world, because we make use of some of the best washing technologies.
In the major part of the rest of the world the ratio between water used for washing and water used for drinking purposes is bigger than 6. Often much bigger. The consumption of oil, gas, electricity, chemicals and the emissions of CO2 and waste water are, in this regard, proportional to the water consumption. Few functions, if any, have a deeper penetration into all kinds of societies, higher impact on hygienic standards, and leave bigger footprints on the global environment, than laundering.
Because laundering is such a fundamental part of a modern society and because there is a direct connection between a society's living standards, via hygiene standards, washing quality and washing technologies, and its resource consumption (higher living standards simply mean higher resource consumption and more pollution). The fact that we wash our textiles in clean, clear, life-giving drinking water must be seen in connection with the UN's estimate that by 2070 3 billion people will be affected by water shortage. That is twice as many as today.
That is why the simple ratio between washing water and drinking water is standing in the way of a number of countries' access to higher living standards. The knowledge about how to wash more textiles with fewer resources is the key to higher living standards. That is a major chance for our industry to make a difference.
Worldwide 23,000 heavy duty laundries wash approximately 34m tons of textiles annually. In the process they use 85m MW/h and 400m m3 of water, emitting 23m tons of CO2. When, at the same time, we know that heavy duty laundries handle less than 10% of the total laundering worldwide and that consumption in coin-ops and private households are much higher than in the heavy duty laundries, the numbers related to the global laundering footprint become overwhelming. And frightening, too, because today only 2 billion out of the 7 billion people on planet Earth have access to washing machines.
By 2030, the global middle class will more than double in size, from 2 billion today to 4.9 billion, increasing demands on hygiene standards. Not only the increase of people in the global middle class, but also the hygienic standards, as we have seen, will constantly and continuously drive the the global volume of laundering upwards. The need for HDL solutions will increase steadily, and spread globally, but the consumptions in HDLs, even though lower than in coin-ops and private households, are still a threshold barrier in the emerging economies.
The problem is, that no single company, with or without the industry, is able to solve this issue. And neither are the laundries themselves. You cannot solve the problem by optimising a machine or a single process, not even an entire existing laundry. We need to look at the entire laundry and all it's functions and processes anew, including the building itself.
So far the focus of development in our industry has been on costs, and that has helped us a lot. We have seen reductions per kg. produced textiles at around 50% on labour, 30% on energy, and 40% on water, achieved by integrating and automating different, but closely related, functions within the same discipline. For example, the integration of feeding, ironing, folding and stacking tasks, as well as automating the connection between different workstations by means of roller conveyors, rail systems, shuttles, and so on. We have been able to increase the laundry size, adding economy of scale. We have seen an increase in automation, which has reduced the number of employees in HDLs.
Now we have the opportunity to shift our focus towards environmental consciousness. As Thomas Krautschneider, CEO of Salesianer Group, so rightly put it: "At first this seems like a burden and an additional cost, but in the end it is good for the bottom line of laundries and saves natural resources – a win-win-situation that lets all stakeholders push for further innovations in this direction."
The potential in integrating across specialist disciplines, for instance bringing our chemical supplier together with our tunnel washer supplier, or our textile supplier together with our ironer line supplier, are significant.
For example, temperatures above 160C ruin certain textile blends. An ironer line with an operating temperature at 230C may, at first, seem perfect because of it's very high heat deposition rate, but only if we can avoid the damage such temperatures may cause on some of our textiles. Actually you might prefer an ironer line whose speed is regulated by the temperature measured dynamically on the textiles passing through it. You might even want an ironer line heated by induction, because induced heat regulates fast and because electricity has the potential of being 100% CO2 neutral.
Here is another example: We struggle to reduce chemical consumptions to a minimum and, at the same time, keep a high wash quality and low rewash rates. Not the easiest task, when you can't see the wash liquor and foam formation in a tunnel washer, as you could in the older washer extractors which gave you an opportunity to react to foam formation. Chemicals don't even foam anymore, not that this is a problem in itself, but the foam was an indicator of residual wash activity of the wash liquor, giving us the chance to correct when necessary.
You might prefer a tunnel washer able dynamically to measure residual wash activity in the wash liquor, and only add additional chemicals when actually needed. You might even prefer a tunnel washer that you pour water onto one time only, because it recycles the wash liquor 100%, eliminating water consumption all together and giving you the opportunity to optimise water levels with regards to wash action and soil suspension, or maybe even upcycles fresh water consumption, that is, takes in grey water and ”dumps” water in drinking quality.
A third example for you: De-gassed water is wash active and able to disperse oils and fats, with their non-polar hydrocarbon molecules, due to the reduction of natural cavitation in the fluid. A quick way to "de-gas" water is by putting it under pressure - like reversing a film clip of the uncorking of a bottle of champagne. You might prefer a washing machine being able to put water under pressure, reducing the need for chemicals or eliminating them entirely, as suggested by a research team from the Australian National University, Canberra.
My point is, that if today we are in the ”re-usable linen” industry, we might seize the opportunity to get into the ”re-usable linen, water and energy” industry and become part of the solution, instead of adding to the pollution. To do that, we need to have the courage to ask the hard questions, that may have the potential to dispel old myths and practices, and create new ones, such as: Why is it that we wash in drinking water? Why does the water have to be hot? Why do we use chemicals? Is it possible to take a laundry completely off grid - water, electricity, fossil fuel and sewage? Is it possible to leave no footprint at all? What would that mean to the emerging economies where they need their resources for other and more important purposes? What would it mean to our competitiveness if we were able to take our laundries off-grid and make them environmentally "invisible", so to speak?
We need to cooperate across organisational borders, probably call on competences from outside our own industry, and look not only at all the processes and functions in the laundry, but include the building and auxiliaries as well, regardless of subject areas, along and across value chains, and outside the laundry's walls. We need to find solutions to functions, processes and technologies where all elements are developed and constructed to support and mesh with each other, like the pieces in a puzzle.
One thing is certain. The solutions that this kind of questions call for are not within the reach of one company's competences. We need our most important, brave, and foresighted suppliers to rise to the challenge and pull together. It could be a chance for our industry to stand out and lead the way in a very important direction.