Of all the equipment that a manager can purchase for his laundry, I believe that the flow rack receives the most hype.
In theory, it is an unbeatable piece of equipment that provides a sure-fire way to ensure that linen moves through the storage system on a “first-in, first-out” basis. It facilitates the making of exchange carts and helps with inventory management. I have seen many laundries purchase them because the potential benefits for these items are so high.
Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that the theory does not hold up in practice. I believe there are several major faults with such a system, and I will attempt to properly describe them here.
My first concern is that the inventory system is violated the minute that more than one row of the flow rack is used for an item.
It is normal that large-volume items take up more than one row at a time. Once this happens, it is almost impossible to maintain a first-in, first-out system. Instead, one or two rows at the most convenient height are used most frequently while the other rows, normally the bottom and the top, get little usage.
It is, after all, human nature to want to follow the path of least resistance and use the linen off the two rows at the most accessible height. Frequently, the linen on the top and bottom shelves will become covered with lint that settles out of the air.
In theory, the trays, aided by gravity, flow easily from one end of the rack to the other. In practice, this does not happen often. The problem is twofold. The wheels that the trays run on can become damaged or filled with lint, creating excessive friction. Also, when trays are filled to maximum capacity, linens from parallel rows can touch and create a roadblock that prevents the linen from making it to the other end of the flow rack.
Employees quickly adjust to the latter by finding long-handled poles with hooks on the end so they can reach up into the flow rack and pull the trays down. This normally works well but occasionally a tray will get pulled too much to one side or the other, causing it to fall off the track and discharge its contents onto the row below.
Such an accident normally requires an employee to crawl into the flow rack area and remove the logjam created by the fallen tray. This can be difficult because several rows of linen will need to be emptied before there is room for your smallest employee to move inside the flow rack.
In my opinion, a flow rack is not an efficient means of storing linen. If we were to measure linen storage by how many pounds of linen can be stored per square foot of space, the flow rack would not fare well. If I were to use metal storage carts instead of flow racks, I would only need about one-third of the square footage to equal the same storage capacity.
Finally, I have found it is difficult to keep a flow rack clean. It accumulates lint underneath, in the rollers, on the bottom row of linen and on the very top row of linen. It is almost impossible to clean the flow rack effectively because it always has some amount of linen on it.
To really clean it properly, all the linen needs to be taken off the unit on a regular basis. An employee or employees must then climb inside the unit. There are no easy tasks as they move through the unit. Because it is not easy to do, this cleaning simply does not get done as often as it should.
I have had the opportunity to work with flow racks in my last three laundries, and I diligently tried to make them work. I actively put the theory to the test.
In Milwaukee, we were blessed with a flow rack 100 feet wide by 20 feet long. We operated a large exchange cart system out of the laundry. I worked there more than eight years and by the time that I left, there wasn’t a single piece of flow rack still in use. The major reasons for removing it from that laundry were the need to better utilize the floor space, its cleanliness, and the need to reduce staff.
In Alabama, where I worked for almost five years, we tried to use the flow rack for about a year before giving up. That laundry was based on bulk deliveries, and it made little sense to put the linen on a flow rack and then into a bulk cart instead of just putting it into a cart. Better utilization of floor space and increasing productivity by eliminating repetitive handling of the linen were the major reasons for removing the flow rack in this case.
In my Roanoke, Va., plant, we just took down two-thirds of the flow rack after trying to use it effectively for 18 months. Again, the major reasons for the removal were to better utilize the floor space, for easier cleaning of the space and to improve productivity.
To a person, the staffs in all three of the laundries were delighted to see the flow racks leave.
The flow rack simply does not live up to its theory in practice. Its theoretical usage is the siren’s song that encourages designers and managers to spend money on this piece of equipment. It’s my position that it eats up floor space, requires additional labor and creates a cleaning problem for the laundry. I have found that it simply becomes an obstacle to smooth production and good laundry management.