- Created on Monday, 03 February 2003 03:13
- Written by Steven J. Tinker
Over the last three decades the laundry industry has seen a tremendous amount of change. There has been the permanent press “revolution” in the early 1970s that created a whole new class of fabrics, the introduction of high efficiency tunnel washers that changed the mechanics of washing, increased government regulations that affect the formulations of our detergents and control the quality of our effluent, and the “information age” that impacts the amount of data and reporting we are asked to evaluate.As with every other aspect of our life, technology keeps making strides that change the way the laundry industry looks. Here is a review of some of the key changes that continue to affect our industry.
When permanent press and blended polyester and cotton fabrics were introduced in the market, laundries and their suppliers had to respond to that change with new technology and methods to clean those fabrics without effecting the quality of the fabric or the finish on the fibers. Polyester and the finishes applied did not respond well to the same detergents and wash processes that worked best for 100 percent cotton. Since polyester is an artificial fiber based on petro-technology it has a very high affinity to oily soils. So the detergent industry formulated products that had increased ability to remove oily soils and decreased alkaline components that could damage the finishes of the new fabrics. Nonionic detergents became the most prevalent choice for the new detergent formulation because of their affinity for oils.
Today we see the next step in the improvement of artificial fibers and fabrics. Instead of 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton, 100 percent spun polyester fabrics have been introduced to the market. These fabrics are engineered to eliminate some of the drawbacks of the earliest blended fabrics and other 100 percent polyester fabrics. The “hand” or feel of the fabric is much closer to the feel of a cotton fabric. And new, improved technology in the fabric finishes makes the new fabrics more absorbent and provides a soil release benefit. But as before, now the detergent industry has to respond with new washing processes and products that will deliver optimum performance without harming the finish. Now a new generation of detergents with surfactants (surface active agents) that have even higher affinity for oily soils (oleophilic) and lower levels of alkali are available to assure the best results without reducing the useful life of the fabric. The old technology of high alkaline builders and “standard” surfactants won’t do the job.
Wash formulas are also changing to lower temperatures due to several independent factors. The days of 100 percent cotton, highly caustic builders and 180°F washing are long gone. First, as noted, the trend to more polyester fabrics allows for lower wash temperatures. The detergents that work best on polyester tend to perform best around 140°F. And with the increases in energy costs, it makes much more sense to look at lower energy wash formulas. Lastly, new detergents with new surfactant and builder technology make low temperature wash formulas more effective. These detergents are engineered to be more active at lower temperatures. And we are finding that the addition of polymeric and phosphated builders enhances soil removal at low temperatures. The old detergents with high pH caustics and silicates don’t work well in lower temperatures or on synthetic fabrics. With the new technology, it is now very practical to wash at temperatures from 100-120°F and achieve excellent quality even with some of the toughest soil classifications.
The impact of government in our daily lives has increased dramatically over the last few decades. And government has a major impact in the laundry industry. With increasing concern with the quality of our water resources, we are asked to limit the amount of pollutants that we send down the drain. Now the soils we remove from the linens and garments we process can be considered harmful, and must be treated or removed before release to the waste stream. The industry has responded with new equipment and new wash processes designed to make it easier to pre-treat and even reuse the water in the laundry, making the use of resources even more efficient.
The wash equipment manufacturers have introduced many innovative designs over the past twenty years. One of the most dramatic changes has been with tunnel washing technology. Tunnel washers address several areas of concern in the modern laundry industry: water and energy conservation, labor shortage issues, and high volume efficiency to name a few. Although there are several different designs, tunnels washers have a few common characteristics. First there is a limited time for exposure to the washing cycle. So detergents have to be fast-acting and super effective. In addition, the foam profile of detergents must be under control, so mechanical action is not hindered in the wash chambers. And, since rinsing is limited, detergent manufacturers must design products that are “free rinsing” so there is no carry-over into the final rinse zone. Another key consideration is the use of polymeric water conditioners that work a very low levels, less than 20 parts per million (ppm). These polymers keep the soils in suspension and sequester water harness ions, keeping them from interfering with the detergent action on the soils in the fabric. Twenty-five years ago the first polymers were used to reduce or eliminate phosphates from detergents. Now a whole industry of polymers development has responded with new innovations that make detergents more effective.
As with every other part of our life, the “silicon revolution” has affected the industry greatly. Now the entire production process can be networked for information management. Liquid product injection systems can maintain production records. Laundry chemical manufacturers have developed new dispensing technology that can check itself to make sure that it is delivering the right amount of detergent, at the right time, every time. Sensor technology has improved so that we can capture information on various process parameters and keep a running record. And you can bury yourself in reports that analyze your efficiency. It will only get more complicated as we generate more information. But now we can tell how well we are doing, so that we can develop plans for getting better: better use of resources like water and energy, better washing that assures quality results and longer linen and garment life, better cost and labor management, and what ever else you need to manage.
We have reviewed only a few of the major technology changes that have affected our industry. There are many more changes in society, government and technology and more that have had a great impact on our industry. And there will be more changes in the future that will affect our industry in ways we can’t predict. The only thing we can say about the future with certainty is that things will change, and at a much faster rate than in the past! So hang on, the ride should be fun!Steven J. Tinker is the Director of Research and Development for Gurtler Industries, Inc. a manufacturer of laundry specialty chemicals. Steve has over thirty years experience in the laundry chemical industry in technical service, product development, and marketing roles.
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