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Newest Hoffman Car Wash automates cleanup with robots

Newest Hoffman Car Wash automates cleanup with robots

New system will be expanded to business' other locations
Newest Hoffman Car Wash automates cleanup with robots
Tom Hoffman Jr., chief executive officer of Hoffman Car Wash, in the drying area.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Careful washing yields cleaner cars, but it also takes more time with traditional car wash systems.

So, Hoffman Car Wash designed an automated robotic system to make each wash cycle conform to any vehicle as it comes through the tunnel in the business's newest location, at Route 50 on the Malta border.

The water jets and foam brushes are fed data by ultrasonic sensors and adjust themselves for a vehicle's profile, cleaning under such details as spoilers while staying above roof racks.

Co-owner Tom Hoffman Jr. said the company did the design work and a lot of the installation in-house because he’s not aware of any industry supplier that offers such a system.

Also, he just likes doing that sort of thing.

He’s now looking to register patents and may move toward selling the systems to other car wash companies, though Hoffman Car Wash will stop short of doing production work itself.

Most of the fabrication of the robotic equipment for the new Route 50 location was done by Miller Mechanical Services, of Glens Falls.

“They’re super-skilled and have the tools to build almost anything,” Hoffman said.

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Hoffman has a business degree from Hudson Valley Community College, but he developed most of his skill and interest in mechanical automation on his own, through decades at the family business.

As the company puts its chain of car washes through a wave of technological upgrades, Hoffman credits a lot of the heavy lifting to the company's director of equipment development and integration, Shane Groff. He's a sort of kindred spirit for Hoffman; he's also spent a lot of time in commercial car washes.

Groff started as a part-timer right out of high school in Pennsylvania, but he got a promotion when the owners discovered the guy toweling off wet cars had a lot of mechanical aptitude.

“When stuff broke, I would fix it,” Groff said. And if it kept breaking, he’d design something that wouldn’t break.

Groff eventually became a licensed electrician. He didn’t transfer his license when he moved from Pennsylvania to New York, so he can’t do certain tasks here, but the knowledge he retained was crucial, as he and Hoffman set out to design a better system.

“A large part of what Tom and I do is electrical controls,” he said.

Hoffman said he’s been writing computer code for various types of automation for decades, picking up specific skills at workshops here and classes there.

“I’d been kind of dreaming about these robots for 10 years,” he said, “but I didn’t have the mechanical skills.”

Groff disagreed.

"There’s probably nothing in any of our car washes that Tom can’t fix,” he said.

Another key change for Hoffman was the recent availability of better software and more powerful computers to run it.

Pieces of the robotic system were tested as prototypes at the chain’s Colonie location, but tying it all together in the new Saratoga Springs site took a full 10 months.

It finally opened April 22.

Some of the impetus is labor savings -- the more-thorough wash means fewer employees are needed to prep each vehicle that goes through the tunnel. 

The larger motivating factor is efficiency and effectiveness -- a cleaner car makes for a more satisfied customer, Hoffman said.

A steady parade of cars and trucks passed through the Route 50 car wash Thursday. With windows obscured by suds, the drivers likely didn’t notice sensors sizing up their vehicles to an accuracy of 3/4 of an inch; or the water jets positioning themselves at each wheel and following it along to blast away crud; or the way the rollers spinning foam fingers repeatedly adjusted position to skim the vehicles.

But it would be hard to ignore the burst of blue light in the rinsing section of the tunnel, or the blaze of red light in the drying section. The red light might seem to be coming from the 2 million BTU gas-fired dryer above, but it’s actually just ornamental LED illumination, as is the blue. The lights are attention-getters, designed to leave an impression on customers who might then spread the word about the new facility.

Local lighting firm G&G LED provided a system that can change color, and Hoffman plans to do more with it, including illuminating the building’s exterior in holiday-themed colors.

Over time, the new technology in use at the Saratoga Springs car wash will be expanded to the chain’s 20 other locations. Given Hoffman’s and Groff’s tendencies, it will likely be upgraded along the way.

The company was formed in 1965 by Tom Hoffman Sr. and Carole Hoffman. Today, they co-own it with their children, Carrie, Paige and Tom Jr., and it is officially known as Hoffman Development. It operates 21 car washes, a J.D. Byrider used car dealership and 10 Jiffy Lube locations -- two of which, in Clifton Park and Saratoga Springs, are the busiest and second-busiest of the over-2,000 Jiffy Lubes in the nation. 

The company has just over 700 employees.

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