Author: Jack Morgan
Systematic improvements are enhancing throughput at Emerald’s Commerce plant
When Emerald Textiles acquired the former Medi-Clean plant in Commerce, CA, four years ago, the facility was limited in terms of its material-handling capabilities. So much so that staff were moved to tears when Emerald installed the facility’s first cart dumpers—standard equipment at most healthcare laundries. “When we brought the cart dumpers in, initially, the guys in soil started crying because they were all unloading the soil carts by hand and then hand-loading the Continuous Batch Washers (CBWs) with MediClean,” says Director of Engineering Jim Hernandez. “They didn’t even have cart dumpers here when we walked in the door.”
The initial stage of an effort to refurbish the plant began shortly after Emerald acquired the business located southeast of downtown Los Angeles. “When Emerald bought the plant in 2018, they implemented phase I, which was a $5 million renovation project,” says Hernandez. “What we did with that $5 million is we added the first Lavatec CBW system.” This phase I installation included cart dumpers, a loading conveyor, a new tunnel washer with 12, 200 lb. (91 kg.) modules, a press extractor and five double batch dryers.
Emerald is now in the thick of phase II of its improvement program. This includes the installation of equipment that will provide automated loading of sorted soil items. This will largely eliminate the need for staff to push carts around the wash floor. That project is now well underway and should be completed this month. Other improvements are planned for the clean side of the plant with a clean-side rail system. That project is slated for completion by late August. Hernandez says these improvements are critical for Emerald’s Commerce plant to keep pace with burgeoning demand. Last year, Emerald, a San Diego-based multiplant commercial healthcare linen and laundry chain, acquired nine Angelica plants in the West, with a portion of that throughput expected to come to the Commerce plant. In addition, the Commerce plant late last year won a bid that added linens and garments from 15 additional hospitals. Adding this much business in a two-month span was “a big, but very exciting challenge” for staff, Hernandez says.
Since then, conditions in the plant and across the LA-area market—including the threat posed by COVID-19—have moderated. “Things have definitely settled down.” With the addition of the Angelica plants, Emerald now has 12 laundries and three depots across California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. The company’s recent growth has generated interest that keeps their team busy with prospect tours of the Commerce facility. “We have given more plant tours in the past few months than in the previous three years combined,” Hernandez says.
Emerald’s good news on the marketing front could stem in part from a slowing of the COVID pandemic since the omicron variant hit late last year. “As with everyone, we did experience the COVID-19 omicron surge with our client hospitals in December/January,” Hernandez says. “Although we still have the barriers up in the plant, and we still require all workers to wear medical grade masks, things are slowly returning to some sort of new ‘normal.’”
A decline in the COVID-driven fears that predominated during the early months of the pandemic—coupled with an energetic outreach effort—appear to have aided the Emerald’s Commerce plant’s recruitment/retention efforts as well. “Here in the heart of Los Angeles, as the COVID rates decreased, it seemed that people were eager to get back to work,” Hernandez says. “Our area, compared to others has been very fortunate. We are currently fully staffed in all departments.” During a visit that Textile Services made to the Commerce plant late last year, he noted that management had sized up the severity of the labor shortage and responded by hiring two full-time recruiters. Both are focused exclusively on staffing the Commerce plant, which now employs 209 people. “What happened is we recognized the issue,” he says. “So we brought in two recruiters and that’s all they do is recruit people. We have suffered less than other plants, thankfully. Knock on wood. Great recruiters have brought in good quality people.”
As noted, the management of Emerald Textiles, which is backed financially by Los Angeles-based Pacific Avenue Capital Partners, understand that laundry staff can only do so much if the technology they’re using is outmoded. That’s why Emerald continues investing heavily to make the Commerce plant, and all Emerald plants, highly competitive and efficient in their markets. The Los Angeles facility is pleased at the commitment Emerald is making to upgrade the plant. “We are fortunate to have an ownership group and leadership team that understands the business and has supported us to put the Commerce plant in a great position to support our current and future customers,” their says Hernandez, noting the company’s $11-million ongoing investment in the plant. Other Emerald plants also have benefitted from robust financial backing. “Since 2018, we have invested nearly $50 million in our facilities,” says Andy Kratky, CEO of Emerald Textiles. “For us, it’s about investing in high-tech, automated processes in our facilities, delivering high volumes of hygienically clean, quality product, and expanding our footprint to best service our customers.”
IN THE PLANT
Emerald’s Los Angeles plant is located in an industrial area of the city. Built in 1950, the building at 4500 Dunham St. was a dye manufacturer before Medi- Clean established a healthcare laundry there in 2011. When we visited in December 2021, several improvements were already in place, such as the aforementioned cart dumpers and a Lavatec tunnel washer with 12, 200 lb. (90 kg.) modules. The tunnel was added in 2019.
In addition, in October 2021, Emerald added a second 12-mod Lavatec tunnel with 200 lb. (90 kg.) compartments along with six pre-owned 200 lb. Lavatec dryers and a 50-bar press,. With last year’s Angelica plant acquisitions— coupled with the new hospital clients noted above—Emerald/Commerce is shifting into high gear, says Hernandez. “The expectation is that at a minimum, the new CBW system will handle approximately 50,000 lbs. of wash capacity per shift,” he says. “With the addition of 15 new client hospitals, our plant has transitioned to a two-shift, seven-days-a-week schedule.”
