Several months ago, I wrote about a trial we were going to conduct on a washcloth-stacking machine. This experiment arose from the need to find an adequate replacement for a long-term employee who is, by far, the best washcloth stacker I’ve ever seen.
Lucille is long past the age for retirement, but continues to work full time because she enjoys having something to do. The laundry is her family.
The project’s goal was to accurately measure production, get a consistent number of washcloths per stack, and match Lucille’s productivity. The manufacturer didn’t have many machines in the marketplace but was willing to give me a trial.
We had to overcome several challenges. First was getting the machine uncrated and set up properly. The local dealer didn’t know much about the piece of equipment, and we discovered a couple of cylinders were installed improperly.
There was an issue with the machine’s ability to accumulate 50 washcloths at a time without knocking the stack over. We also wanted to run bar towels through it, but had trouble getting it adjusted to handle the item size and to prepare stacks of 25. All of these problems were eventually solved.
We had to decide where to place the equipment during the trial. Some in management wanted it close to where we would use it if we kept it, while others wanted it out in the open to be watched. Maintenance wanted free access to all areas of the machine. We tried several locations before settling on our original choice: At the end of one of our clean-linen conveyor belts, with stacks of washcloths or bar towels being automatically ejected onto the belt when completed.
The laundry uses a rail system on the clean and soiled sides. We had to find a way to consistently get product to the machine when it was placed in an area with no bag drop. This constant battle had nothing to do with the piece of equipment.
Not surprisingly, we had some employee resistance to overcome. My plant manager simply refused to put a person on the machine. He saw the trial as the lowest priority item on his daily to-do list. Therefore, it simply never got done.
The afternoon shift readily embraced the technology and kept the machine staffed at least four hours per day. Lucille, the day-shift star on washcloths, would have nothing to do with the machine.
I heard vicious rumors that the new piece of equipment was there to force Lucille to retire. This may well explain many of the poor production numbers recorded by the day shift. None of her co-workers wanted to be responsible for helping management “push Lucille out the door.” No amount of communication could remove the damage caused by that unfounded rumor.
Our single-largest customer is not in linen rental. Their washcloths are substantially different than ours. The differences in size and weight dramatically affected the machine’s ability to properly stack the items, and we were never able to overcome this. The trial was eventually restricted to our linen rental washcloths and bar towels.
Operators had to lay the washcloths precisely to get a reasonably straight stack. Lack of attention created a stack that simply looked terrible. Extra training was required to get acceptable results.
When compared to Lucille’s hourly production averages, the afternoon-shift machine trial lagged at 71.3%. Our hand-stack numbers may be slightly inflated because of poor stack counts and employees’ desire to look good, but I don’t believe they accounted for the 28.7% difference.
In the end, we decided the washcloth stacker machine wasn’t the solution we were looking for. We returned it to the manufacturer. We’ll continue to look for a machine that’s easier to use and has the potential to meet all three of our goals.