The Evolution of Robotics

2016 was the “coming out” party for floor-cleaning robotic equipment at ISSA Show North America in Chicago. There were a handful of companies that introduced robotics that year. Some say 2016 was an encore year. There were efforts in the mid-1990s to bring robotics to floor care, but back then, they were very expensive, and didn’t catch on. Now, barely three years later, there are robotic units cleaning floors and charming building occupants. Jan Willem Tinge, the vice president of global marketing for Diversey, Inc., was part of the robotics “reveal” in 2016. He says the acceptance has been rapid. “At first, people were asking questions like, ‘Will robots replace people?’ And now they ask, ‘What kind of navigation technology are you using?’ It took just one year to get to the enthusiasm about and acceptance of robots. It’s quite logical. We know there is a labor shortage and staff turnover, and that people don’t aspire to be cleaners. Now, robotic equipment is becoming more affordable, particularly because of big investments from tech companies and organizations pursuing autonomous vehicles,” he said. Robots are becoming more mainstream. Linda Silverman, president of Maintex, reports: “In the last few years that I’ve served as a juror for the ISSA Innovation Awards, we’ve seen more autonomous equipment from all over the world. And we’re seeing more acceptance of these machines.” The “evolution” from cleaning floors by hand, to mops, autoscrubbers, ride-on machines, and now robots, is something that Pamela Voigt specifically talks to her staff about when onboarding robotic floor machines. Voigt, superintendent of custodial services/building operations for the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver Campus, was in on the robotics movement before most people, when approached by A&K Robotics, a start-up company founded by UBC alumni who asked their alma mater to help them gain insight on the day-to-day work of floor cleaning. When the trial period ended in 2018, UBC officially added robots to their fleet of floor machines.

What leaders are saying about the robot market

The answers vary from five to 30 when people in the know—the robotics champions in their respective manufacturing companies—are asked, “How many companies are currently in the robotic floor machine business?” Tinge said: “There are probably 30 out there with something meaningful in various stages of development, not including those with just concepts at this time.” He believes 12 are beyond the demo and installation stage and are actively selling robotic machines. One thing that experts agree on is that the competition is friendly; manufacturers are pushing each other forward. “The market is big enough for everybody. We encourage everybody from robot companies to jansan companies,” said Phil Duffy, vice president of innovation with Brain Corp., which provides autonomous solutions to transform manually driven products into intelligent machines. Brain Corp.’s equipment is installed on six different machine original equipment manufacturer assembly lines. Holly Borrego, senior director of cleaning services of C&W Services of Chicago, described it from the end-user perspective. “Everybody, from the robotics companies, to the machine companies, to the sensor companies, are working together to improve the concept. It’s nice to see manufacturers play well together and listen to us. I love the camaraderie in the industry. I think it’s been a great change in the industry in which manufacturers are saying, ‘Tell us what you need. And what are your decision parameters?’ I think they’re shaping a new way of understanding what we need. The robotics and technology have forced and propelled manufacturers to listen more closely.”

Is it ‘autonomous’ or ‘robots’?

It’s all so new that the jansan industry has not yet settled on a universal name for these machines. It runs the gamut from the Tennant Company’s “autonomous mobile robots” (AMRs) moniker, to the University of British Columbia’s “robotic autoscrubbers” (“robots” for short). The machines are not really autonomous—yet. Matt Fussy, director of product management with Nilfisk, explained: “There are different levels of autonomy. Right now, they are semi-autonomous, because they require help from operators who have to fill and empty, press the ‘start’ button, and manage the robot during its shift. It kind of mirrors what the car industry is doing, in that there are various levels of autonomy. A fully autonomous machine will eventually move the operator out of the equation, and ideally will navigate from and to, a charging station, fill, dump, and refill. I think the evolution will be more about being smarter and intelligent, rather than expanding into different products.” Within the world of robotic machines, there are several different types: Robots completely built from scratch; new floor machines on which robotic equipment is added on the assembly line; and existing machines retrofitted with robotic equipment. A&K Robotics produces the only known retrofit kit on the market. Matthew Anderson, A&K Robotics CEO and co-founder, said: “Our system is application agnostic. The ‘brain’ we developed can be attached to anything with wheels. It is a kit that goes on existing machines.”

Ideal spaces and locations

Today, robotic floor machines are predominantly used in large office environments, airports, health care, shopping centers, retail, universities, and manufacturing plants. While some experts recommend floor-cleaning robots for big areas, such as a space with more than 80,000 square feet cleaned on a daily basis, and large budgets, others suggest that it’s not just about facility type, population, or square footage. According to Dennis Collins, global product manager–robotics at Tennant Company: “These machines are changing the questions we ask about customer needs. It used to be about square feet. Now it’s, ‘When do you clean? How do you clean? How many people are here? How often do you clean?’ It’s more consultative.” He noted that Tennant talks more about obstacles than square feet. “From a bodega to a warehouse, it’s all about the process that the customer has. What’s best for the customer? And what are their expectations?” Everyone agrees that while a robot is in use, its operator can be doing other tasks. In an airport, it might be spotting carpet in the seating area while the robot runs on the concourse. In a university setting, it’s the detailed cleaning. “Our robot operators gain back one to two hours in a day, which is time that can be shifted to the detailed cleaning which is typically lower on the priority list. In that extra time, our employees dust blinds and bookshelves, clean floor vents, use grout brushes on crevices, and wipe down window ledges,” said Voigt. Borrego emphasized the importance of moving the labor hours saved by the robot to something else. “We’re able to take on some of the work internally that in the past we subcontracted to others. In some cases, we’ve added more things to our portfolio in order to be more competitive, such as high cleaning and dusting, interior window cleaning, carpet and upholstery cleaning, and power washing.”

