Big Leaps Ahead in Laundry Automation

Writing in the Spring 2020 edition of Fresh Magazine, the journal of the Association for Linen Management (ALM), writer Susanna Daniel interviewed David Bernstein on the topic of the future of automation and robotics in the laundry industry. You may read the article below or see the original here.

DAVID BERNSTEIN HAS BEEN VISITING laundries since the 1970s, a time when laundry plants looking to increase production and efficiency were just starting to use automated wash floors, and eventually tunnel washers. The industry was slow to adapt in some ways, but in others it’s been in a continuous push toward automation since that time, with an eye to saving labor and utility costs, eliminating accidents, and increasing customization and reliability.

Automation has been moving in the same direction — reducing labor costs, improving safety, reducing repetitive stress injury — for years, but big leaps are still to come.

“We’re seeing a move toward automation and robotics worldwide, because we can save a significant amount of labor and utilities, particularly water, which also increases sustainability,” said Bernstein, whose company Propeller Solutions Group provides laundry engineering, training and consulting services.

Besides the tunnel washer, laundries have also adopted shuttle systems to cut down on cart handlers and use the vertical space, as well as the cubic footage of their facilities. With the relatively recent addition of RFID technology to replace bar codes, many laundries have already seen decreased labor costs and improved efficiency in handling and processes.

RFID, to highlight one technology already being used widely, has radically improved efficiency in laundries who have adopted the technology, not to mention improved customization for customers who want their garments organized differently.

“These RFID systems can already figure this out and separate linens and garments according to the customer’s preferences, without human intervention. They’re very flexible,” said Bernstein.

Laundries are also using RFID to manage linen loss or to count what’s coming back from the customer. Laundries using RFID to count returned linen don’t have to account for human error, so if the machine says three tablecloths are missing, that’s the end of the story.

“This industry was slow to adopt technology initially, and now that we’re adopting more and more, we’re finding ourselves behind when it comes to our tech teams, generally speaking,” said Bernstein. “Some laundries have done a great job, but some are finding it a challenge.”


Of all the changes addressed directly by automation and robotics, labor costs rank highest in terms of return on investment.

“When it comes to labor, we aren’t just looking to reduce for reduction’s sake,” said Bernstein. “Automation provides the benefit not only of reducing payroll, but also reduces the risk of injury, improves hygiene, increases throughput, and can also increase quality.”

Labor has been scarce in the industry for years, and nationally has become significantly more expensive over time. Over the course of Bernstein’s decades in the industry, the charge to rent a napkin has been pennies per piece — and that price to the customer hasn’t changed even as minimum wage has risen significantly, more in some states than others.

“Customers in our industry have not been willing to absorb the increases in labor cost, in terms of price per piece or price per pound. Given this reality, laundries have no choice but to automate,” said Bernstein.

Customers have, on the other hand, shown a willingness to accept other kinds of changes that result from increased use of automation, like the shift from delivering neat hand-stacked washcloths, for example, to bagged linens.

With increased automation comes increased quality. “Towel folders, for example,” said Bernstein, “perform a function that used to be performed by humans, but they do it much more accurately. This directly benefits customers.”

Laundries are already relying on technology many don’t instinctively associate with robotics, like machines that feed ironers or fold flatwork or send linen down a conveyor, and, in some cases, to separate linens into the correct carts.

“We’ve gotten better at individual productivity and safety for workers and teams, but there is a limit to what humans are capable of,” said Bernstein.

Automation manufacturers have been working for years to address the most labor-intensive aspects of laundry service, starting with soil sorting.

“We’ve been seeing proofs-of-concept for automated soil sorters at trade shows for a while now. My guess is that manufacturers are focused on eliminating errors and improving the level of throughput before releasing these systems widely.”

The Holy Grail of laundry automation, said Bernstein, which has been spotted in early stages at a number of trade shows but not yet “in the wild,” is a folder or small-piece ironer that feeds itself.

Right now, a laundry might employ four to six workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at as many as six to eight flatwork ironers in a large laundry, feeding small pieces all day long.

“Human productivity waxes and wanes,” said Bernstein. Workers need breaks, they need lunch, and they can only work eight hours a day. Not to mention, they can suffer from repetitive stress injury and illness.

This system, too, could evaluate soiled and torn linens according to customer requirements, for example customers might pay different rates for varying levels of quality.

A system that not only feeds an ironer, but also finds the corners of a variety of linen types and sizes, while simultaneously searching our stains and tears, could theoretically operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.


But more sophisticated automation will require better machine learning and artificial intelligence, not to mention high-level engineers and technicians to keep the machines running. This is one of the biggest issues laundries face today, and will continue to face as more facilities adopt more sophisticated solutions.

This means routing some of the savings from automation into the budget for engineering staff with the technical know-how to keep everything running. Laundries must be willing to find, train, and retain those personnel.

“We already have trouble finding qualified engineers, technicians, and maintenance personnel, and now we’re asking them to also have an advanced understanding of electronics, computers, motors, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. That’s a big ask,” said Bernstein.

Another big obstacle to implementing automation is the cost and return on investment.

“Different laundries have different ROI tolerances. For some, automation can mean the difference between staying in a space that’s too small or moving into a larger building. For some, it might mean using the space they already have more efficiently, by running 24/7 and using the cubic footage.”

Like many industry veterans, Bernstein is eagerly anticipating advancements that have been in the design stages for a few years now. When asked whether these challenges can be solved by industry manufacturers, Bernstein struck a hopeful and confident tone.

“Most laundry equipment manufacturers are enthusiastic about all of these possible innovations. We’ve got some great manufacturers and thinkers in our industry, and I have faith in the minds working on this.”

But automating the processing of linen and garments is not a closed loop.

“Many people are looking within the industry for solutions, and many are looking outside of the industry, to innovations in other sectors, to see how those might be adapted for use in laundries. More and more I’m hearing of vendors and operators who are going to manufacturing and automation trade shows outside our industry to see what they can bring back to improve laundry operations.”

Bernstein is optimistic. “Our manufacturing base will find the solutions we need most. I’d be shocked if we weren’t using these innovations we’ve discussed within five to ten years,” he said.