16.11.2005, 19:17

Out to dry


Richard Neale from the United Kingdom-based Laundry Technology Centre discusses advances in textile washing for the hotel, catering and hospital sectors.

Richard Neale from the United Kingdom-based Laundry Technology Centre discusses advances in textile washing for the hotel, catering and hospital sectors.

Quality laundering plays an important part in helping customers form their first impression of hotels, restaurants and hospitals. Ultra-white sheets, fresh-smelling towels and spotless napkins define the service standards that are to be expected from an establishment. Yet in a fiercely competitive marketplace, there remains a tendancy to select laundry services solely along price lines.

Nevertheless, the continued absence of universal industry standards coupled with poor experiences with commercial laundry providers, has prompted the luxury hotel sector to install on-premises laundries. Up until now, these have nearly always been based around large washer-extractor systems which provide a labour-intensive, batch-based process that consumes very large volumes of water and chemicals and has high energy requirements. All of this is set to change with the introduction into the Gulf region of the continuous batch washer (CBW).


Operating cost reductions

In Europe, CBW technologies are used on more than 80 percent of textiles processed through laundries. Their introduction in the 1980s resulted in a fall in water consumption from a mean figure of 20 litres per Kg to 8 litres per Kg. By the 1990s consumption had fallen further to 4.5 litres per Kg. And today, water savings have been complemented by savings of up to 50 percent on energy and laundry chemicals without a drop in quality standards.

Leading laundries across the GCC are now gearing up to achive similar economies. This will enable them to play a major role in water management within their countries since the laundry is often the biggest consumer of water in a hospital or hotel, and reductions in consumption make a dramatic difference.

In Europe, the price-competitiveness of CBW-based operations has driven laundry prices down to unprecedented levels. Indeed, they are only now stabilising at figures that were last seen twenty years ago!

As a consequence, the costing of laundered items has become very detailed and individual component costs are being optimised continuously. Linen lifespan is now recognised as a major issue. If linen is purchased for, say, 12 Dirhams and lasts for 1,000 wash-and-use cycles, the cost per cycle is 12 fils. On the other hand, if it lasts 2,000 cycles before colours start to fade, staining becomes irreversible or individual fibres begin to disintegrate, then the textile cost per cycle falls to only 6 fils. New technologies even allow laundry operators to predict and manage textile lifecycles within their costings.


Quality standards

When CBW technologies were introduced in Europe they produced excellent results and continue to do so in many laundries. However, the CBW process is easily capable of exceeding the output for which machines are designed - and quality has deteriorated in laundries which learnt and took advantage of this. One consequence is that CBW-based laundering has acquired an undeserved reputation for not washing as well as washer-extractor systems.

In many countries there are now quality standards - especially within healthcare - which define stain and soil removal performance, in addition to whiteness retention. When these are stipulated in a Service Level Agreement (SLA), it gives the client total control over quality. Indeed, it is always important to establish and define quality standards before looking at price considerations.

Another major advance has been improvements made in the removal of perspiration, blood and other human body fluids. These are all protein-based and require skilful washing, rather than heavy bleaching. By getting this right, the modern launderer improves stain removal and prevents disintegration (which manifest itself through the appearance of holes and tears); thus extending the useful life of a fabric.

Odour-control is also very important - with a residual smell from bleach or sewer-like dank smell topping the list of common complaints. The source of dank odours is usually bacteria that have survived the laundering process and produced excrement after breeding.

The best quality standards include a specification for micro-organic contamination and poor washing processes will probably struggle to meet these.


Health and safety

Control of cross-infection is vital for both healthcare and hospitality, with avian flu and other bugs set to circle the globe in a potential pandemic. laundries have a central role to play here and currently it is only the best hotels and hospitals that have adequate policies in this area.

In the United Kingdom, trials using ozone washing systems are well advanced and have produced very high levels of "kill" for spore-forming bacteria such as the Clostridium Difficile and Bacillus Cereus - neither of which are killed at a normal wash temperature of 71° Centigrade. Careful control of parameters is necessary and National Health Service (NHS) trials are still not complete. But all the signs are encouraging.


Machine productivity

The virtually simultaneous adoption of CBW systems by the GCC counries has increased laundry capacity significantly and may even result in over-capacity within a short period of time. This will drive down commercial prices in the short term but the long-term benefits for operators will be considerable. A medium sized CBW operation will produce about 1 metric tonne per hour of washed textiles; a large one can easily exceed 2 tonnes. Work emerges from the washing line at a rate of between 50 and 100 Kilogrammes every three minutes, thus providing a constant feed to finishing lines. Once a laundry has tuned its production lines to accommodate this, productivity can increase significantly.

In the Untied Kingdom a small commercial healthcare laundry typically outputs 40 metric tonnes daily, with medium and large ones producing 80 and 120 tonnes respectively.

Efficient laundries based on CBW technology deliver 150 to 200 pieces per operator hour (PPOH). This output will be surpassed rapidly by laundries in the Gulf and the whole pattern of laundering will change as supervisors accustomed to leading teams on a batch-by-batch basis will find their new role is to keep production lines flowing.


Future needs

To be successful, the laundries of the future will need to cost out operations carefully and tackle high cost elements systematically. Regional market leaders are already washing with 5 litres per Kg of water or less and seeking ways to halve this. Many plants have also exceeded 100 PPOH with a view to targeting a level of 150 PPOH.

Customers also learn exceedingly quickly how to define their quality needs and get suppliers to achieve them: the old days of, "how cheaply can you do my washing?" are gone forever.

Training will be a key determinant of success with laundries relying increasingly on skilled operators and supervisors to deliver the potential that these advances in laundry technology now make possible. The United Kingdom's Guild of Cleaners and Launderers will be making its qualifications available across the region in 2007 at both "Supervisor" and "Engineer" level. Similarly, the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) will be launching a Level 2 Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ) for laundry operators. These qualifications are expected to play a part in professionalising the entire industry within the next five years.

The GCC region is world class in several areas and laundering is now set to become one of these. New equipment now makes it possible to achieve major reductions in operating costs and significant increases in machine productivity. Further advances will be achieved ahead as new operators enter the race and offer prices and quality standards that were but a dream as recently as a couple of years ago.

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