CHICAGO — One of the major pain points of dry cleaners — and of most owners of small to mid-sized businesses in the country — is finding enough people for their workforce. While business has been steadily returning after the pandemic downturn, labor issues are keeping many cleaners from taking full advantage of their opportunities. This has made automation an increasingly attractive idea for these owners.
Enhancing vs. Replacing Labor
While automation might not be a cure-all for their labor issues, cleaners who go in with the right attitude and expectations can make the most of the labor available to them.
“You shouldn’t be going into automation specifically about replacing people,” says Christopher White, executive director of America’s Best Cleaners (ABC), an industry consulting firm that, among other services, provides plant design and redesign services. “It should be introducing automation to enhance the people you’re going to need — your skilled people.”
This mindset, White believes, is essential to making the right decisions about automating a cleaner’s process.
“A lot of people are going to say, ‘How many employees can I replace with this piece of equipment?’ And that’s a way to start looking at it, because you’re looking at efficiencies, and you’re looking at the issues and labor,” he says. “But (successful cleaners) are not looking to terminate good employees who have been doing a job for a long time — they’re looking to find new growth opportunities and places for them to excel in the business. I think, with the tight labor market right now, it’s not about replacing labor — it’s supplementing labor.”
This is the attitude Jason Loeb, president of South Florida-based dry cleaner Sudsies, keeps in mind when considering new equipment.
“Automation, to me, is about just making it easier for my team,” he says. “It’s also about reducing errors, increasing productivity, increasing the quality of service, and repurposing our team to other areas where maybe there would have been a shortfall in labor. It is the overall package.”
Sudsies—with two processing facilities, five “boutique” storefronts and 180 employees—has fully embraced automation, ranging from conveyors to bagging stations to automated dispatch for its 40 drivers. One of the benefits of this automation is that employees can be brought up to speed more quickly for a more flexible workforce.
“The training becomes a much easier proposition with automation,” says Art Bai, the chief technology officer for Sudsies. “You don’t need the qualified person who would have been assembling, for example. Someone who would have had to be trained on the specifics of order assembly is now essentially scanning the garments on the conveyor.”
Bai says there’s a learning curve when introducing a new piece of technology, but he’s found the results to be worth it for all involved.
“Once they get comfortable with it, which is very quickly — hours, not days — then it’s a matter of pressing the necessary buttons and exercising the necessary controls enough times,” he says. “But we’ve seen this time and again, as soon as they get comfortable with it, they will be comfortable with the entire process. The next thing you know, in a couple of weeks, they really don’t know how they lived without it.”
Will Waterstraat, managing partner at Seattle-based Helena Cleaners, has also found that this increased productivity is helping him put limited labor resources to better use.
“It makes your employees more efficient,” he says. “Previously, where we would need four employees for a particular task, now we need one and a half. It really does help when it comes to looking at labor. It’s almost non-negotiable in today’s world that you need to be pushing toward that form of automation.”
Helena Cleaners recently opened a 20,000-square-foot plant, and was able to design in automation, including an assembly conveyor, bagger and distribution conveyor. The company has 48 employees, three storefronts and seven delivery vans. Between building the new plant and dealing with the tight labor market, Waterstraat felt the time was right to increase the automated aspect of the company’s processes.
“I love the culture and the people when we have the labor force who wants to be here,” he says. “But it really seems that over the last five years, and specifically over the last three years, there is just a lack of want to work. That forced my hand because we were spending so much money on Indeed postings. On top of that, someone would start a job, come to work for us for a week — or a day — and then not show back up. That really starts taxing your cash flow.”
Come back Thursday for Part 2 of this series, when we’ll examine some of the upfront costs of embracing automation and the ROI involved in the process.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].