Technology and man
Robots are gradually beginning to infiltrate the cleaning industry. But is it ready for them? And will they ever replace people? Robot manufacturers and contract cleaning companies speak frankly to Ann Laffeaty.
Robots used to be the stuff of science fiction. So much so that the idea of using them in our daily lives once seemed absurd. Yet here they are.
Automated machines have already proved their worth in the automotive, mining and military sectors. They are a relatively recent phenomenon in the cleaning industry with Diversey and ICE being among the early pioneers.
Since Diversey acquired Intellibot in 2015 the company now has three cleaning ‘robots’ – two scrubbers and a vacuum. And the demand for robots is increasing fast according to Diversey’s global marketing machine leader Laurent Ryssen.
“There are already hundreds of Intellibots working successfully across retail, transport, commercial and hospital locations,” he said. “We predict that the market will continue to grow exponentially.”
The advantages of robots include cost-savings and consistency, he says. “They also solve the problem of having to spend precious days repeatedly training cleaning operators who then may leave relatively quickly,” said Ryssen. “An Intellibot is for life rather than until a slightly better job offer comes along.”
However he admits to some limitations with the technology. “A robot is a robot just like a computer is a computer – it follows human instructions,” he said. “If you don’t configure it correctly it won’t optimise your cleaning task. And a robot will not clean under chairs nor move objects as a cleaning operator should.”
ICE is another supplier at the forefront of the cleaning robot industry. The company has been developing automated machines for seven years and now has two models: the Robo 40 scrubber dryer aimed at open spaces, sports halls and shopping centres, and the Robo 2. This uses mapping and laser technology to clean complex environments.
“Costly night shifts and unsociable hours can make staffing difficult and use a great deal of unproductive management time,” says chairman Darren Marston.
“But robotic equipment allows cleaning to take place at any time – day or night. Robots can also remain operational without intervention for longer periods which maximises the cleaning company’s return on investment.”
He says drawbacks of robots are generally held to be their battery life, water tank capacity and their inability to clean right up to edges. “However the Robo 2 has a battery life and tank capacity of three hours and can clean to the edges of walls, aisles and obstacles,” he said.
Automation has been slow to develop within the cleaning industry according to Marston. “Fundamentally it has been a cost issue: finding those pioneers who are prepared to dig deep in order to develop is difficult,” he said.
“Then there is the culture. One cannot underestimate the: ‘we’ve always done it this way’ factor. When you combine that with the requirement for middle-management to make brave decisions about potential changes in methodology it becomes clear that this is not an easy path.
“But we don’t have far to look to see how robotics are employed in other industries and workplaces. Car manufacturers have been using robotics for decades, for example.”
Kärcher is also looking into the field of cleaning robots and managing director for professional channels Markus Asch believes they will have an increasing impact in the years ahead.
“Our industry needs to adopt a positive approach to new technologies because they open up many possibilities,” he said. “For example, they can help cleaning contractors find solutions to challenges such as personnel shortages. And autonomous machines allow consumables and detergents to be optimally matched to cleaning requirements, leading to improved economic efficiency.”
He adds that robots are not suitable for every commercial cleaning task. “They will support cleaning contractors and ensure synergy effects, but only in certain areas and with clearly defined roles,” he said. “For example, they work most effectively in large areas with a simple layout and few obstacles, such as warehouses.”
Head of standards and solutions cleaning at service provider OCS Yvonne Taylor says her company has been using aerobots, duobots and hydrobots successfully in the retail, aviation and education sectors for years. She claims they improve both productivity and efficiency. “Where robots are used, staff time can be freed up to carry out important tasks that require more skill,” she said.
“Instead of a person sitting on a scrubber dryer for hours they could be carrying out high or low-level dusting, for example. Or they could be taking part in training, creating a multi-skilled team that benefits from added job satisfaction.”
She says robots reduce the risk of damage to property. “Once the building schematics are programmed into a robot it will not collide with fixed structures whereas people using mechanical equipment are prone to human error,” she said. “And unlike humans, robots are not subject to illness or injury so they remove the challenge of staff absence.”
However, she admits that management and staff can be slow to accept the technology. “Managers are reluctant to propose robots to clients since they represent a significant investment,” she said. “We need more evidence of robot success so that managers feel confident in proposing them as a resource that will add long-term value.”
She agrees with Ryssen that robots are unable to clean beneath doors or around corners as effectively as a human. “Robots work well in long, straight corridors that have fixed features such as a hospital corridor lined with chairs,” she said. “But they work less well in corridors with curves, or where items such as hospital trolleys are likely to appear suddenly. These disturb the robot’s sensors.”
