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Rise of the cleaning robots

18 January 2019

A combination of robotic and internet technology is transforming the efficiency and effectiveness of contract cleaning. Christian Berenger, MD of Ezitracker Remote Workforce Management, looks at the potential impact on productivity in the sector

We are seeing an increase in demand for the latest time and attendance technologies for field-based workers and remote workers. These new cloud-based technologies enable employers of large remote workforces such as cleaners and maintenance workers to reduce absenteeism, lower costs via automation, and increase productivity. So what happens when we add robots into the workforce mix?

Robots are now available to perform a number of cleaning functions, to supplement human employees, not replace them. We know that not all cleaning tasks can be replaced with connected solutions. A robot is just like a computer, it needs human instructions. It needs setting-up correctly to optimise the cleaning task. It won’t move furniture and clean under things, but it will increase cost-savings, consistency and the need to repeatedly train hundreds of cleaning operatives in a sector that has a notoriously high staff turnover rate.

Robotic vacuum cleaning systems

We recently collaborated on a project to increase productivity in the cleaning environment with The Perfect Little Company (TPLC). TPLC has successfully developed robotic vacuum cleaning systems for the commercial market, which are already being used to support schools, offices, warehouses and cleaning contractors across the UK. The robots are usually rented in groups of 10 complete with a trolley, designed to increase efficient use of the robots. Depending on the size of the site, a single operator will typically use between 1 and 4 trolleys (10 – 40 robots) to spot vacuum 4,000 – 6,000ft² per hour. A single robot will typically be able to fully vacuum 800 – 1,200ft² per hour. This means that a single operator (one cleaner) with the additional support of robots can increase the size of area vacuumed from 4,000ft² to 6,000 ft² per hour.

During the time that robots spend vacuuming, the cleaners can focus on other cleaning duties such as removing waste, wiping and dusting. On average it takes 15 minutes per trolley to distribute, collect then empty the robots, so that creates 45 minutes of “free time” per hour for cleaners to carry out other duties. 

Integrating internet technology

Through this partnership, our remote workforce technology is not only able to provide clients with much more detailed analysis on the reliability of employees, but also their productivity, and it makes it easy for clients to identify those employees that are important to retain and where to deploy them whilst the robots clean. Robots introduce a new level of efficiency that human cleaners are simply incapable of; a person can only vacuum or mop so many square feet per hour. Robots enable cleaning to take place at any time, day or night, they can also remain operational without intervention for longer periods.

Contractors already using our remote workforce technology are able to highlight the staff that regularly turn up for work on time and are there until the end of their shift. We found that integrating robotic vacuum cleaners reduced the stress and strain on these cleaning staff. By increasing the amount of available time that they have to complete other cleaning duties, and training the staff to use the technology, it increased the value of each member of the cleaning teams. 

Implementing robots in to an existing cleaning programme both reduces the health and safety risks associated with cleaning and improves the time management of other cleaning duties. Once a robotic workflow is planned and implemented, a site-specific schedule is created, and staff are trained to become ‘Robot Assisted Cleaners’ who are proficient in the distribution and management of the robots. This process then becomes the cleaner’s task. Then smartphone and mobile technology and in-app communication tools deliver added value by allowing them to log these completed tasks. Contract compliance checks can then happen in real-time, remotely. For managers and their clients, this knowledge is power.

We fully expect that the concept of ‘Smart Facilities Management’ will become the standard and transform cleaning contractor businesses from reactive to proactive and predictive. FM service providers already using workforce management technology can simply add the robots into the workforce mix. Artificial intelligence in facilities management means eliminating uncertainty and letting the computers do the thinking, freeing up time for managers to streamline processes, achieve optimum levels of productivity and boost long-term profitability.

New technologies will "transform" the sector

This market will continue to grow exponentially, and we have no doubt that further technological advances will be developed to disrupt and transform the sector. The cleaning sector will begin to attract younger and technically qualified workers who understand the technology used to clean complex environments, so it is critically important that cleaning contractors invest in upskilling their staff with the new technologies that will inevitably come into play during the next 5 – 10 years.

The cleaning and FM environment is highly competitive. Decreasing margins has meant that service providers have had to adapt their proposition to deliver enhanced efficiencies as clients seek cleaning contractors that offer better value for money, ongoing innovation and accurate management information and analytics. The evolving demands of end-user customers continues to motivate cleaning providers to evaluate, adapt and improve their proposition to meet new procurement criteria.

The sector is under increasing pressure to provide accountability for all cleaning resources. This, coupled with tighter service level agreements, means that unproductive time is highly visible and no longer acceptable. Progression in technology is facilitating a shift for cleaning providers to deliver better value by managing contracts, mobile workforces; both people and robots, more efficiently.