No poking. No prodding. No coughing. No sticking out my tongue and saying AHHH. Somewhere along the line, at least according to my last physical, it’s far more efficient for the doctor to ask a couple of questions, prescribe a list of routine tests based on my answers, and schedule a follow-up to review the results. I was in and out in 15 minutes.

            The balanced use of data and intuition to make better decisions has improved every aspect of our lives. And it’s getting better fast. The results of my blood tests are delivered to an app on my phone. No need to wait for my appointment; I simply scroll through to see the results. Green is good. Red is bad.

            Every year the interface and user experience become more straightforward and easier to understand. I get the data I need to converse with my doctor effectively. My doctor gets the data they need to poke and prod only what needs to be poked and prodded. As sensors evolve to remove even the lab tests, medical cyber-physical systems (CPS) are poised to deliver better decisions in less time with fewer mistakes.

            CPS is already at work in the car wash industry. Not only to provide data for operators to make better decisions. Software programming to take autonomous action to improve operation and reduce maintenance already exists. Let’s look at some available and emerging technologies at the car wash that can deliver an astounding competitive advantage for your business.

Safety First

            Safety wasn’t even on the list of reasons I insisted that my son invest in a programmable logic controller (PLC)-based motor control center (MCC) at the wash he’s running. Fortunately, my son is unharmed today for me to scold him for exceeding the recommended interval for maintaining MCC wiring. At a minimum, it is recommended that a licensed electrician perform an inspection of your MCC on an annual basis. One reason is to ensure all connections are secure and free of corrosion, dust, and condensation to reduce the risk of what is known as “arc flash” or “flashover.”

            This electrical explosion happens when a connection through the air to the ground or another voltage phase occurs. In high-current systems, wires can move slightly when energized, leading to a loosening of connections over time — hence the need for scheduled inspections.

            A PLC-based MCC replaces old-fashioned physical motor start switches with digitized switches controlled via the internet or a touch-screen HMI interface mounted in the door of the MCC. Granted, my son would have been wearing proper PPE if he had opened the MCC door. All the same, making changes via the HMI with no reason to open the door in the first place provided him an added layer of protection when an arc flash happened. This fact alone is the driving force behind me writing this article.

            Now that I have gotten the “off-script” safety advantage of cyber-physical systems in separating humans from the danger of moving parts off my chest, I’d like to turn my attention back to the original reason I insisted on a PLC-based MCC.

Preventive Maintenance

            Comprehensive preventive maintenance programs keep most problems at bay. But car washing is a harsh environment. Incidents happen. For most of my career, car wash equipment diagnostics was reactive, not predictive. It started after something malfunctioned with questions like “What sound is the bearing making?” Best case in this outdated scenario, by the time you’re aware of a problem, you’ve already delivered an unknown number of inferior customer experiences. Worst case, you realize the problem exists only after monthly club plan members begin to cancel, and your churn rate spikes.

            The excitement around cyber-physical systems such as PLC-based MCCs is their ability to make machines more intelligent, efficient, and reliable. Replacing physical starters with internet-connected digitized starters interfaced with VFDs is about more than controlling the system remotely. Each motor now delivers feedback on its operating parameters to the PLC. You can precisely configure each motor and immediately be alerted to an anomaly.

Powerful Data

            PLCs can crunch data better than me and every human I know. Fundamentally, a PLC is a computer whose job is to control a system’s functions using the internal logic programmed into it.

            At its most basic, you’re alerted to a problem in a motor before it becomes an issue. It can detect changes that may indicate maintenance or repair is in order. As programming advances, the PLC will be able to take corrective action — automatically adjusting components throughout the tunnel to maintain wash quality while you’re notified to repair a malfunctioning component to restore total operational capacity. This isn’t science fiction; it’s the new reality as our industry embraces CPS.

            Predictive and preventive data crunching goodness is already available from a modern PLC-based MCC. These systems take inputs from energy consumption, motor performance, starters, VFD performance data, fluid sensors, and more. Receiving a notification that the kilowatt consumption at one of your locations spiked, indicating a potential motor failure, is just the beginning. As programming evolves rapidly, data can be crunched to optimize energy consumption.

Beyond Cost Savings

            Considering a drop in motor speed from 60hz to 45hz can equate to an estimated 65 percent power savings for that operating period is undoubtedly eye-catching. But imagine being able to identify the optimal time to replace a worn motor not because it’s about to fail but because replacing it will save more on energy costs than the cost of replacing it. Reduce your electric bill while ensuring better wash quality. Does it get any better than this?

            Too much chemistry will destroy profits and can even disrupt the wash process. Too little will ruin wash quality and customer satisfaction. Issues with clogs or excessive wear in your chemical application system aren’t often noticed until there are significant changes in your monthly bills. Why risk dissatisfied customers or reduced profits? New chemical sensors have already hit the market to feed data into CPS controls to monitor consumption, compare to established quantities per car, and alert you in real time of potential issues as they happen.

            Cyber-physical systems aren’t just in your MCC. Customers drive through the tunnel. They, too, need to be corrected before they cause a problem. And the latest crop of AI-powered camera systems is ready to help. Scanning from entrance to exit, camera and software solutions are now available to detect the location of a vehicle in the tunnel and take action based on the parameters you set for it. Such as a roller being skipped. Or a vehicle door opening. Or any action that can be detected for which you’ve programmed to shut down the conveyor for safety.

First Mover Advantage

            Ronald Reagan once said, “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits to human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.” So many changes are improving our lives and our businesses at such a tremendous rate it’s hard to imagine what will come next.

            Consumer CPS systems, such as cars that drive themselves, may capture headlines, but my guess is that early adopters of everyday cyber-physical systems that improve the safety, reliability, and quality of products and services we sell are where the real magic will happen. Where it matters most to an entrepreneur — in the sustained growth and profitability of their business.

            Good luck and good washing.

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.