The Rise Of Robots
By Kassandra Kania
Once few and far between, cleaning robots are becoming more commonplace in the building service contractor’s arsenal of equipment. In fact, a growing number of BSC customers are asking for and in some cases demanding the use of robotics in their requests for proposal.
Superior Solutions Group at GDI Integrated Facility Services, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, started exploring the use of robots three years ago. Today, the BSC has about 10 robots deployed in office buildings, shopping centers, colleges, and universities.
“Our business is becoming more commoditized, so in order to survive you have to drive innovation and use technology to improve performance and the quality of the cleaning outcome,” says CEO Craig Rudin.
Like Superior Solutions, more contract cleaners are turning to robots in response to rising labor costs as well as the challenges of finding and retaining employees. But BSCs are quick to point out that these machines will never replace humans.
“[The janitor’s] biggest fear is that robots will come in and take their jobs,” says Pat Manuel, co-founder of LaserClean Systems, Richmond, Virginia. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. So we need to help them understand the value they can gain from them and how to work alongside the technology.”
For instance, robots can tackle monotonous work, such as cleaning floors, which frees up janitors to do detail work and intuitive cleaning tasks as well as interact with clients. Kimberly Train is director of platform services at Oxford Properties, Toronto, Ontario,
Canada, the real estate investment arm of OMERS, one of Canada’s largest pension plans with the management of assets across Canada, the United States and Europe. She has seen tremendous productivity gains as a result of reassigning janitors to perform highly valued detail work in place of spending an entire shift operating ride-on auto scrubbers. In fact, the company now requires the use of robotic floor scrubbers in all of its cleaning contracts for mall common areas and food courts, and is expanding the use of robots to office environments with substantial lobbies and common areas.
Prior to mandating the use of autonomous cleaning equipment, Oxford Properties purchased its own robot for a 50,000-square-foot expansion at one of its shopping centers cleaned by an in-house crew.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LASERCLEAN SYSTEMS
When a custodian at Middlesex County Public Schools programs the robotic floor machine so it can begin cleaning autonomously
launched, the robot cleaned approximately 12,000 square feet an hour. Thanks to new software developments, it now covers about 60,000 square feet a night in about 4.5 hours on one battery charge. The robot has become an integral support tool for the existing team at Oxford Properties.
“The cleaning companies that will succeed are those that integrate robots into their workforce so the team doesn’t see them as a threat but rather as another tool for them to produce the best outcomes,” says Train.
A Change In Culture
BSCs that have successfully deployed robots know the importance of preparing staff for the inevitable cultural change.
“You can’t just drop off a robot and hope it works,” says Rudin. “There’s a significant learning curve and change management process. So make sure when they’re introduced into the environment it’s done appropriately.” Train agrees with Rudin. She says the most successful BSCs are the ones that have committed a person who will roll out the robot and integrate it culturally with the teams at the site.
“If they just plop a robot down and say ‘use this,’ it’s destined to fail,” says Train.
Prior to launching its robot at Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto, Oxford Properties met with janitors and union members so it could introduce the robot as part of the company’s cleaning strategy and assure the workers that the robot would not be replacing any staff members. The night staff has already embraced the robot and given it a name, says Joe Rodrigues, maintenance manager.
“The cleaning companies that will succeed are those that integrate robots into their workforce”
“You have to have a conversation with the staff, and be upfront,” says Rodrigues. “You also have to provide a significant amount of training and minimize the number of people who are in charge of the robot.”
While most BSCs must contend with how best to integrate robots into their existing workforce, Jon Hill, CEO and co-founder of LaserClean Systems, has taken a different approach: Together with Pat Manuel and William Dillon, he started a contract cleaning company specifically to use robots as part of a broader approach to quality management. Manuel, a former high-school teacher and football coach, witnessed firsthand the lack of proper cleaning practices in schools, leading to a revolving door of BSCs. After meeting Hill, a former CFO at Intellibot, the two started talking about using automation and technology to improve the quality of cleaning.
“One of the benefits of a robot is that I can increase the frequency of cleaning without extra labor; for instance, during flu season,” says Hill. “It also allows us to focus on preserving assets — our schools — because it doesn’t use recycled water like a mop bucket does.”
More importantly, Hill believes that automation is part of a larger effort to change the culture of the cleaning industry by offering employees better wages, benefits and training, which in turn motivates them to take ownership of the company.
It is this approach that attracted the attention of Middlesex County Public Schools in Saluda, Virginia. The school district outsources custodial services and periodically reviews its contract. During this time, Peter Gretz, superintendent, heard about LaserClean and was intrigued by their business model.
“LaserClean is trying to revolutionize the cleaning industry — not just by using robots but by rethinking the role of the custodian and training him with a different set of 21st-century skills,” says Gretz. “So the automated cleaners are part of a bigger picture.” In June, LaserClean began cleaning Middlesex County’s elementary, middle and high schools. The robots are used in large, open areas, such as hallways, cafeterias and gymnasiums, in conjunction with intelligent mops that clean the edges beyond the robot’s reach and provides feedback to the robot when done.
The robots have been in use for only a few weeks; however, Greg Harrow, director of operations, says that he is very pleased with the results.
Robots As A Recruiting Tool BSCs and their customers cite quality control as one of the main drivers for using autonomous cleaning equipment. Daily reports detail what areas were cleaned, what areas were missed, how long it took and even how much water was used.
“What’s wonderful about a robot is you can see exactly where it has cleaned,” says Train. “We don’t have that same visibility with ride-on scrubbers.”
Robots also serve as inadvertent spies, says Train.
“The equipment we use has cameras that record everything around it while it’s functioning, so it provides footage that is handy for security,” she says. “It’s been useful for slip and fall incidents or injuries that allegedly happened because of the robot. Or if a wall is chipped and the robot is blamed, we can look at the video footage and the cleaning path map of where the robot has been and have proof of what really happened.”
Such recording capabilities and documentation can provide proof of productivity, not to mention resolve potential liability issues But there are also intangible benefits to owning and operating autonomous equipment: In addition to being functional — and accountable — robots represent a commitment to innovative practices that advance the cleaning profession.
Oxford Properties operates a cleaning robot in the lobby of one of its properties during business hours to increase the robot’s visibility and reinforce the company’s commitment to innovation.
“We run it during the day as a promotion — and get additional cleaning of high traffic areas — rather than as a robust cleaner,” says Train. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Oxford Properties and our cleaning partners embrace the latest in technology.’ Then we run it at night to get the greatest productivity.”
Similarly, LaserClean plans to use its robots during the day when Middlesex County Schools are in session to provide students with a hands-on learning experience and attract a younger workforce.
“Each generation of high school graduates is more and more native to the digital world,” says Gretz. “So this seemed like a cool opportunity to leverage learning with emerging technology and teach them skills that are more relevant to the world we’re living in.”
Gretz foresees a day when schools partner with BSCs and robotics companies so that children who are interested in automation can code a robotic scrubber.
Meanwhile, LaserCean is already moving in that direction: The company has teamed up with the local economic development council to recruit high school students.
“In Europe, the janitorial industry is a profession, but here it isn’t,” says Hill. “We want to change that.”