By Scott Paton
The term “Artificial Intelligence,” or “AI,” may conjure up space-age concepts explored in the science fiction novels or futuristic film thrillers. But in the very real and present realm of the Laundry Industry, AI, automation and robotics have arrived. The future is here. And the landscape of professional laundering is on the cusp of its most dramatic evolution since the Industrial Revolution ushered washing-by-hand into the Machine Age two centuries ago.
The JENSEN-GROUP—a global company with a strong presence in the U.S.- is a company well-versed in this technological advance. Provisioning laundry operators with mechanized laundry processing systems since 1960, JENSEN negotiated an ownership stake in Inwatec, a Danish firm specializing in industrial automation in 2017. This strategic alliance has proven to be an ideal fit for both companies—a melding of JENSEN’s established profile and business authority with Inwatec’s innovation and manufacturing capabilities. The union appears to be the bellwether for the inevitable changes that loom for our industry.
We spoke with David Netusil, Manager of Sales Support & Marketing for JENSEN USA and Christina Solbach-Schmidt, Marketing Manager for Inwatec, about the transformative impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics is having –and will have—on the business of laundry.
Laundry Ledger: Is artificial intelligence or “AI” a bit of a misnomer for what is really an advanced system of automation in the process of laundering?
David Netusil: Just the way the human brain works, the more information our equipment accumulates, the smarter the decisions it can make.
Christina Solbach-Schmidt: Machines are literally trained to identify any type of item or object that passes through the pre-sorting process before entering the wash cycle.
LL: How does this work and how smart is this analysis?
CS-S: We train machines to learn by visual inspection. It is a little like science fiction. We’ve scanned millions of pictures into the neural networks developed for the sorting process. For example, one of our systems can identify linens and textiles by colors, patterns, and fabrics. This process detects the difference between a towel and a sheet, completely automatic! The other software can tell zippers and buttons apart from varying kinds of foreign objects and by that sort out any harmful objects without rejecting just everything containing metal parts.
LL: This sounds similar to the technology that powers facial recognition.
CS-S: Exactly! But it’s even more complex, because it’s more than just visual recognition, it analyzes factors of size, texture and weight as well.
LL: What kind of measurable impact does this have on efficiency?
DN: First of all, an 80% rate of accuracy in sorting is the top end of the scale in a conventional workplace. But with an AI-powered system, no human discretion is required, resulting in close to 100% accuracy. Secondly, in terms of volume, manual sorting –no matter how rapid—is a grueling process, requiring breaks for workers and limits on shifts. Full automation can operate without interruption, 24/7, with the system being automatically fed. The amount of items being sorted becomes exponential, literally thousands per hour.
CS-S: And AI not only speeds up pre- and post-wash sorting, it results in a more efficient wash cycle with regard to chemicals and temperature settings. When a scanner is engaged during sorting, foreign objects like markers, pens or even lipstick that may be left in pockets are identified and removed before they can soil or ruin an entire load of laundry. This eliminates much of the need for re-washing or, worse, disposing of damaged linens.
DN: This thorough scanning also provides a side benefit in the form of risk management regarding worker safety by automating the process.
Laundry Ledger: How so?
David Netusil: Well, it’s virtually a hands-free process. So, in the case of misplaced scalpels and needles in healthcare linens or eating and kitchen utensils in food and beverage linens that pose a risk of injury to manual sorters, that threat is eliminated. This also reduces the risk of damage to washer drums, extraction units, or tumbler/dryers.
LL: Given the enormous health and safety concerns of the current pandemic, we’d be remiss in not asking, “Are there extra benefits to be found in an automated wash environment?”
David Netusil: We’ve found that in the case of healthcare textiles where the possibility of COVID-19 contamination exists –automated or not—handling is generally the same as the higher-risk items which are normally isolated and treated separately anyway. Of course, the hands-free protocol of automation provides an added measure of safety.
In Part II of our feature, we’ll discuss with The JENSEN GROUP’s David Netusil and Inwatec’s Christina Solbach-Schmidt both the short- and long-term impact that AI-based automation will have on our industry, the workforce and operators’ bottom-line. Read it here.
Photo Credit Top Right: ©AlienCat – Can Stock Photo Inc.