It is not every day you come across a sebum cloth or, to be precise, a piece of cloth soaked in artificial sebum, the body oil that causes irksome dark smears on the inside of a shirt collar.
But here inside Xeros, the nine-year-old English company reinventing the washing machine, there are yards of the stuff, along with more fabric deliberately stained with blood, wine and other laundry disasters.
“Body oil is the vast majority of soiling in a load,” explains Frazer Kennedy, the company’s technical services manager, as he pulls out an array of carefully filthied cloth that Xeros buys in to test how well its machines can clean, at its headquarters in a quiet high-tech manufacturing park in Catcliffe, near Sheffield.
“You can see the difference,” says Kennedy, rolling out a piece of stained cloth that has been through the Xeros machine behind him, and another bit washed in a conventional machine across the room.
And you can. The stains on the Xeros-washed cloth are clearly far fainter than those on the other, even though both machines look pretty much the same to the naked eye.
The Xeros one is not like any of its rivals, however, as Kennedy demonstrates by turning one on.
It is a big stainless steel machine, the sort used in commercial laundries, and is the only type in Xeros’s range as yet. At first the machine behaves normally enough: a little water is squirted on to a load of white laundry, to which detergent has been added.
Then it does something peculiar: it pours a slurry of water mixed with hundreds of thousands of small, hard, white nylon beads over the clothes and tumbles the lot around in the drum.
Each bead is approximately the size of a large grain of rice. The mechanical action of the beads swirling around the clothes gently loosens dirt, much like the oldest form of washing — whacking wet clothes on a rock by a river.
The molecular structure of the deceptively simple-looking beads — the product of years of research — means they also absorb stains.
Replacing water with Xeros beads means water use can be cut by up to 80%
All this gets done without the clothes being left soaking in dirtied suds, as they are in most normal machines. “It’s like having a shower, whereas a conventional washing machine is like a bath,” says Kennedy.
That is part of the reason why clothes come out cleaner explains his boss, Xeros chief executive Bill Westwater, a former brand management executive who has worked at companies such as Procter & Gamble, the consumer goods group, where he was responsible for Ariel detergent in China.
Replacing much of the water used in a washing machine with Xeros beads means water use can be cut by up to 80 per cent, says Westwater.
That is important in places where water is expensive, he adds, pointing to figures on dozens of countries where water costs more than $1 per cubic metre.
The technology also allows laundry to be washed with less detergent at lower temperatures, which cuts energy bills.
“Your garments are also going to be brighter for longer because we can use lower-temperature water,” he says.
The beads can be used for hundreds of washes before they need to be replaced and Xeros says it has a system to collect the beads and sell them to manufacturers of other goods, such as car interior components.
That answers one obvious question about the green benefits of Xeros’s technology: are its water-saving advantages offset by the problem of adding millions of nylon beads to the environment?
But how would this collection system work at home? Who would collect the beads and how often? The arrangement for the appliances Xeros provides is that customers pay $1,500 a month for each commercial laundry-sized machine for a minimum of five years for a one-stop-shop service package. Xeros does everything from maintaining the machines, which it has made in China, to picking up the used beads.
But in another room at its headquarters, head of engineering Simon Wells is working on a beta version of a domestic washing machine Xeros hopes to launch soon.
This time, the slurry of beads and water swish visibly in a transparent window at the front of the machine. “We want to celebrate the theatre of the beads,” says Wells.
The machine is slightly bigger than the standard washing machines in most British homes and, like its existing commercial laundry counterpart, is aimed at the US market, where space is generally not at such a premium as it is in the UK.
Of the 80-odd machines Xeros has sold so far, around 80 per cent have been to the US, where well-known hotel chains, including Marriott and Hyatt, have franchisees that use its machines in their laundries.
But the company’s plans for the domestic market are different. Instead of making the machines itself, it is talking with big manufacturers to produce the device, for which it would provide the beads under licence. Westwater says a remote sensing system would detect when the beads need changing and a technician would collect them.
The company’s expansion from appliance-maker to bead technology supremo is one reason why it decided to float on the London Stock Exchange’s Aim last year in a move that raised £30m before expenses.
“Some people said, ‘Did you float too early?’,” says Westwater. But Xeros’s desire to keep innovating meant it wanted to raise a lot of money, and its licensing plans with bigger companies were another factor. “If we show big corporates we can get through the rigours of a London stock market listing, it gives them a lot of confidence,” he says.
Xeros is also working on a move into the global leather-tanning market, where it thinks its beads could drastically reduce the amount of water and chemicals used.
With dozens of patents granted for its technology, leather is unlikely to be the company’s last target. “Wherever we see water is a key part of the cleaning process, that’s where we can see the beads having a big impact,” says Westwater.
Xeros machines are proving themselves in practice
When Ejaz Osmani told staff at his London laundry business he was buying two new machines that would replace much of the washing water with thousands of small nylon beads, he knew it would cause a stir.
“My team are used to me trying out new things, and they are always afraid of that,” he says wryly .
But nearly 18 months after becoming one of Xeros’s first customers, Osmani says most of his employees at White Rose Laundries in west London are happy, and he is extremely pleased.
“The guy who does the washing — he loves it,” Osmani says, explaining how the beads’ ability to absorb stains and dyes cuts down on pre-wash stain treatment and clothes separation work.
The people who press and pack clothes, on the other hand, now have to make sure the tiny beads are removed from pockets and folds before clothes are returned to customers.
“They are probably not overjoyed because they have to manage the beads,” Osmani says. But this is a small price to pay for the advantages of Xeros technology, he adds.
The machines cut water use dramatically, which is significant considering not just the amount he is billed for water but the cost of discharging effluent as well.
“The one thing the Xeros has is phenomenal cleaning power,” Osmani says, even though it washes at lower temperatures than standard machines.
“What it can do at 30C–40C a conventional machine can’t do at 60C–80C. It’s really amazing how much stain removal they can do.”
He would like to see the company expand its range and develop a machine that takes up less space for the amount of laundry it can handle.
For now, though, Osmani is satisfied with his contract, which involves a monthly fee and a maintenance agreement.
“For me it had to be that way because the technology is so new. Our in-house engineers didn’t seem to know enough about it, so I had to have a guarantee that someone would be able to keep it running constantly.”
Xeros also takes care of collecting used beads, and its staff visit regularly to check on the machines’ performance, which Osmani finds agreeable.
“I am getting a good deal at the moment because they are trying to sell machines,” he says. ‘I am getting a lot of attention and I am very happy with that.”