2014: The Year of the Robot

How robots are revolutionizing the cleaning industry through saving labor

by Ed Selkow — In the 1980s, I attended the First International Robotics Exposition with only one mission: to ask the experts in attendance when we might expect to see robots that clean. Several engineers spent time asking me questions about specific duties I had in mind. Each one came up with his own guesses based on what I explained, and I assembled all the answers into a composite for an article in a commercial real estate magazine.

When I read that a major floor equipment manufacturer was working on a robotic auto scrubber, I followed each piece of news from that company with great interest. Economics dictated the viability of cleaning robots, and those first engineers I put my question to guesstimated a working prototype would cost somewhere in the US$250,000 range (in 1980’s dollars). That company I followed went through an ownership change in 2004, but by 2013 the robots were already in their 10th generation—and very ready for prime time.

Am I a visionary? How much of a visionary do you have to be to understand that 40,000 square feet of floors scrubbed or carpets vacuumed on a single battery charge without the usual payroll dollars—and only a few minutes of labor for a battery swap out can produce another 40,000 square feet—is a game changer? Let’s just say that 80,000 square feet of floors or carpets cleaned with next to zero labor dollars spent is something that needs to be on the radar of every cleaning contractor, distributor, and in-house professional facing budget constraints in 2014.

Embracing Elmo

I saw my grandson Keith last night; he is six months old and has a fully functioning “Elmo” robot. Elmo sings and dances and when he falls down, he knows it and says so. Keith has gotten used to Elmo being around. Of course, selling Keith on Elmo was easy; my grandson hasn’t learned anything different in his six months of life so he watched how his robot worked, and the bond was immediate.

Cleaning contractors and distributors are more experienced than Keith, which may be why for many, the idea of cleaning robots just doesn’t seem believable. They are skeptical, leaping to visions of science fiction movies or the Jetsons cartoons of life in 2062 with Rosie the Robot doing away with our entire front line cleaning staff.

These drastic measures that are not on the horizon in the near future. However, this is the year that, like my grandson, cleaning industry leaders, both in supply and services, will have to get used to robots. In fact, so surely will robots become the accepted norm in the near future, isn’t it time to embrace them and rather than reject the concept, consider what drastically reduced labor could do for your bottom line? What kind of customer loyalty and other benefits could there be for being able to offer clients this kind of labor reduction? These are good questions you must answer for yourself. What I can tell you, however, is that some of the largest cleaning companies in the world are now looking very hard at what amounts to hands-free cleaning with robots. And I don’t have to tell you why: You already know cleaning fees are stagnant while labor costs are increasing so this is a bright light on the horizon for contractors and cleaning professionals. Meanwhile, distributors introducing this cost savings technology to their labor-intensive customers can be seen as nothing short of heroes.

Hands-Free Help

The global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. interviewed Rodney Brooks, chairman and chief technology officer of the Boston, MA-based Rethink Robotics, a world leader in robotic technology. While Brooks discussed the state of robotics in manufacturing, which now has been in place for 50 years, he also talked about robotics changing the service sector of the world economy.

With the price of computational systems (the brains of the robot) going down, the proliferation of robots in service industries is about to expand exponentially, according to Brooks. He also spoke about the factors bringing about this proliferation of robotics in service industries—but he mentioned cleaning robots as technology already in use. His impression is that the cleaning industry has already welcomed the use of robots earnestly as the manufacturing industry embraced mechanization five decades ago when the first industrial robots were installed in factories!

According to Roadmap for Service Robotics, a report published in March 2013 by the Robotics Virtual Organization, service robots can be divided into professional and personal categories. While cleaning robots for commercial and institutional facilities are counted in the professional category, one of the largest areas of growth is in the personal category with vacuuming robots growing at 60 percent per year. The total sales of service robots is estimated at US$4.2 billion.

Fully autonomous, multitasking, highly intelligent, self-directed robots are still several years away. But instead of the robot of science fiction replacing humans, present day professionals talk about robots providing “human augmentation.” Hands-free cleaning is how one industry leader in robotic cleaning is framing its message. Instead of the seemingly far off concept of replacing cleaning personnel, the company’s focus is on how to complete more cleaning. But cutting cleaning payroll is the real golden goose behind the use of robots, something you and your customers can surely appreciate.

Real-Life Robots

Let’s look at some robots already in use:

  • Underfloor air distribution (UFAD) flooring is raised flooring that often house cables for large computer rooms. These air-distribution systems require periodic cleaning to assure positive indoor air quality (IAQ) since as we know, poor IAQ in a tightly closed building system is a health hazard and can be life-threatening to the occupants. One Northeast U.S.-based cleaning contractor was approached by a large client about cleaning underneath its UFAD flooring, and, with the help of world-class engineers and a sizable investment, the entrepreneurial contractor has designed a robot to perform this task.
  • The Honda Co. unveiled a state-of-the-art robot, Asimo, in 2012. Asimo is a fully functioning humanoid robot. Humanoid robots are service-oriented with one primary purpose: to provide personal care for an aging population. Basic cleaning is sure to become part of their routines in time, especially since today there are already cleaning robots in hospitals that are used to disinfect patient rooms.
  • A specific window-cleaning robot was identified as noteworthy this year at the annual Consumer Electronics Show by the major press. However, there are several window-cleaning robots now in use, including one that was designed to clean solar panels. Mobility, an independent power source, a sensory system, and a basic “if/then” instructional program of window cleaning robots is only the beginning.

Robotics designed within the service industry are now available to do everything from clean pools to mow lawns to clean gutters. But robots also perform tasks that can not be done as safely or efficiently by their human counterparts, pipeline visual inspection and bomb sensing and defusing for example.

Robotic Profiles

With wireless communication and reporting capabilities; advanced sonar to enable vision, memory, and spatial mapping; increased quality; and a leap in productivity; robots will be able to turn marginal cleaning contracts into profitable ones. There are building-size parameters that factor into making the numbers work so larger buildings are the first to see this wave of cleaning robots. But the ultra-competitive landscape for these larger buildings, along with current market pricing pressures that leave many of these large contracts with razor-thin profit margins, also account for why using robots makes sense.

None of this should be too surprising given that Google has just spent $10.5 billion on seven acquisitions of robot manufacturers while the original Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner has surpassed 10 million units sold (and its newest model just released this quarter offers 50% greater cleaning efficiency and 50% less maintenance). Our average smartphone has more computing power than NASA had when we put a man on the moon, so the brain of a robot certainly can handle simple, repetitive cleaning.

This will be the year many will begin to explore this brave new world of robots while others will act and begin reaping the profits. It’s 2014—time to look at what is available and consider if there is a place for robots in your operation.

Ed Selkow is president and CEO of Janitorial Growth Solutions, a consulting firm focused on the jansan industry. He also started the Janitorial Subcontracting Network, Cleaning Biz Center, and Future Cleaning Technologies groups on LinkedIn. He can be reached at edselkow@janitorialgrowthsolutions.com

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