Technology by Jean Gruss | Editor/Lee-Collier
Taking an old-tech company high-tech has meant huge savings and a competitive advantage for Platinum Total Fabricare.
They call it the aisle of the walking dead.
It's the part of a dry cleaning plant where a hapless employee must match customers' paper tickets with tags stapled to cleaned clothes. The employee - ticket in hand and staring up at a rack of dry cleaned clothes - always looks like a zombie while searching for that elusive blouse.
It's a thankless job that Joe and Sandy Waite have eliminated by automating their dry cleaning business. Platinum Total Fabricare in Naples is the only cleaner in the country to combine conveyors, distribution, assembly and storage by computer with radio-frequency chips that can track any of the 1,500 articles of clothing that move through the plant every day, they say.
It's evidence the low-tech and labor-intensive business of dry cleaning is the latest to adopt technology to improve productivity. Small entrepreneurs who don't have the capital to pay for expensive equipment make up most of the dry cleaning industry, but the Waites modernized their plant because of the huge savings in labor and reduction in errors. The plant can now clean as many clothes today as before by operating one day less per week.
What's more, the automation eliminated tasks such as matching tickets with the right clothes, dramatically reducing costly errors. It also improved service because the system emails customers to let them know their clothes are ready.
There's also a gee-whiz factor to all this. Pushed to its extreme, customers might one day be able to track their blazers, trousers or shirts through the Platinum Fabricare Web site much like freight customers might track a package online with FedEx.
Procter & Gamble sparks ideas
The Waites' dry cleaning company had been in business in Naples off Rattlesnake Hammock Road since 1989 and had steadily gained a reputation for reliability and quality, opening a store in the tony Park Shore area.
But their cleaning plant was much like the others, relying on antiquated paper tracking. Business was growing and they needed to become more efficient to keep their labor costs from ballooning.
In 2000, the Waites were invited to meet with executives from Procter & Gamble, the maker of a vast array of consumer brands including Tide detergent and Downy fabric softener. P&G had launched a test facility for a new division called Juvian Fabric Care in the suburbs of Atlanta to test various commercial detergents and determine whether it could successfully operate a dry cleaning business on a large scale. Juvian would pick up dirty clothes from busy families in Roswell and Alpharetta, Ga., and promised to clean everything from socks to silk using its special detergents.
In return for sharing their knowledge of the business, the Waites gained insight into P&G's testing of various cleaning processes. One of these tests included using radio-frequency identification tags to track clothes as they moved through the Juvian facility.
Although P&G dismantled the Juvian operation in 2004, the Waites had gained enough insights to realize they could apply some of the technology to their own operation.
Cobbling the system together
Despite the large number of dry cleaning operations in existence, no single company has designed an automated system that incorporates a conveyor system with computer hardware and software.
So the Waites had to build their system from scratch, cobbling together various technologies from different companies. Fortunately, the couple decided to move the cleaning plant to a larger 12,000-square-foot facility off Radio Road in Naples in July 2005 so they didn't have to test the new system in the existing facility and disrupt operations.
For starters, no U.S. manufacturer makes the conveyor system that moves clothes from one area of the plant to the next. "A lot of the newest technology is coming from Europe and Japan," says Joe Waite.
The Waites paid about $330,000 for a conveyor system built by Italian firm Metalprogetti. A team of Italian workers flew to Naples to assemble it.
They then hired Utah-based software company Spot Business Systems that specializes in helping dry cleaners and photo-finishing businesses to track clothes and connected their system using communications software from Fort Lauderdale-based Citrix. Combined, Sandy Waite estimates they spent $150,000 on software and hardware.
To track the clothes as they move through the system, the Waites bought 12,000 radio-frequency identification tags at $2.60 a piece. Employees attach the thumbnail-sized devices to the tags on clothes. Antennas throughout the facility track the clothes and then automatically sort them by owner at the end of the process.
A large flat-screen monitor in the plant captures the movement of the clothes and updates the staff on the progress of a job. That's important because they can tell customers how quickly they'll get their clothes cleaned.
Eventually, the system will be so precise that it will be able to track clothes down to the detail of anyone who handles an article of clothing, detailing productivity, speed, efficiency and errors.
One future idea is to let customers see what stage their clothes are via a Web site, much like people track packages on the FedEx site. But Joe Waite wonders whether people will want that level of service. For now, the company is gathering customers' emails so the system can automatically alert them when their clothes are ready to be picked up or delivered.
Because Platinum is the first to link these systems together, Spot Business Systems has waived its annual computer support this year, a $5,000 expense.
Labor productivity boost
The promise of the new technology is the labor cost savings the Waites are realizing. "We'll see [our investment] back within the next year," Sandy Waite says.
The most dramatic change was the reduction of the work week by one full day. The plant handles 1,500 pieces of clothing per day and now it can handle the weekly load in five days instead of six.
The area of the plant where automation made the most difference was the "aisle of the walking dead." The Waites were able to cut in half to about seven the number of people in the assembly area. That's where staff assembles customers' clothes before they're taken to the company's two stores or loaded onto delivery vans.
The vans pick up and deliver customers' clothes to and from their homes or businesses and the new assembly system slashed two hours from drivers' schedules too. That's because the automation system sorts the clothes by delivery address before they leave the plant. In the past, the drivers had to sort the deliveries themselves, a tedious task.
Because of the increase in business, the Waites haven't had to lay off anyone as technology made the plant more productive. In the busy season that runs from October to May, the laundry load bulges by 50%. Many of the company's 50 employees are working mothers, so the company schedules time off in the slower summer months.
Industry. Dry cleaning
Company. Platinum Total Fabricare
Key. Being a first adopter of technology in your industry can pay off big.
Joe and Sandy Waite's entrepreneurial dream started in the laundry room of the Registry Resort in Naples.
That's where Joe was running the hotel's dry cleaning operations. Tired of working for the hotel, he borrowed $15,000 from his parents and invested the money in a certificate of deposit to use as the collateral for a down payment for Classic Touch, a small dry cleaning business in Naples in 1989.
Sandy Waite put her own fortune on the line. She quit her job at State Farm Insurance and used her red Chevrolet Chevette as collateral for a loan to buy a shirt press, an essential piece of equipment in any dry cleaner. "What was there to lose?" she laughs.
They renamed their business Platinum Coast Dry Cleaners. Within three years they had repaid the note on the business held by the former owner. "We worked a lot of Sundays," says Sandy Waite. The company estimates revenues of $3 million this year.
Today, Platinum is considered one of the top-end dry cleaners in Southwest Florida, with locations in Naples' upscale Park Shore area and in Bonita Springs. It provides pick up and delivery services and specializes in dry cleaning heirlooms and expensive designer clothes.
Its reputation for dry cleaning designer clothes is so well entrenched that the Waites are concerned customers will only bring them their most expensive clothes. "Over the years, we found people think we're good but expensive," says Sandy Waite. "A lot of our clients don't bring us their everyday wear."
To counter some of these perceptions, the Waites recently renamed their company Platinum Total Fabricare to reflect the fact that they clean everyday clothes too at reasonable prices. For example, a laundered shirt costs $3.35, versus $9.70 to dry clean it.
"It's going to take a little time," she acknowledges.