How autonomous mobile robots are transforming the cleaning sector
22 July 2021
Michel Spruijt discusses the future of the cleaning sector and the role autonomous mobile robots will play.
CLEANING OPERATIONS have always been an essential part of any business. However, with the onset of COVID-19 last year, cleanliness became a major concern at all levels of society, from business leadership to the broader public, and the need for visible solutions became pressing almost overnight.
We all know the cliche that crisis is another word for opportunity. The recent worldwide pandemic has been no exception to this rule. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have had a significant opportunity to showcase their features and benefits in the last year and a half, and interest in these self-driving machines has since shot up, with 73% of supply chain managers stating that robotics will be important in the future. With hygiene as a top priority, cleaning robots have introduced an enhanced and verifiable level of cleanliness to encourage both workers and customers back into workplaces and public spaces.
In turn, robotic cleaning units have changed the nature of cleaning operations for the foreseeable future. According to a new retail survey from RetailWire and Brain Corp, the statistics on this matter speak for themselves, showing nearly half (47%) of all retailers plan to have an in-store robotic automation project underway in the next 18 months.
AMRs have impacted the cleaning sector in various ways, ranging from changing how cleaning teams work, shifting the methods by which hygiene is measured, and elevating the role that cleaning operations play in the sphere of brand image. But, the overall picture is clear: autonomous cleaning robots have made a profound mark on the world of hygiene operations, owing largely to the restrictions and demands generated by COVID-19.
A revolution in ground operations
Autonomous cleaning units have stepped up to the challenges COVID-19 presented in ways both obvious and not. Among the changes has been the effect that such machines have had on how cleaning staff work.
First, modern cleaning robots typically come equipped with intuitive and user-friendly interfaces, allowing staff to program them without the need for extensive education or familiarisation. Modern AMRs leverage a unique “teach and repeat” function, whereby an operator ‘trains’ the robot by executing the cleaning route; the route is then stored into the machine for ongoing use. This enables almost anyone to become a robot operator. Where deployed, this innovative capability has removed the need for lengthy and expensive training and ensured that robots can be integrated seamlessly into cleaning operations. Moreover, rich data collection can be used to deliver unprecedented proof-of-work metrics that allow cleaning operations to be assessed by those in charge.
The detailed reports generated by these robots give cleaning managers a precise impression of how their machines have performed and what can be done to improve their operations continuously.
With floor cleaning routines ably run by intelligent machines, cleaning staff have more time to turn their attention to higher priority tasks, such as sanitising high-contact surfaces and other sensitive areas. In the retail sector, greater automation in cleaning has freed up shop floor staff to handle people-facing responsibilities, such as serving customers, with greater ease. In manufacturing environments, robotic floor cleaners have allowed employees to manage traffic flow and man production lines. As cleaning teams were pushed to their maximum capacity under pandemic conditions, cleaning robots were one means to ease the burden of an increased workload.
In addition, thanks to reliable automation on the floor cleaning beat, cleaning operations have enjoyed a more significant division of labour, meaning that different responsibilities can be carried out with more efficiency than before. Greater task specialisation has meant that staff members cross paths less often, thus reducing the risk of COVID-19 exposure whilst at work.
The sector at large has witnessed how robotic units can radically transform workplace cleaning operations. However, the real gains are to be seen by the myriad other advantages offered by AMRs. Despite the context of coronavirus, automated cleaning robots have countered many long-standing problems in the industry.
Environmental hazards are an evergreen problem for the cleaning sector. According to The Health and Safety Executive, slips, trips, and falls remain the most common form of non-fatal accidents on the job (29%), affecting floor cleaning staff directly, given their daily exposure to risks working on floor surfaces. But with automated solutions in place, human error and exposure to hazards can be dramatically reduced, giving business leaders less concern around workplace safety and absentee rates.
According to Brain Corp data, hard statistics back this trend; through the first three quarters of 2020, cleaning robots freed up approximately 2.4 million hours of productivity for workers in various high-traffic public locations, up from 331,000 hours during the year before.
Additionally, as robots never fall ill, they don’t require time away from work and are not threatened by potential viral infection. This mechanical consistency has had profound implications not only for cleaning operations but also productivity at large. Managers have bridged operational gaps and increased reliability and consistency at a time when labour shortages and illness have continued to threaten cleaning operations during a critical pandemic scenario. As a result, it has countered working hours lost to sickness and injury, a problem that blighted the sector before the pandemic.
These cumulative points add up to major productivity boosts, which has meant a greater ROI when it comes to facilities cleaning.
Cleaning as a new brand value
The sharp focus on hygiene due to the coronavirus has understandably led to it being seen as a high priority for the public. An Accenture report found that in the fallout from COVID-19, 64% of respondents are fearful for their health, and 82% fear for the health of others.
This is also evidenced by Brain Corp’s most recent survey, which found that 72% of retailers expect little reduction in consumer expectations for cleanliness even as the vaccine rollouts gather momentum.
State-of-the-art robotics have stepped in to meet these raised expectations. Modern units capture rich cleaning data while in operation, meaning their performance can be tracked and assessed. This provides quantifiable evidence of the effectiveness and means the proficiency of cleaning operations can be evaluated precisely without the need for guesswork.
Moreover, autonomous cleaning units serve as a highly visible indicator of heightened safety precautions and general innovation for the public. When a shopper sees an AI-driven floor scrubber, they can be reassured that the shop they are visiting is doing its utmost to keep them safe and sound.
Robots have transformative potential but were, until recently, restricted to tightly controlled operating environments, such as manufacturing and industrial settings, when people were not present. However, owing to advancements in technology, autonomous machines have made a dramatic entrance to cleaning operations in public indoor spaces and can safely interact with humans during opening hours.
As lockdowns lift and mass vaccination efforts continue to get underway, AMRs are set to remain in increasing deployment well after COVID-19 recedes. The past year has been a major showcase of the benefits offered to businesses by autonomous mobile robots, especially in the cleaning sector.
Leveraging the power of automation technologies and analytics will become increasingly common in the future, especially as variants of COVID-19 linger and the cleaning sector evolves in line with ongoing changes and challenges. Those who realise the value of automation and make the most of these innovations early will inevitably reap the greatest rewards in the years to come.
Michel Spruijt is GM and VP of BrainCorp Europe
Michel Spruijt joined Brain Corp as the vice president and general manager of Brain Corp Europe in 2019. Michel is responsible for partner support, team expansion, and the oversight of general operations throughout the region. Prior to joining Brain Corp, Michel held the position of general manager EMEA at Ergotron. During his 20 year tenure, Michel successfully built cross-functional teams and managed Ergotron’s growth trajectory in EMEA. He held several roles at Ergotron, including management positions in business development, sales, operations, customer care, technical support, and business operations.
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