Manufacturing in Hospitality: Basics of Laundry Operations

Laundry operations are frequently outsourced in a hotel because they are expensive in-house and, more likely, because hotel staff doesn't have the necessary expertise.

A hotel laundry is one of the few operations where production can be completely controlled and structured, unlike other parts of the service business based on just-in-time delivery. Like other manufacturing operations, hotel laundries have raw materials — dirty linens, towels, napkins — and finished goods once those are clean. As in other plants, equipment maintenance is key to ensuring an efficient workflow and attaining optimal performance. A key difference between laundries and other hospitality operations is that with correct par levels, laundries can produce to inventory and so self-control their operating peaks and valleys.

An unproductive laundry is bad for the property as a whole. When housekeeping staff doesn't have the supplies it needs to meet hotel standards, costs and frustration increase. The f&b staff wastes time trying to find the right linen and customers are frustrated because the linen they request is not available. Also, excess processing kicks in when clean and dirty linens are mixed and staff pays insufficient attention to ensure proper inventory control, making for crisis-oriented, very costly laundry operations.

Balancing staff levels to meet optimal machine throughput creates the most efficient results. In addition to machine production, layout should ensure there is no backflow of product during the process. A simple test is to sketch your laundry on a piece of paper and draw product flow from dirty to clean. If the lines cross, there may be a more efficient way to diagram the operation.

Next is balancing machine capacity with proper staffing levels. Generally, if one person is exclusively assigned to operate the washers and dryers, especially with newer tunnel facilities, other work can be done, like assisting in sorting. Washer staff should generally start earlier than the rest of the staff to help with production and make sure clean linens aren't left to be ironed the next day. Setting standards for the washer/dryer function, considering each machine has a weight capacity, is not that difficult: Calculating pounds per room and cover is straightforward and leads to number of rooms or covers per machine load. This can be converted to time loading per cover so a volume forecast can be used to calculate the number of loads and work content.

In many laundries, one of the biggest production roadblocks is the ironer, often because staffing is not adjusted to maximize throughput. Ironing sheets and full-size table linens requires two people feeding and one catching. The catcher has time also to catch towel folders if the ironer has a stacker on the end. Although this may require repositioning of the towel folder so the catching end is closer to the ironer stacker, it frequently can be done at minimal cost.

What of ironing napkins, runners and pillowcases? Staff frequently switches from processing sheets or table linen to these smaller items, which can cause the ironer to be operated under capacity. In such cases, everyone is busy but not fully productive, and the ironer is under-used. To improve throughput the average ironer should be staffed as follows:

Pillow cases: three feed and one catch

Napkins: four feed and two catch.

This may not seem like much, but here's the difference in ironer time used: If one person can feed 720 pillowcases per hour (or five seconds a case), two feeding and one catching means the ironer will process 1,440 pillowcases per hour of machine time or 480 cases per person hour (1440/3). With three-and-one staffing, the machine can produce 2,160 pillowcases per hour or 540 per person hour (2160/4) — a 12.5-percent increase with one small adjustment. Assume 400 occupied rooms with an average of three pillowcases per room would yield 1,200 pillowcases to be ironed. In two-to-one staffing, the machine would have to operate for 50 minutes to process these. In three-to-one staffing, the machine operates for only 34 minutes or a third less, reducing operating costs and making more time available for other items to be ironed. The example for napkins yields the same results from a machine-time usage, halving the time needed but with the same productivity. With machines that stack on a rail, one catcher can handle four feeders and productivity jumps even more.

The same improvement in machine time for towel-folding can be made when the towel folder is operated when sheets are ironed, enabling a person catching sheets to also catch and stack towels. Frequently, the towel feeder also stacks, reducing throughput. That leads to increases in machine run time, higher operating costs and more maintenance.

As in any effective manufacturing operation, production controls are needed to measure throughput compared to standards. These controls also will highlight off-standards conditions and enable quick responses. For example, if you see that hourly production of pillowcases per ironer hour amounts to only 1,400, you can be pretty sure your staffing is not appropriate to product and machine. Corrective action can be immediately taken. Posting a chart showing correct staffing by machine for each production item helps the team move to this improved performance environment.

Finally, a good system requires use of a forecast of all key business indicators that affect the laundry operation, as well as production controls to measure throughput and productivity throughout the shift. If the ironer produces 600 sheets per running hour, that must be measured to prevent backlogs. Daily controls are critical in any processing plant, including the hotel laundry. And if staff is adjusted to make sure machines produce at correct capacity, backlogs will be lessened, clean product will be available when needed and the staff will be more motivated.

Mark Heymann is president and CEO of UniFocus ( Reach him at or at 972-512-5105.

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