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(Photo: Rainbow Cleaners, Oxford, Miss.)

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Automation: Will It Make Your Drycleaning Plant More Profitable? (Part 1)

SAN FRANCISCO — Automation is a continued topic of discussion in the drycleaning industry with broadly varying opinions about the benefits and challenges of implementation.

The benefits of automation in a plant can be many, including:

  • Faster check-in
  • Faster service turnaround for some or all of your products
  • Higher pieces per operator hour (PPOH)
  • Improved accuracy
  • Better customer service at the stores
  • Improved return on investment
  • Lower labor cost
  • Better tracking and control
  • Fewer “lost” garments
  • Ability to track item history
  • Consistency of pricing
  • Better capturing of special care fees
  • Or if you are highly regimented, all of the above


Faster Check-In

Initially, bar-coding will take slightly longer than traditional tagging because of the lack of familiarity with the process and the probable additional information you will want to capture during mark-in. Once the procedure becomes routine, the timing difference on initial mark-in will disappear.

After a substantial percentage of your work is bar-coded, then mark-in will become much faster because many items will only need to be scanned. (Caution: Spot-check for accuracy in pricing. The detailing at the first mark-in will follow the item forever, so it is essential that the description be accurate to ensure accurate pricing.)

The ongoing percentage of garments that are already bar-coded at drop-off will be proportionate to your percentage of shirts and pants since they are the most commonly returned items.

Faster Service Turnaround

Bar-coding provides for much faster assembly and sorting for distribution, thereby bringing production to completion earlier and getting the vans out sooner as well. This is especially beneficial in operations with same-day service and/or those that service guest clothing in hotels.

Higher PPOH (Pieces per Operator Hour)

When any part of the production process is sped up, the entire production efficiency is increased. There is less waiting for items to process and less waiting for finished items to move through assembly. The total PPOH of the workforce increases.

Improved Accuracy

One of the biggest advantages to bar-coding is improved accuracy in assembly. It reduces the possibility for human error and makes tracking “lost” out-of-sequence items much easier, especially if the items are scanned at each process station along the way.

Better Customer Service at the Stores

When the orders are returned to the stores earlier, there is more time to rack the work before customers return. The racking and retrieval goes much faster, saving customers time.

The mark-in process also goes faster when bar codes can be scanned so the work can go to the plant earlier, leaving more time for proper processing and thorough inspection to maintain quality standards.

Improved Return on Investment (ROI)

Since labor is the single most costly expense, producing the same work with less labor will increase profit as long as the cost to reduce the labor has a higher return on investment (ROI). That is why each investment in automation (or any other purpose) should be carefully weighed based on the specific return on that investment. A break-even point of one to two years usually indicates desirability, whereas a 5-to-10-year return is likely not a wise move.

Lower Cost of Labor

The cost savings should be apparent in reduced mark-in time, providing labor savings in stores that are busy enough to require multiple CSRs to meet customer demand. The savings should be gained in central mark-in operations as well.

More significantly, the cost savings will be attained in the plant due to faster assembly and distribution sorting.

The other labor savings are achieved because the “mad scramble” at the end of the day to find the "missing" pieces is reduced. Because the progress is tracked through the stations in the plant, operators can determine the current location of items immediately.

Lastly, staff can be released earlier in the day because the exact needs can be determined by tracking and managing the labor vs. the “wait and see what we need done” approach.

Better Tracking and Control

Management of labor becomes a simpler process when a POS system can project the workload. Scheduling becomes predictable instead of an exercise in guesswork, or habit.

The information is available so that clients can be kept informed about issues with their orders, such as being given a choice of whether or not to allow more time if needed for proper care.

Fewer “Lost” Garments

“Lost/missing” garments require an inordinate amount of time and labor in the plant, especially at the end of the day when everything else is being held up waiting for a couple of items that are due to go out.

All hands on deck to look for a piece or two is a highly expensive solution. Combining the labor costs for the staff members who are looking for the items, the cost of the waiting time for the drivers, and the cost of delayed inspection, assembly and bagging can result in a high total, especially if any or all of the employees are running into overtime.

This does not take into consideration the unknown expense of customer disappointment because the quality standard slips in the rush to get the work out the door.

Ability to Track Item History

So often, the customer with a claim is viewed with skepticism because the damaged shirt/pant/dress/duvet is professed to be “new.” Bar-coding can possibly clarify the item age based on the number of times it has been processed.

Many times, the customer believes the claim, but will become more agreeable when shown the actual age or number of times the item has been processed.

This tracking can also allow you to provide a proactive service to the client by alerting them in advance that a favorite item may be nearing replacement time.

Better Capturing of Special-Care Fees

Depending upon the complexity of the base price list, special-care fees average approximately 15% of total sales. Accurate initial bar-coding will capture this additional pricing profit. To best ensure that special-care fees are captured, make descriptions mandatory with no default to “regular.”

This is particularly evident during price increases when CSRs tend to “protect” customers from the price increase. It is also essential when new personnel first begin to mark-in work.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion!

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].