Think Out of the Box’: Meese Cart Factory Tour

While laundry operators and employees across the U.S. spend much of their working lives around plastic molded carts used to move linens around a plant, most probably have no idea how or where this equipment is made.

That’s no longer the case for roughly 100 attendees at TRSA’s recent Production Summit & Plant Tours in Anaheim, CA, who took a Feb. 22 morning tour of the 55,000-square-foot Meese cart production facility in nearby La Mirada.

David Tingue, CEO of Tingue, Brown & Co. which owns and operates its Meese subsidiary, greeted two busloads of visitors for tours of the plant, which opened in 2000. He noted that the Tingue division, founded in 1902, has for many decades distributed ironer pads and related equipment for finishing machinery, as well as carts. However, Tingue didn’t acquire its own cart-manufacturing capability until 1978, when it purchased Madison, IN-based Meese Inc. Tingue said the company soon determined that it would have to add capacity in order to serve a national market. “We realized at the time that if you wanted to be in the laundry cart business, you’ve got to be close to your customers,” he said. “Because they’re really just big boxes of air, right? They’re expensive to ship.” Soon after the Meese purchase, Tingue opened a plant in New Jersey to serve customers in that region and another in Montebello, CA, east of downtown Los Angeles, to serve its West Coast customers. In the coming weeks, the company will open a new plant in Jacksonville, FL, to serve the Southeast region. That will make a total of five plants, including facilities in Ashtabula, OH; and Madison, IN.

The Meese tour was paired with separate tours of the Magic Laundry Services plant in Montebello

About a half-hour’s drive away. J.R. Ryan, president of Meese, joined Tingue in welcoming visitors to the cart factory. Ryan was tapped to run the company about 2.5 years ago. Since then, the business has implemented 5S and Lean Six Sigma principles in order to enhance productivity, improve safety and boost staff morale. “I’m a big proponent and student of lean manufacturing,” Ryan said. “We’ve implemented a lot of lean-manufacturing activities here.” He noted that many Lean Six Sigma principles aren’t industry-specific. Laundry operators can apply them in their plants in a fashion similar to what Meese is doing here, he said.

Following these remarks, the TRSA visitors broke into three groups of 12-15 people. This correspondent joined a tour led by Plant Manager Mario Yniguez. He led us into a meeting room where staff gather each morning for exercises and to review incident-prevention and operational issues. “One thing we do cover with our team members every single day, every morning we have a ‘stretch and flex’ before we start,” Yniguez said. “We take the opportunity to speak to all of our team members. We speak to safety. We also speak to our quality.” Moments later, the tour began as visitors donned safety glasses and walked outside to a corner of the building where two large silos stood side by side.

Each silo is filled with 45,000 lbs. of white granules of plastic resin.

This is the raw material for carts, as well as customized plastic products such as stand up paddleboards and Callaway brand golf fitting carts for storing equipment. The resin is pumped into the plant as needed. Next, an employee will determine what color is required for the cart or other item and program the equipment to mix colored pigment into the resin. The mixture is then pumped into one of several roto-spinning machines equipped with “ovens” i.e., heating units that liquefy the resin. These roto-molds then spin on an axis in order to spread the resin evenly throughout the mold. After the spinning process is complete, the cart has to cool for several minutes before staff can open the roto machine and remove it.

We saw several of these roto-machines spinning away on the plant floor. We then came to a larger highly automated machine that produces carts much faster and with less labor. This equipment, dubbed “Leonardo” is manufactured by Persico, Nembro, Italy. There are only two such machines now operating in the United States, Yniguez said. The other machine is located in Meese’s Madison facility.

We watched as the roughly 25-foot-high by-15-foot-wide machine, with a rotating mold inside a red metal arch, spun around for several minutes. Then, out plopped onto a conveyor the fully formed shell of a laundry cart. Surrounded by metal safety fencing, the conveyor looked like a large open freight elevator. It dropped down slowly until it reached a white slide about eight feet high. Employees guided the green laundry cart (still warm from the machine’s thermal-oil heating system) down the slide and onto the floor. From there, other employees will drill holes in the bottom and install bases and casters so it can roll. This cart had the customer’s name, K-Bro Linen Systems Inc. of Canada, molded into its side. Unlike the stenciling commonly used on carts, a graphic molded into the cart won’t scuff or wear off, Ryan said.

While walking through this meticulously clean plant, we saw numerous signs of “5 S” (Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain) and Lean Six Sigma principles. For example:

  • Yellow footprints were painted on the floor in various places to identify safe walking areas between work stations.
  • Tool storage boards have “shadows” painted where various tools should be hung. If a tool isn’t returned at the end of a shift, the next person who works at that station will know that the tool wasn’t cared for properly. Ryan says this strategy has reduced tool losses while enhancing employee responsibility. “Everybody knows they’re accountable for what’s in place on the shadow board,” he said. “They leave the shadow board full.”
  • Red Tag Area: Keeping the workspace neat and orderly is a key principle of 5S and Lean Six Sigma. To achieve that goal, staff focus on eliminating unnecessary items, rather than letting them sit unused. Meese encourages employees to put such items on a small table labeled “Red Tag Area.” They place unused items there and attach a red tag to them. If managers conclude that the item serves no useful purpose it’s recycled or thrown away.
  • Friday Blitz: At the end of each shift on Fridays, staff stop production for the final 10 minutes and concentrate on cleaning and straightening up the plant.

Ryan says production rates vary in this plant, depending on the product mix. In the two-shift, five-day a week system that this company is currently using at La Mirada, the plant can produce an average of 125-150 carts per day. In 2017, the plant produced a total of 10,000 plastic carts and roughly 50,000 units of all products, including Callaway golf fitting carts. The mix of proprietary products, including carts, to custom products is roughly 70%-30%.

After the tour, attendees returned to the tent in front of the plant, where they dined on tacos and sipped bottled water. The tour-goers offered comments to Meese team members, who’d asked for suggestions for improving their laundry carts. One attendee noted that the holes drilled in the bottom of the carts to facilitate drainage after cleaning, sometimes leads to water splashing up into the carts if the wheels roll through a wet area. Ryan said company engineers are looking at ways to reengineer the carts with holes drilled closer to the edge so that less water splashes up from the wheels. Such a fix will also allow water to drain better from the corners after carts are put though a cart washer inside laundries. Keith Pooler, vice president of Sacramento Laundry Co., Sacramento, CA, complimented the hosts for their resourcefulness and for soliciting user input on carts. “It definitely sounds like you guys have to think out of the box,” he said. “This was a great tour to see what you do here, and it’s nice that you’re taking our suggestions.”