Such operational problems can often be overcome through a dialogue between the customer and the supplier, according to Taylor.
“For example, OCS’s supplier had an object recognition problem on a contract with a leading food retailer,” she said. “The robots were set to clean at night when the shelves were being stacked but if a shelf were completely empty, the robot could no longer identify its boundaries. The robot manufacturer combatted this by moving the sensors further down the robot to allow it to identify the fixed kick rails.”
Managing director of ductwork specialist Bright Hygiene Francesca Smith says her company uses robots for cleaning ventilation shafts. “These contain mainly dust particulates and the robotic rotary brush agitates the surface of the shaft,” she said. “If you use a withdrawal method such as a good vacuum-type high efficiency particulate air system, then robotics work well.”
She says Bright Hygiene has also trialled robot duct cleaning system for grease extraction. “However there isn’t an efficient withdrawal method for the grease or chemicals and these robotic tools have been known to flood systems,” she said. “Nothing works on grease extract as well as hard work and elbow grease.”
Leading facilities management provider Servest uses a robot named Brian for cleaning tasks. Brian is based on ICE’s Robo 2 machine. “A colleague and I flew to Switzerland two years ago to take a look at the latest tech on offer,” said the company’s facilities management managing director Vince Treadgold.
“Brian was a scrubber dryer with the ability to learn and respond to the cleaning needs of its environment. It piqued our interest and we bought the first available model straight off the production line. No-one else was innovating in this way so we felt it would set us apart.”
Servest worked with ICE for a year to find and fix any faults with the robot. “Sometimes interference from devices such as hand-held scanners would cause Brian to get lost,” said Treadgold. “Since working with ICE to rectify the issues we’ve had no real problems.”
He expected some reservations from his company’s clients, however. “We thought they might have concerns over safety and quality,” he said. “But thanks to an open dialogue throughout the development stage, they embraced Brian from the day he arrived because he was different, exciting and made life easier.”
He says the use of robots will change the industry as we know it. “In the past robots were unable to facilitate areas of larger than 30 square feet, but that is no longer the case,” he said. “This particular tech is workable in most industries including retail, warehouse and factory. The robot can read all sorts of environments regardless of size and physical infrastructure.”
And the robots of the future will bring even more to the table, says Treadgold. “It won’t be long before these intelligent pieces of equipment are able to interact with big data,” he said.
“This will enable us to measure efficiency because the machines will tell us how long it takes to clean an area and which route is the most resourceful – and this will allow us to improve our overall service. We will know the best and worst times to clean an environment and have the necessary insight to confidently change cleaning rotas and make a positive difference.”
He says this interface with data will also allow cleaning companies to monitor footfall in washrooms. “This technology will help us to understand how we can better prioritise and organise our rotas,” he said. “Machines are becoming highly intelligent and will soon be able to converse with the Internet of Things – telling us exactly what we need to do to make the best of every environment.”
But the 64 million dollar question is: will robots ever replace people?
“Robots are capable of improving quality across the board – but only when used by the right people in the right way,” said Treadgold. “Robotics will transform the cleaning industry, but not at the expense of jobs. Machines break down. Machines can’t clean edges. Machines can’t think for themselves – we can only programme to ‘think’ in a certain way and there will be times when people need to fill the blanks.
“Machines like Brian can do routine cleaning while leaving people to perfect the corners and the edges – areas that would otherwise take up huge amounts of time. The challenge is ensuring that cleaning teams are taught how to use this complicated technology and are properly trained to use robots. Automated machines will then work alongside us and make our lives easier, freeing up our time to allow us to concentrate on the finer details.”
Yvonne Taylor from OCS points out: “As yet robots cannot repair robots – and they don’t have the attention to detail, specialist skills or pride in their job that characterises humans. For this reason, robots will never eliminate the need for people.”
People always needed
Diversey’s Laurent Ryssen agrees that humans will remain central to professional cleaning. “If you look at other examples such as robotic arms used in surgery or military robots, it is immediately evident that the best success is achieved by humans and robots collaborating together,” he said.
And Kärcher’s Markus Asch adds: “Just think of areas crammed with furniture, or hygiene-critical sanitary areas. Even state-of-the-art technologies cannot replicate the efficiency of an expert cleaner.”
ICE’s Darren Marston has the last word. “There has long been a fear that machines will replace people, but there will absolutely always be a need for people as well,” he said. “Robotic machines will make it possible for people to carry out other tasks and will only enhance the cleaning sector.
“There is a fundamental need within the cleaning industry to educate people on the use of robotics and eliminate this fear factor.”