Pandemic causes outbreak of innovation

In recent issues we’ve brought you the stories and first-hand accounts of those within our industry and their battles to keep businesses ticking. Trade association leaders, laundries, drycleaners, equipment suppliers and engineers have revealed their experiences. Now we turn to ‘the techies’ and it’s another fascinating account of innovation in the face of adversity. Janice Raycroft reports.

Among those whose working day might have looked – to most of us – during lockdown as very similar to their normal work pattern were the IT experts used to working on software code or facilitating the activities of others through apps and so on. After all, many were already routinely crunching numbers at home or on the go, and hours might be spent in virtual solitude on a specific project.

Surely there wouldn’t be much for them to do when many garment and linen cleaning operations had furloughed staff or even shut down for weeks on end? As it turns out, they’ve been very busy and so have a substantial number of their clients. Laundries and drycleaners determined to survive used the downtime to have a Big Think about their businesses and how technology might transform and grow them when customers returned. Everything from automation in laundries to drycleaners’ apps and emailed promos to selected customer profiles has come under scrutiny, and with development ongoing there’s a lot more to come.

Inside the laundry

After much time focusing on optimising earnings, laundries turned to looking for more sustainability measures within their operation. The pandemic has led to increased interest in the use of robots and automation in the future, a trend observed at Inwatec, Denmark, where director Mads Andresen sees a mature market that is now more ready to embrace new technology.

“Already for a while, laundries have been curious about how to improve the economy using robots, automation solutions, and artificial intelligence. But the trend of thinking more about sustainably is seriously reflected now,” says Andresen. “Today, the focus is on creating good conditions for the employees, on protecting the environment and, most recently, securing the most hygienic workspace possible.”

Handling incoming laundry automatically is crucial in minimising direct contact with soiled, and potentially contaminated laundry while ensuring accurate sorting and thus correct cleaning of all articles. Modular solutions from Inwatec include handling of soiled garments with the use of smart robots that pick single pieces from an unsorted batch, replacing further manual processes before sorting.

Adding automatic foreign object scanning as well as sorting done by either an RFID tag reader or a camera for unchipped articles, ensures quality and speed significantly exceeding the capability humans can manage. And, even more critical, the robots free several employees from doing the hard work.

Checking all pockets for foreign objects manually is a tedious task that requires the highest level of concentration to prevent cutting injuries by needles and similar. As, however, often only around five per cent of all garments contain any foreign objects, an X-ray scanner that checks all garments with its specially trained artificial intelligence and sorts out those articles containing harmful objects for manual handling allows operators to be more concentrated and spend less time on checking empty pockets.

Andresen points out: “Today, the employees are more valuable than ever before, as it’s hard to find the right people. That makes the laundries vulnerable when production sees big fluctuations as is the case right now. With increased use of automation, it’s easier and cheaper to adjust the production hours, when needed, because there will not be such a large change in the needed man-hours.”

With full automation, a laundry can operate without interruption for as many hours or days as needed, and the number of items processed remains stable, sorting thousands per hour because the machines do not need breaks or shifts. “Our robots are very simple to operate, yet they take over many of the unattractive, dirty jobs, and on top of that, they deliver a better quality when it comes to sorting and handling, simply because modern technology surpasses human capabilities in many areas. Our ODIN X-ray, for instance, that finds foreign items hidden in the pockets, has saved many laundries from throwing out a hundred kilos of damaged clothing due to a hidden pen, and that is great for both economy and sustainability,” Andresen concludes.

Inwatec’s ODIN X-ray scanner hunts down foreign objects in garments

Silo units from Inwatec reduce the manual handling of soiled laundry and can be integrated with either conveyors or directly with a bag system

Offering fully automatic separation of garments and textiles, Inwatec’s THOR robot helps to automate soiled side sorting processes

All present and correct: all courtesy of SoCom’s texEasyPick app.

With its first application for linen supply installed back in 1988, a web portal application launched more than 20 years ago and since then a host of developments including mobile apps on all platforms, it’s not surprising that ABS Laundry Business Solutions remains at the forefront of technological advances in the industry.

By April ABS was highlighting to rental linen suppliers seeking to improve both efficiency and profitability how their android applications could achieve this, right through from customer orders and packing to dispatch and delivery. It may all be built around the smoothest of operations but features such as scanning of clean and soiled containers and proof-of delivery scans where no signature is required are bound to impress those seeking to upgrade post-COVID protocols.

