Touchless is the process of cleaning the exterior of a vehicle by applying a solution of chemical and removing it with high-pressure water. The process is available at self-service facilities, sites with in-bay automatics (IBAs), and some conveyor operations.
Some attributes of touchless (and IBAs) are: it allows for vehicle types that can’t fit on a conveyor, it’s an alternative for consumers who don’t want friction, and it has lower claim incidents than friction.
Conversely, touchless uses more raw material and energy than friction, the equipment is more expensive, and it leaves behind a film.
However, this is not to say it is impossible to get a clean car with touchless. The problem is that to do so usually requires reactivity and concentration levels that are intrusive to paint finish.
Nevertheless, the touchless wash process remains the choice of many car wash operators. For example, if we go back to 2000, the split between touchless and friction IBAs was about 70/30. Reportedly, in 2007 sales of touchfree machines were two to one over friction machines, and currently it’s just about 50/50.
Between 2004 and 2009, annual equipment spending on touchless machines dropped from an estimated $225 million to $52 million, whereas between 2000 and 2011, the installed base of touchless machines dropped from an estimated 46,800 units to 29,000 units.
One challenge for touchless is cost. We find the difference in base price for touchless and friction machine can be as much as 25 to 50 percent higher. Overall, we find touchless can use 1.5 to 3.0 times the amount of chemical as friction-only washing and up to about twice as much water and energy per car (i.e., hot water).
A hybrid machine is an alternative. It uses less chemical than touchless, but some models use twice as much water as touchless only.
Reclaim can help mitigate cost but many operators claim that it makes touchless complex and hard to get right. Moreover, there is additional launch cost, increased maintenance, and increased cost to mitigate malodor.
Another challenge for touchless is finish quality. Today, the express-exterior conveyor has established the de facto standard for quality. Cars go in one end of the tunnel dirty and in three to four minutes come out the other end clean, shiny, and dry. Quite frankly, the modern express tunnel produces hand-finished qualities touchless just can’t match.
Another challenge for touchless is throughput, the rate at which the wash generates sales minus material cost. For example, IBAs are slow (i.e., 12 cars per hour) and higher volumes capable with a touchless conveyor require a minimum 60’ wash bay.
Consequently, the cost of obtaining higher levels of throughput with touchless is incrementally high. Nevertheless, the demand for touchless machines remains.
How can the challenges be overcome? I believe one solution would be to integrate technology like robotic arms and watch the conventional touchless rollover ride off into the sunset. Robotic arms minimize material use and offer incredible travel speed, precision, and object avoidance capabilities. The cost of robotics continues to decrease and the replacement cycle is longer than for IBAs.
Like a belt conveyor compared to an over/under chain, a robotic-arm car wash would have certain marketing advantages. It would be a differentiator and may create a sustainable competitive advantage to a conveyor operation.
Of course, this would require a wholesale shift from manufacturing machines to integrating off-the-shelf technology manufactured by third-party suppliers. However, this may not be as ridiculous as it sounds.
For example, the average cost to build a 40,000-square-foot factory building is $125 per square foot, whereas the average cost to build a plant that makes durable goods like cars is $500 per square foot.
Consequently, an integration firm would have the competitive advantage of cost strategy. For example, turning raw materials and sub-systems into a finished product requires lots of production employees and levels of management. Whereas an integration firm uses a lot fewer people to make different versions of automation hardware and software work together as a system.
Arguably, this may be more than anyone in the industry is willing to take on anytime soon, but it certainly is food for thought.