You have all heard about screw rails; you know, those screw conveyors that are designed to move a pressed garment from one place to another. Usually, this is from the press area to the inspection theater.

I have encountered a variety plants that have screw rails and the situations are vastly different and that is a bit of a surprise. How can there be any complications with such a simple thing as moving garments from one place to another with a conveyor?

Screw rails have a stigma that labels them a luxury. Nobody seems to talk about their true benefit. I will fill you in soon. The “luxury” of them, in my view, is completely trivialized by the real advantage that they bring to the table. Few people really recognize that advantage though for one or more of the following reasons:

• The screw rail is broken. There are way too many of these, but I suspect that this would not be the case once their real advantage is understood. A screw rail is usually broken in one of three ways. First the motor is done its time. It’s not a low-cost fix. Then there is the coupler, which I have fixed more than a couple of times with a #13 suit hanger. That may sound gross, but I don’t want to give up that real advantage and I’ll jump through hoops to keep that advantage in place. Lastly, is a worm that has some defects in the linkage that causes garments to fall off the rail. These broken screw rails aren’t usually taken down. Instead they become world’s worse slick rail, most costly dust accumulator and a wholly inconvenient hanger holder. And then there’s that “real advantage” thing that’s out the window.

• The screw rails squeaks and squeals. In this scenario, the screw rail is either never used or turned on again, off again while garments accumulate in the meantime. If yours squeaks, it’s very easy to identify the problem and very easy to fix it. Get a can of 100% silicone spray. (WD-40 is not silicone spray) With the conveyor turn and while squealing, go to each J-hook on the conveyor and blast a 1-second burst of lubricant on it. The sound will stop dead in its tracks when you spray the J-hook that is the culprit. That J-hook is out of alignment. Bend it back into shape or replace it and the conveyor should run like new. The silicone spray will not last long, so that is only for diagnosis in most cases. A properly installed and correctly adjusted screw rail is virtually silent.

• Equipment has been installed in the path of the screw rail. I am always stunned when I see this and I have seen it a number of times. Those that allow this in their plants really do not recognize that true advantage that screw rails provide.

Screw rails, the common belief goes, “cut down on all the walking”. True enough. And in some cases that is significant. In other cases this advantage, albeit completely true, is difficult to justify against the cost of the equipment, installation and maintenance. In most cases, the convenience is great, but in these times when we watch pennies, a screw rail is just too much like a luxury. Until you learn what it really brings to the table.

So what does it do? What is this real advantage? A screw rail sets the pace for the inspection/assembly arena.

Let me explain by first setting up a scenario that you can easily customize for your plant:

You have a double-buck shirt unit producing 90 shirts per hour. This is one shirt every 45 seconds.
You have 2 people in the touch-up and inspection area (a.ka., IAB). You can re-word these two sentences and replace the word “shirt” with “drycleaning pieces” so that they read: You have a drycleaning press area producing 90 drycleaning pieces per hour. This is one drycleaning piece every 45 seconds. The analysis is inter-changeable between departments.

The IAB theater should be staffed, organized and fine-tuned to keep pace with the pressing department. This is done either by tweaking the staff, or adjusting the press rate, plus or minus. If you press 90 pieces per hour, you should be able to inspect, assemble and package at the same rate. Most of you are probably close, but still have IAB staff extending beyond press time. This is not unusual, but unacceptable in my view.

Let’s imagine, for a few minutes, that there is no screw rail – or the one that is there is disabled for some reason. The inspector needs garments to inspect, so this person walks to the pressing area (let’s presume that this walk is tolerable) and collects the pressed shirts (or pressed drycleaning pieces) and slides them to the inspection area. How long does it take for this person to “do” these pieces? I use the word “do”, because depending on the plant; this person’s job can vary significantly. More accurately stated, how long does it take for this person to “do” these pieces and how does that amount of time compare to the time it takes for the pressers to press these pieces? Let’s say that the inspector collected 30 pieces. This is 20 minutes of work for the pressers when the press rate is 90 pieces per hour. If the inspector takes 30 minutes to work their magic on these 30 pieces, she is on pace to be behind by 120 pieces come lunch time! This is not good. It is almost worse if the inspector works those 30 pieces in 15 minutes; faster than the pressers. In that case, you learn that you would cut significant labor cost if you added a presser because the inspector can work at the rate of 120 pieces per hour, but is only being given 90 per hour. Under-utilization of labor is a profit killer.

But the usual scenario is that the inspector took 30 minutes to work those 30 pieces and now returns to pick up 30 minutes worth of work from the pressers; 45 pieces. Mathematically speaking, this will take 45 minutes of time for the inspector. The next trip to the presser’s area will yield 67 pieces. We are on a train wreck waiting to happen.

Some inspectors are unfazed. They say, “I can catch that up.” Oh, really? What corners will be cut to make that happen? It must be something.

Enter the screw rail, which promptly, consistently and dutifully deposits one singular piece into the inspection area every 45 seconds, like clockwork. In effect allotting precisely 45 seconds to the inspector to do their job and then nudging them on by presenting another piece, soon after. This sets a goal for the inspector and assists greatly in time management. Imagine trying to kick a field goal without goal posts? You kinda know where to kick the football, but the line between pass and fail is blurred. A screw rail brings this blur into focus.

Without this pace-setter in place, there is yet another ugly eventuality. When the pattern is clearly established: the IAB department consistently fails to keep up with the press room, the inevitable rears its ugly and profit-guzzling head. Pressing productivity slows to a rate that is more in tune with the IAB area’s ability to keep pace. Read: profits dwindle, bit by bit.

A screw rail is a heck of an investment in your company.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”