ABS is part of Clover, an alliance of industrial laundry IT experts working in partnership to provide a complete laundry information platform. Other members include Gotli Labs, providers of GLOBE, a management system covering resource planning (staff and machinery), data recording of resources and suppor t management via dashboards.

Meanwhile, Textilligence specialises in UHF services for industrial laundries and textile rental companies and are the official distributor of Fujitsu UHF RFID tags in Europe and the Middle East. Completing the team is WG-ID, a joint venture between ABS and Wilgengroep, experts in system integration and data collection.

There’s no doubt that swift and accurate turnround is something we’ve all come to expect while ordering more goods than ever online, for both work and home. For SoCom, modern digital mobile order picking is very much the order of the day as digitising the process with an app solution makes it both more efficient and more sustainable.

SoCom Informationssysteme GmbH have developed the texEasyPick app, a facilitated order picking process with reduced transmission errors. It provides anytime checks of orders for completeness or correctness, and the selection of replacement articles for insufficient quantities, as well as the creation of delivery notes. Like all solutions from SoCom, texEasyPick can be purchased as a rental model in addition buying outright.

At the other end of the scale from large laundry operations, a classic example of collaboration between a small business and software experts is provided by 1 Stop Wash in London where director of operations Rohit Dhillon has transformed what was a standard cleaners and coin-op launderette into an online eco-laundry and drycleaners offering clean, collect and delivery back within 48 hours.

This remarkable use of the down time when his contract business dried up overnight as restaurants and gyms closed was highlighted by Enterprise Nation, a community of small businesses and business advisers who help to shortcut the route to trusted business support while sharing success stories. Dhillon found himself telling his story to Enterprise Nation journalist Chris Goodfellow.

Very quickly, he revealed, around 80 per cent of orders were coming through the online app. Dhillon had been looking to expand his business in other ways but told Goodfellow that moving to an online service was probably inevitable, with lockdown giving him the time to make it happen. Dhillon said: “It’s really starting to settle in what a big impact it had. But I try to stay positive. It was a global pandemic, so we should be thankful we’re alive. Adapting is the only thing you can do in that situation. You have to keep adapting and build your service for today, not yesterday.”

Helping him make this happen were software experts at CleanCloud, whose products cover everything from POS to pickup and delivery services, customer management, marketing and more. Much of this is built around opportunities to grow and improve, with CleanCloud regularly releasing new updates and features to make sure software is exactly what customers need.

Recently, they’ve focussed on pickup and delivery as a key area for growth in the industry. As a result, a new customer-app and web-booking tool has been developed and released. This allows automatic and optimised routing, auto-notifications and payments through the applications. For the drycleaning and laundry customers this means being able to do things such as track drivers to see how far away they are to being able to log into the customer app to see the status of orders at any time.

He’s seen a lot in a career that’s seen him do business around the world, but Tabish Aiman, managing director at SPOT Business Systems EMEA Limited, has witnessed unprecedented highs and lows in recent times: “At no point in my family’s 40 years history has the retail garment care industry gone through such a dramatic change than in the last six months. “We saw turnover drop 85 per cent at the height of the pandemic in April. Though drycleaners and launderettes were exempt from closure, due to being classed as an essential service, high street and commuter footfall disappeared overnight with a knock-on effect of no customers either dropping off or collecting.”

It became a time of watching the trends SPOT’s clients were experiencing and thinking about how the downsides could be countered. These included those particularly impacted by the hospitality sector shutdown with no staff uniforms or linen to handle. Meanwhile, others were being most impacted by employees working from home, ditching business attire as it became acceptable to attend e-meetings in a t-shirt and jeans, with even family pets sometimes putting in an appearance.

Other cleaners were suffering through loss of special and social events, as with no weddings, dinner parties, conferences or exhibitions there was also no need to get the party wear cleaned. Aiman says: “SPOT immediately commenced monitoring the trends and accelerated roll out of software products that could adapt to the ever-changing landscape.”

They decided that key points to address included how to reconnect with customers when you rely on footfall and how to actually deliver services to customers. Then came issues such as identifying what was still selling and how to address social distancing. Connecting with customers was achieved with a new RouteTrac Driver App, allowing for digital manifests to be updated in real time. Drivers could get updated collection requests during their rounds rather than having to plan a day in advance. Collection and delivery services became a key part of the bounce back strategy for many of SPOT’s customers.

Further connection comes from the client facing app, providing the convenience of ordering a collection or scheduling a delivery from a user’s smartphone, meaning they could stay at home and still get their laundry and drycleaning done.