Our tour highlighting improvements at the Los Angeles plant began in the soil-sort area. By the time you read these words, Emerald will likely have completed its installation of a Kannegiesser ETECH soil sort system there. This upgrade will enable soil-sort staff to drop goods into any of two sets of 24 sorting bays that lead to slings below. The slings will dispatch automatically to the tunnel once it reaches a set weight. It then will move via overhead rail to a storage area to await processing in any of the three tunnels in the wash aisle. In addition to its two recently acquired Lavatec tunnels, the plant also has an older, but fully operational Senking tunnel that MediClean installed. Another legacy of the previous plant owner is visible in the plant’s conventional wash aisle. Here we saw two older but fully operational 800 lb. (362 kg.) washer/extractors from G.A. Braun Inc. Hernandez notes that the plant’s throughput is largely rental textiles, but it does service one hospital group with 22 locations on a customer-owned goods (COG) basis. The large-capacity washer/extractors are sometimes used to process COG goods as well as small lots and stain-rewash items.
Given that Emerald operates in the environmentally sensitive and tightly regulated state of California, its emphasis on saving energy and shrinking its carbon footprint is a key focus. Hernandez praises the two Lavatec tunnels for their efficiency and reliability. “The Lavatec systems are right there with the most energy-efficient tunnels on the market,” he says. “Energy savings is very important to us. We do our part to preserve natural resources by regularly investing in energy- and water-saving equipment, so our customers can feel good about choosing Emerald.” The plant’s overall water use is roughly .5 gallons per lb. Wash chemistry here is provided by Norchem Corp. Kevin Minissian, the late owner of the Los Angeles-based chemical provider, began working closely with Emerald/Commerce on a new supercharged detergent formula about a year prior to his passing last November following a shooting incident. This wash chemistry has helped Emerald/Commerce minimize stain-rewash rates, Hernandez says. “They’ve been great partners,” he says of Norchem. “Kevin (Minissian) was in the process of implementing his maximized formula here and it’s now complete.”
The plant’s mix of flatwork vs. garments is more than 9-to-1. One benefit of the recent acquisition of Angelica plants is that this merger included Angelica’s garment-processing facility located about 30 miles east in Pomona, CA. Since the acquisition was finalized, staff at the Commerce plant have shifted their rental and COG garment processing to Pomona. “Over the past two months, my team and I have worked closely with our client hospitals and relabeled all of our scrub shirts, scrub pants, warm-up jackets and lab coats with barcodes for optical scanning, so that they can be more efficiently and precisely processed at our sister plant in Pomona,” Hernandez says.
The addition of five energy-efficient micro-boilers in place of two large boilers also has cut emissions to the point where Emerald is not required to “buy” emission credits on the open market as many California companies do. A former employer once had to pay $130,000 to buy credits on the open market to offset its carbon emissions as part of the state’s “cap and trade” program, Hernandez says. “Originally this side, we see the back side of the dryers. From there, goods drop into carts for movement to the finishing department. Again, this area is undergoing improvements that will automate this aspect of material handling with a Kannegiesser ETECH clean-side rail system that will move sling-loads of clean goods directly to the operators for ironing or folding.
The plant has five ironer lines. Two are new Chicago Dryer Co. Powerhouse thermal-oil machines for sheets and other large pieces. They are fitted with Chicago Tri-Max feeders and Skyline folders with dual stackers. Another Chicago ironer is used for surgery towels and pillowcases. Until recently,
two Chicago ironers were used to press scrubs. Now they’re used for other large or small pieces. The plant also has three Chicago Blanket blasters for folding and stacking bath and other blankets. Nearby are small-piece Chicago folders. Next to these we saw three barrels into which staff drop damaged or stained items. Blue barrels are used for items ready for rag-out. Stained items go into a red barrel and those needing repairs go into a yellow barrel.
After ironing, stacks of flatwork items are loaded into carts for packout with the aid of a Linen Master program. This software system tracks the textiles from the time they’re sorted in the soil area and placed into slings. Trucks deliver these goods to hospitals and clinics across metro Los Angeles. The Commerce plant’s recent improvements to its material-handling capabilities have boosted productivity in terms of pounds per operator hour (PPOH). That figure stood at 60 when Emerald took over. With the addition of the clean-side rail system it’s expected to tick up to 120-130 and continue rising as the new technology enhances throughput.
NEW GROWTH DAWNING
Other recent improvements to the plant include a new water-softening system from Norchem and the addition of LED lighting throughout the plant. The energy-efficient lights have improved visibility, thereby enhancing the staff’s work environment, Hernandez says. Beyond equipment upgrades, the plant operates an extensive safety program. Both hourly and management employees participate in training and incident-prevention efforts. “We have a safety committee that meets monthly and covers safety topics,” he says. “We usually have new items that need to be addressed and then review old items from the previous meeting. We do a plant tour and make sure the eye wash station and safety showers are all functioning, that all fire extinguishers are checked monthly, to name a few.”
Hourly staff rotate through the committee to keep fresh ideas coming. “We’ll mix it up. We’ll have two or three people, and then they’ll stay for maybe a quarter and then we’ll pull three additional people to get their input.” All new staff undergo safety training, with regular refresher sessions on issues such as lockout/tagout. While California occupational health and safety officials mandate compliance with safety standards, Emerald’s leadership team also view safety training as an opportunity to boost morale by showing employees that they’re valued. These efforts—coupled with ongoing equipment and technology upgrades— have made the Commerce plant a far different workspace than it was prior to its acquisition by Emerald. From what we saw, a new day of continuous improvement and growth is dawning at Emerald’s Los Angeles plant. That process—with its emphasis on technology and staff outreach—bodes well for employees, Emerald executives, supplier partners and—most importantly— those healthcare providers in the “City of Angels” that rely on the Commerce plant in Los Angles for their textile needs.