From simple to sophisticated: how technology played a major role in improving the laundry business
Dated: 27-01-2011

Laundering was never considered an attractive occupation. The assimilation of dirt, uncomfortable working conditions with water and steam made the laundry an uncomfortable place to be in. The dirty or contaminated linen had to be scrubbed; touched before it could be loaded into the machine. The degree of soil or contamination made this task not very desirable, but something which had to be done.

Improving washing/extraction

The early washing machines used hand agitation in order to produce the mechanical action which is one of the 4 elements of Sinners Circle (see November issue). This task was rather tiring to the operator as the linen absorbs water and becomes not only wet, but also very heavy.

The connection of an electric motor to the agitator in the tub was therefore quite an improvement. Due to efforts of some ingenious laundry engineers and technicians, who searched for ways to make the job of the operators easier, the development kept its momentum and led to the barrel type washing machine, where the agitation was effected by
a rotating drum.

Parallel to this development there was the search of facilitation for extracting the linen. The first mechanical aids were doublemangle type rollers attached to the tub through which the wet linen was passed and part of the water squeezed out. At a later date the vertical, electrically driven centrifugal extractor was invented. From then on the work was greatly facilitated. However, it was still a very uncomfortable job to load the wet and heavy linen from the washing machine into the extractor.

This is where the image of the laundryman was created. Rubber boots, a rubber apron, doing a physically taxing job in a hot, wet and steamy environment. The invention of the washer extractor for washing and extracting in the same machine was a milestone in machine development. This kind of machine is still used today. Many different types of washerextractors were offered as the laundries had different tasks to perform.

Quite a few different types made their way right into today’s modern laundries although the classic washer-extractors were replaced as the main production machine by the continuous batch washers also called tunnels. Nevertheless, we still have the open pocket washer-extractors, the divided cylinder machines and the barrier type washer-extractors for washing healthcare linen.

They all perform on the same functional basis, however, cover special tasks in today’s modern and highly efficient laundries. Before the invention of tunnels, washer-extractors were the main machinery in a laundry. The need of automation became evident and development led to complex systems of automatic aids facilitating loading and
unloading.

Innovations in the finishing process

Parallel to the development of the washing equipment, the finishing equipment was improved. The washed linen had to be reinstalled to its original form and function, whether an underwear, dress, shirt, laboratory coat or bed sheet. The hand iron was the major piece of equipment in the finishing or ironing section of a laundry. Whilst the first hand irons were heavy cast iron constructions which had to be heated on stoves or with charcoal, the improvement came rapidly and the clumsy irons where replaced by light hand irons with excellent performance.

As hand irons were not very practical for ironing large pieces such as sheets, they were soon replaced by the roller type mangle, which became the forerunner to today’s highly efficient ironing systems.

With the growing importance of the commercial laundries, the development of machines happened at an accelerated pace. New materials were introduced in the textile field making finishing operations much easier. These were the polyester cotton fabrics, especially used for work wear and uniforms. Whilst cotton garments had to be put through special presses for ironing, polyester cotton work wear could now be ironed in automated, tunnel type steam finishers, which increased production multi-fold and at the same time reduced production cost dramatically.The same was true for the finishing of flat linen, which is now done in high performance ironing machines with automatic feeding and folding of the finished sheets.

Introducing tunnel washers

The wash sector was not neglected either and in 1930, the first tunnel washers were introduced to commercial laundries. These first generation tunnels were very basic, did not separate the loads and had a very inefficient extracting system. Yet, large quantities of linen could be processed with only a few operators. Economical  requirements of commercial laundries or in other words reduction of cost were the main factor in the improvement of existing equipment. Sophisticated material handling systems replaced people and helped to feed the tunnel systems, which became larger and more productive. Whilst the production of the first generation was approximately 500 kg per hour, the latest developments are getting close to 2500 kg per hour. Extraction had to follow suit and soon high performance membrane type presses or centrifugal extractors were added to the tunnel systems. The chain was completed by high performance steam heated dryers, which were loaded and unloaded automatically following the production pace of the tunnel washer.

If 10 years ago somebody thought that the technical sophistication had peaked, they would have had the wrong assumption. Towards the end of the last century and the beginning of the new century, ecological and economical requirements influenced machine improvement and development. This is best demonstrated by the water consumption of washing equipment. Whilst with washer extractors the consumption per kg of linen was still around 25 litres, with the introduction of the first generation tunnel washing machines it was reduced to 15 litres, depending on the linen to be processed. Today’s modern tunnel systems use only 3 litres of fresh water per kg of linen, which is a major improvement when looking at the ecological effects of the laundry industry. Very similar improvements were made in energy consumption both on the washing and the finishing side. On the washing side, these drastic reductions were also made possible by new detergents and auxiliary agents. They are not only environment-friendly, but also make low temperature wash processes possible at the same time; thus ensuring the highest level of cleanliness. We have now reached a state in the laundry industry, where further savings or improvements will only be possible with great effort, cost and ingenuity. The steam-less laundry already exists, water consumption  is at an all time low and the number of operators required is minimal.

However, at all stages of the technical development, professional laundries thought that they had reached a technical sophistication which cannot be developed any further. This was the case when washer extractors were introduced, but then came the tunnel washers raising sophistication to new levels. So, let us see what the future will bring for our industry. Maybe development will lead us away from the classic art of washing and finishing. Textiles might become dirt and odour repellent and refreshing of these textiles might be possible by technologies which at this time and day are not yet available. One thing is certain; the unattractive image of laundries has changed into being a highly sophisticated industry with state-of-the-art high-tech equipment. This of course helps to attract some good brains which will help the industry to develop further.  In the next issue, you will read about Hygiene and Quality Management.