Aiman says: “But perhaps most importantly, letting customers know they mattered was the key to customer retention and getting them engaged again. SPOT EMEA is launching On the SPOT Marketing shortly, a powerful email campaign that targets customers from their first order, their spending patterns , promot ions specifically for their profile and seasonal promotions. “Normally this would cost several thousands of pounds per month to achieve but by leveraging our relationship with BeCreative360, a digital marketing expert in their own right, we were able to bring this product to the market in record time and at a cost affordable and traceable to results.” SPOT monitored not just the services being particularly hard hit, such as traditional drycleaning and handling of the likes of suits, dresses, knitwear and business shirts but also picked up on the few areas where the market was not so impacted. These were bed linen and duvets, curtains, cushion covers and rugs. People were combining being furloughed or working from home with some spring cleaning and extra housework. Aiman explains why this was important: “Specific email and SMS campaigns promoting these services helped our customers claw some turnover back. For the few customers still coming to the counter, auto coupons generated with their ticket made them aware of these specific promotions.

“We spent time getting barcoding and RFID integrations off the ground for several clients so that the tagging and assembly process could be handled by fewer staff as they had been furloughed or social distancing requirements could not be meant in the confined space.” They spotted another welcome trend as well. When the spike in staycations hit the market in July, those that had upgraded to RFID were able to turnaround linen in less than 24 hours for holiday lets.

More work to boost sales was going on behind the scenes. Aiman says: “Our card processing partner worked with the card clearing industry to put an encrypted file in SPOT of the card details held on the credit card company’s servers. On the first visit, the customer uses the PDQ terminal as normal. On subsequent visits, SPOT can charge the card without the customer ever having to take the card out of their wallet. This process made charging the customers cards for items delivered straightforward and is fully PCI DSS compliant.”

Another of the industry ‘detectives’ watching all the information coming in from cleaners and assisting with their future needs is Jonathan Beach, managing director at EPoS specialist Drystream. “Perhaps it’s not surprising that many drycleaners have done their best to turn this situation into something positive,” he says. “These are people who used planning into their own seasonal downturns the time when they rationalise their businesses, looking to the future to expand growth areas or have installations done. “There was a huge amount of that going on during the lockdown period because although they could stay open most were severely affected by the lack of footfall and traffic out there.”

Beach also noted how the most enterprising took advantage of government support to not only keep premises going but to apply for grants which they could use to invest in their operations. “In business you have to be optimistic if you are going to get anywhere. These are the people who say ‘The work will come back’ and they intend to capitalise on that. I’m optimistic, too, because the most proactive drycleaners are gearing up for this.” As the cleaners scrutinised the tech side of their businesses, Drystream began to receive an increasing number of enquiries about EPoS systems and Beach believes a key factor here is that there is no monthly subscription to pay after purchase, which can be through one outright payment or spread over time. Indeed, even though Drystream had furloughed two of their own staff they oversaw a significant installation in Wales. And, interestingly, while face-to-face training on systems remained available within social distancing rules, Drystream noted how more of us were becoming ‘tech savvy’ and happy to partake in online training. Going with the flow, Beach modified their own pricing structure so that some previously built-in support from engineers became optional. Instead of an engineer arriving onsite after a box had been delivered, the systems were preloaded with all the customer’s requirements and then simply connected for remote follow-on training.

“As we all started to come out of lockdown the imperative became to use a customer database to communicate through text messaging and emailing that the drycleaner was ready to serve them,” he says. Using the system to identify market segments that were likely to see most growth was vital – cleaners operating in city centres faced different dilemmas to those in parts of the country benefitting from the staycation boom.

He believes that the marketing tools within the Drystream systems will give drycleaners a competitive edge as work rebalances and that, even in a recession those offering premium services with pricing above the average should not be driven to putting up ‘Five shirts for £7.50’ posters in their windows.

Better he says, to be able to identify all customers who had a suit cleaned but no shirts (or vice versa) and target them with tailored reminders and offers.

Being clever with your tech support is definitely the way forward – and the good news is that for both laundries and drycleaners there’s a lot of exceptionally ‘clever’ tech about, with more on the way.”

Drycleaners

At Lovely Laundry in Stockton on Tees staff know how to make the most out of their Drysteam EPoS system.

CleanClouds’s new customer-app and web-booking tool is helping drycleaners to transition to online-focussed operations.

Tabish Aiman, managing director at SPOT Business Systems EMEA Limited.

Eye-catching emails developed by SPOT will ensure customers feel they have a personal relationship with the drycleaner – and come back for more.

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