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The real full-serve problem

October 11, 2010
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Changing the placement of vacuums from the starting line to the finishing line and adding more carwash equipment and supervision can help improve employee productivity at a full-service carwash.

These remedies are only short-term solutions because they don’t attack the root cause of the inherent difficulty of operating a traditional full-service carwash.

In order to develop an effective solution, it is first necessary to understand the problem.

The problem
The fundamental problem with a full-service carwash is that it combines a product layout and a fixed-position layout in a high-volume environment. With a product pattern (conveyor), the production components are arranged according to the steps required to wash a vehicle.

Product layouts are well suited when production volume is high and product price is low.

A fixed-position layout (finishing area, express detail and detail shop) keeps the product in one position while labor, materials and equipment are brought to the product.

Fixed-position layouts require less floor space but they tend to have lower production capacities because service times are usually not constant. Fixed-position layouts are well-suited when volume is low and product price is high.

Full-service operators often run into problems trying to achieve balance and flow throughout the production process because the operating characteristics of these two patterns are different. When demand fluctuates, the full-service layout becomes difficult to manage and may become unbalanced.

If so, expect long waiting lines, unhappy customers, lost volume, poor quality and high labor costs.

The past
Queuing theory can be used to help explain some of the production and waiting line problems with the on-line full-service pattern. The queuing system for a carwash operation can be analyzed with the single-line, single-server model.

As shown in Figure 1, the customer enters the queue or waiting line on a first come-first served basis, enters the carwash and then departs when the service is complete. The service time for a carwash includes the time between cars and the time necessary to complete one car.

In queuing theory, the time between cars sets the service time. For example, if a team of two persons took five minutes to complete window cleaning, dash, console, ashtrays, etc., a finishing bay at the exit end would have a service rate of 12 cars-per-hour.

Whereas, a 60’ conveyor with a line speed of 60 cars-per-hour has a service rate of 60 cars-per-hour.

With waiting line problems, the length of the waiting line and the average waiting time grow rapidly as the customer arrival rate approaches the service rate. When the arrival rate equals the service rate, the length of the waiting line and average waiting time will grow indefinitely.

For example, if the operator in Figure 1 had four bays at the exit end of the conveyor with two persons working each bay, the operator would have enough production capacity to process 48 full-service carwashes per hour as long as the average finishing time did not exceed five minutes per car.

If average demand would exceed 48 cars-per-hour or if the average finishing time would rise above five minutes per car, a waiting line would eventually form at the exit end and the conveyor would have to be shut down unless management assigned more labor to each finishing bay.

If demand fluctuated, the operator would be left either short-handed or with idle labor. Conversely, the production rate of the on-line conveyor is dependent on how many employees are used to vacuum and prep before the vehicle enters the wash-bay.

Once again, if demand fluctuates, the operator is left with idle labor or is short-handed.

Another limitation of this layout is that it prevents the operator from offering a variety of car-care services because the average service rate at the exit end must be kept to a minimum to keep the conveyor moving.

The present
The next generation carwash, or off-line full-service, is shown in Figure 2 and Table 2.

Here the vacuum station has been moved from the conveyor loading area (product layout) to the greeter’s station (fixed-position) and the finishing line has been moved to an area immediately adjacent to the exit end of the conveyor.

This improves conveyor throughput but creates waiting line and labor problems at the greeter/vacuum station.

Even with improvements such as the best management practices, the operator cannot eliminate enough of the right job positions and labor that is necessary to process cars and then move each vehicle to the next work station. This is so because the customer must first leave the vehicle before it is processed.

The future
The next genesis of full-service, the flexible service platform or flex-serve carwash, requires four physical ingredients:

  • Location with easy ingress and egress;
  • Deluxe exterior carwash that produces a clean and dry car; with virtually no manual labor;
  • Express after-care facility; and,
  • Self-service area.

Flex-serve also requires the adoption of a philosophy of total service and constant improvement, strategic utilization of staff, systemized procedures and market-sensitive merchandising and sales strategies.

Figure 3 shows an example layout and production process for a Flex-Serve carwash.

With the ride-through exterior wash, the throughput capacity of the conveyor is limited only by the length and line operating speed of the conveyor and the operator’s ability to process sales transactions.

Similarly, there is virtually no manual labor needed to wash cars because of the high-performance footprint that is used for the wash-bay and labor is no longer needed to usher vehicles through the process because the customer remains inside the vehicle.

All other labor is marshaled in the express after-care facility. Self-service accommodations are open 24/7. The personnel plan in Table 4 shows that Flex-Serve requires less work stations and, therefore, less manual labor than either of the full-service layouts.

A flexible serve platform or Flex-Serve carwash offers investors and operators an alternative to avoid many of the inherent difficulties that are associated with operating a traditional full-service carwash.

Robert Roman is a former carwash, express lube and detail shop operator and is president of RJR Enterprises, a leading consultant to the carwash industry. Roman is a member of the International Carwash Association and PC&D’s Honorary Advisory Board. Contact Roman at or visit the company’s website at

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