- Created on Saturday, 02 March 2002 12:45
- Written by Franz Jurgens
SEARCY, ARK — After betting big on automation, Arkansas’ largest independent industrial launderer has cut two shifts to one and added the capacity to double its current weekly volume of 175,000 pounds of laundered uniforms, floor mats and other flat goods.Since consolidating its two laundry plants in late 2000 to a single 36,000 sq. ft. facility, Searcy Uniform and Mat Service, a $10 million company, has achieved its goals by basing automated workflow around G.A. Braun washer, dryer and smart shuttle systems.
When Joe and Kathy Giezeman purchased Searcy Industrial Laundry with 25 employees in 1985, Giezeman’s goal was to grow the company beyond its $16,000 weekly income. Since then the company has grown 12 times its original size. In 1990, Giezeman opened a second laundry plant specifically to provide mat services. Today, uniforms and mats are still separate entities albeit within a single consolidated plant that cost $5.25 million to build and equip. The company employs 115 teammates serving customers across central and eastern Arkansas, extending over the Mississippi River into Memphis, Tenn.
Giezeman first ventured into automation in 1996 by installing an automated garment sorting system. Its positive effects on customer satisfaction and in-house efficiencies became the foundation for the switch to automation. “Technology has the power to change the playing field,” he says. “It has let us differentiate ourselves, has let us stay ahead of the big guys.”
Searcy’s new plant almost completely automates the handling of uniforms and mats — material that (with the exception of the barcode-assisted sorting line) was previously moved manually.
Wash Alley Automation
One of the first decisions made was to stick with G.A. Braun washers and dryers. “Braun was a good cultural fit because they focus on making washer and dryer systems. Braun washers and dryers will handle anything. They’re reliable, and we get good service,” said Richard Stocks, Searcy’s technical support manager.
In the now automated wash bay, Searcy runs seven 400-pound Braun Open Pocket Washer/Extractors. Two are new, the other five — up to 10-years-old — have been upgraded with new microprocessor controls and relay switches networked to Braun’s WASHNET™ NT control software.
Upstream of the washer/extractors, soiled loads entering the plant are pre-sorted manually by type (i.e. mats, towels, garments, etc.) and weighed. Load type, poundage and customer name are entered into White Conveyors rail management computer system which controls White’s overhead monorail. Braun’s WASHNET™ NT automatically applies the correct wash formula for each load from the rail management system allowing an employee to pre-assign up to 20 loads per washer/extractor. When a washer is ready, WASHNET™ NT signals the rail management system to position the sling over the washer’s tilted open pocket. In turn, the rail management software communicates load characteristics — including the customer, item and weight — to WASHNET™ NT.
At the end of a wash program, each washer tilts forward to spin out its clean load onto the telescoped conveyor belt of the Braun loose goods shuttle. The WASHNET™ NT-controlled shuttle runs on tracks along the floor to three 440- pound Braun pass-through dryers with on-board lint collectors. Auto-sensing switches prompt the shuttle to telescope and convey its belt into the assigned dryer only after it has opened its bi-fold doors.
Following a drying cycle (each machine has 99 programmable formulas), the dryer opens its rear doors and tilts to discharge its load onto a Braun-controlled bi-directional Gardner transport conveyor system. By monitoring the load’s dryer program code, WASHNET™ NT ensures the transport conveyor knows which direction to route the load — left to the mat processing station, right to the inspection/finishing areas for flat goods and garments.
Finishing It Off
After a visual inspection, garments are manually hangered on Ellis’ Smart Rail Garment Sorting System. Garment tracking begins anew at the Scan/Load module where both the garment and its carrier’s unique bar codes are scanned automatically during the hanging process. Garments are then routed through Colmac’s steam tunnel with one steam unit and two finishing units and (on to the mending department if flagged during inspection).
The Primary Sort module of Ellis’ rail system separates garments into batches, checking items against a garment database. The Final Sort module sorts the batches of garments into route-account-man-garment type, recirculating garments four times to complete the sort at the rate of over 1,500 garments per hour. A final checkpoint — the Tie-Out module — scans each garment carrier to verify the sort order. Employees then remove a wearer's group of garments from the carriers, twist tie them, and place them on a storage conveyor trolley.
Solid rubber mats and polyester/cotton garments that do not require drying are routed by the shuttle to a Gardner bypass conveyor, which takes loads directly to the bi-directional transport conveyor.
Stocks says Braun’s WASHNET™ NT has given the Information Systems team at Searcy valuable knowledge of wash bay machine operation and performance — analysis that was previously difficult to monitor. This includes the ability to gather and tabulate data on chemical, water and energy usage, modify processes and formulas on the fly, monitor the cycle-by-cycle production efficiencies of each washer and dryer, identify trends and troubleshoot faults.
“By tracking fault alarms on each machine, we can identify problem trends long before we have a bigger problem resulting in downtime,” says Stocks, who also logs on remotely to monitor machine productivity and performance when away from the office.
Overall, near full automation within a consolidated plant has enabled Searcy to do the work of two facilities in a single shift. This has reduced payroll by eight percent (teammates who left through attrition, not layoffs, says Stocks).
The best aspect of automation, concludes Giezeman, is that it keeps things simple. ”Make a change once to software and it will stay changed,” he says. “If you solve it manually and spend money teaching, the same problem will return over and over again.”
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