By Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel
Ripon — Terrible things happen to machines in the out-of-balance room at Alliance Laundry Systems.
Here, clothes washers are purposely abused - run out of balance until they break.
The bunkerlike room is lined with concrete, just in case a machine spins out of control and parts start flying.
"We like breaking things," says Bob Baudhuin, vice president of engineering at Alliance, the world's largest manufacturer of commercial laundry equipment.
In the company's testing labs, engineers learn how much punishment laundry machines can withstand so that components can be designed for maximum reliability.
Prototype clothes dryers are run for hundreds of hours, overloaded with heavy laundry and destructive things, such as hockey pucks.
The company has a "slime" test where a slurry of nasty, abrasive materials and chemicals is poured into a clothes washer that's run for many hours or until it breaks.
"Everybody loves the slime test," Baudhuin says. "We pretty much test for everything imaginable."
Through its laboratories, Alliance simulates years of harsh use of laundry equipment in real-world settings.
The company designs its machines to withstand a certain amount of punishment and then tests far beyond it.
Metal screws, wires and coins are pushed through drain valves to see what happens. The doors of washers and dryers are slammed thousands of times to test their reliability, and water hoses and clamps are subjected to pressures far beyond normal use.
Testing simulates electrical brownouts, power spikes and years of use in the harshest of conditions.
Commercial laundry owners expect their machines, which cost thousands of dollars, to run 365 days a year with few breakdowns.
Sometimes washers and dryers are so overloaded at laundries that customers get a running start to kick a machine's door closed.
That's the type of abuse Alliance has in mind when it designs equipment meant to last 20 years.
"We are the Hummer of the industry," said Mike Schoeb, Alliance president and chief operating officer.
Under different names and owners, Alliance has made laundry equipment in Ripon for more than a century. With 1,200 employees in Ripon, it is the city's largest private employer.
In 2009, the company had sales of $392.2 million and net income of $16.6 million, compared with sales of $460.3 million and earnings of $15.5 million in 2008.
For almost 20 years it was owned by defense contractor Raytheon Co. But like oil and water, laser-guided missiles and washing machines were not a good mix, eventually putting Alliance in the hands of its current owner, the private-equity arm of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.
The company went through hard times that included layoffs of about 200 people in Ripon, but overall it weathered the recession fairly well.
"It was a good thing for us in terms of profitability," Schoeb said. "We cut out a lot of nonessential things that you always find when you go through a downturn."
Alliance focuses on commercial laundry settings, including hotels, apartment buildings and college dormitories. It also makes Speed Queen laundry equipment used in single-family homes - cousins to the commercial laundry machines.
Exports have been a growth area for the company, with about 30% of its sales now outside of the United States.
The company has done well in Europe, where it has two factories in Belgium, and it's well established in Japan and Australia.
"We had a fair amount of business in Asia that never even hiccuped during the recession," Schoeb said.
From Ripon, laundry machines made by United Steelworkers of America members are shipped all over the world.
Brand-conscious foreign customers seek U.S.-made products, Schoeb said.
"We push reliability. It's a big reason why we are able to export equipment to Japan," he said.
Some countries are just now warming up to public laundries as part of their culture and lifestyles.
Spain has roughly the same population and per-capita income as Texas, for example, yet it has only 150 public laundries compared with 1,900 in Texas.
"The opportunity for growth is very high," Schoeb said.
China, India and Brazil have high tariffs on U.S.-made laundry equipment, putting a damper on sales.
Alliance has a joint venture with an Indian manufacturer, however, which helps overcome tariffs.
"If you want to be a dominant player in some markets, eventually you have to look at manufacturing there," Schoeb said.
Laundries are building mega-stores with ancillary services such as tanning beds and entertainment.
Yet reliability is still the most important feature, as there's not much worse than having a washing machine break down in mid-cycle.
Alliance has more than 80 engineers working on many projects, including new machines that use less energy and less water. The company is more than double the size of its next-largest competitor that makes commercial laundry equipment.
Yet it does not try to compete with Whirlpool and other brands that build millions of washers and dryers a year for the consumer market.
Alliance doesn't sell machines in discount stores or home improvement chains, and it doesn't chase the latest technology fads.
"We have an older, durable, basic machine that is easy to understand and use," Schoeb said. "We may not have all of the blue, blinking lights . . . but our machines are fast and reliable. If you want a more modern-looking design, and you don't care about functionality, then buy one of those other machines."
To see a video of Alliance Laundry Systems engineers and technicians pushing machines to the limit at the company's test lab go to Alliance Laundry Systems Test Lab Video Demonstrates Commitment to Quality.