Empowering and promoting cleaning employees

Robotic floor machines enable people to accomplish tasks at a higher productivity rate, often doing the work that the cleaners don’t want to do. “We’re trying to help create a world in which people come home from their jobs and feel energized and inspired to use more of their potential. When they are meaningfully engaged in the jobs they do, they are happier,” said Anderson. He continued: “When we train new users, we present certificates at the end of the training. People feel empowered. They often say, ‘I’m so happy to be doing this.’ And then they ask for more robotic machines.” Borrego shared that the prospect of working with robotic machines helps with recruitment. “The robot isn’t about replacing or reducing our headcount. It offers opportunities for employees to learn about robotics and other life skills.” Both Borrego and Voigt noted that unions have been receptive to robots. Voigt said: “We have a strong unionized environment, so when we were ready to start our first robotic trial, one of the first things I did was meet with the union. I explained that the robot would be used as a tool and would replace the mundane task of walking behind an autoscrubber and not replace workers.” Borrego says she hasn’t had any union employees come to her with concerns about displacement. “Robotics offer employees higher-skilled positions within an organization, such as robot fleet management. When we promoted one of our employees, she cried and said, ‘Now I can go home and tell my daughter I’m running a robot.’ ”

Interaction between humans and machine

Interaction starts during the demonstration of a robotic floor scrubber. Fussy talked about how prospective customers—globally—react. “Everybody seems to be curious about how the robot works, and if it’s safe. When we do demos, everyone wants to jump out in front of the machine to see if it stops.” Robots create new relationships between custodians and the people in the buildings they serve. On the UBC campus, students ask the custodian questions about the robot. “The student and custodian interaction elevates the custodians. More often than not, the custodian is ‘invisible,’ but when the custodian and the work they do is recognized, it’s a wonderful thing,” Voigt shared. Robots can take on fun identities. According to Tinge: “We offer the opportunity to do custom wraps on the robots, such as cartoon characters and customers’ branding. Our robots are deployed in a children’s hospital in Hawaii, where there are terminally ill kids. A robot there is wrapped as ‘Thomas the Train.’ It cleans, plays music, and the children look forward to seeing it. These little things are fun to do, gives the robot a human touch, and makes it less scary.” He continued: “When you think about it, we are really the first industry that has robots out in the open.” Voigt also said that their wraps are fun and quirky. “We like to make them interesting. For example, we have one that says, ‘I clean floors but I don’t write papers,’ and another wrap says, ‘I interned on the Death Star.’ ” Depending on the facility, some managers don’t like to run robots during daytime traffic because it can slow down the robot and reduce productivity. Conversely, one client asked its BSC if they could run the robot during the day, “So our customers can see that we’re technically innovative.”

New decision-makers

The decision-makers for the robots are different than those who are traditionally in charge of buying an autoscrubber. “Because of the expense, it goes farther up the financial ladder than other equipment purchases,” according to Rod Dummer, executive vice president and co-owner of Dalco Enterprises, Inc. “One lesson learned is to not make a decision for the customer. Show the machine, explain it, but don’t cross anyone off your list. You never know who might adapt it. And another thing to remember is that you cannot sell a robotics machine if the decision is price-driven.” Bryan Smith, senior marketing manager–Americas at Tennant Company, said: “Different people are getting involved in the discussions, such as innovation teams and public relations people. The decision-making about floor cleaning robots is moving higher up in the organizations that have more advanced strategic goals around innovation. Floor cleaning is becoming part of that conversation. There are definitely new audiences and new influencers.”

How do you know a robot is a good idea?

Now that robots have been deployed into real-life situations, people are already seeing a return on their investment. Borrego says their metrics show savings on repair, maintenance, and vacation hours. “Another advantage is, I can see everything about the routes the machine took. That’s very important for the validation of the cleaning process. If there is a slip-and-fall accident, we will be able to see exactly when the machine was in that area,” she said. And then there’s the precision factor, according to Duffy. “In every single test we’ve performed, the robot has outperformed the human. Robots calculate distance precisely, while humans tend to ‘eyeball’ things, especially at three o’clock in the morning when they’re tired. It’s much bigger than just the devices. It’s about accuracy, service, training, and certification.” The best part about having these robots is, according to Voigt, “being a leader in the industry with these innovations in custodial services. We already have cost savings and engagement between staff and students. I wish we would have done it sooner.”  

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