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Cobotics: The next stage in FM’s evolution

20 June 2022

Robotics may sometimes still feel like the stuff of science fiction, but as Stefano Bensi observes it’s easy to forget that its practical application has increased exponentially in recent years.

AT THE height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum claimed that emerging technologies had become critical infrastructure. Innovations like the internet of things, artificial intelligence and robotics were now essential to the functioning of society and the economy and they were here to stay. 

In facilities management robotics are performing an increasingly important role across the sector’s myriad service lines, from the front of house to cleaning. Indeed, if we think about the most significant challenges facing FM today, robotics has the potential to be transformative, especially as businesses in the sector begin to make sense of the world and their place in it after the pandemic. 

The emergence of ‘cobotics’ 

In services such as cleaning, the role of robots is to support and supplement teams – not replace them. That’s why the term ‘collaborative robotics’ (cobotics) has become a popular term. Generally, cleaning cobots undertake monotonous, dirty, or hazardous tasks. This frees up cleaning operatives to concentrate on higher value or more specialised tasks that they know are more important to the customer. That said, it’s important to note that cleaning operatives still play a crucial role in their application by teaching them cleaning routes, recharging their batteries, emptying them when they’re full and aiding them if they get stuck.  

The pandemic provided a great case study of this collaboration in action. Cleaning cobots became incredibly useful because they allowed cleaning teams to get on with the job of cleaning while staying physically distant and freed up operatives to focus on sanitising more urgent, high-touch areas. 

Returning to the office

The health crisis has permanently rewired our perception of cleanliness and hygiene in shared spaces. People expect the places they visit to maintain high cleaning standards, putting extra pressure on organisations and their cleaning providers to demonstrate both the act and effectiveness of their cleaning regimes. 

We also know more about how infectious disease and other nasties can spread in indoor environments. Recently, the British Council for Offices and the Royal Academy of Engineering urged for better ventilation in Britain’s buildings to minimise the transmission of Covid-19 and other infections, especially now that so many employees are back in offices for at least part of the week.

Cleaning practices can make a huge difference in the spread of airborne particulates. Surfaces such as carpets serve as an important air filter by trapping pollutants, but their effectiveness reduces as they become saturated with dust and debris. The bottom line is that cleaning teams need help not only to keep buildings sanitised and hygienic but also to provide the hard evidence that they are doing it effectively. 

Our own research has underlined just how useful cobots can be in this respect. Recently, we partnered with smart sensor provider Infogrid to measure the effectiveness of our own cleaning cobot, Whiz, when it comes to dealing with airborne particulates on floor surfaces. For the study, we deployed dozens of air quality sensors with the ability to monitor CO2, VOCs, radon, humidity, light levels, ventilation, virus risk factor, air pressure, and a range of pollutants including particulate matter – the latter being the study’s primary focus.  

Across two unrelated test sites – a corporate bank headquarters and a corporate office environment – the air quality sensors took readings for two weeks while cleaning teams continued to service the areas according to their normal cleaning schedules and using their normal cleaning equipment. Next, we deployed Whiz for a two-week period while suspending normal vacuum cleaning practices and continued to measure air quality through the sensors.

The data uncovered a positive reduction following the introduction of our ‘cobot’ technology, with the supermajority in the 50% reduction range. Meanwhile, the study detected no increases in particulate through the operation of our cleaning cobot. 

These results demonstrate the benefits that data-driven technology can provide organisations now pursuing better air quality in their buildings. What’s more, they show that cobotics can help building owners, employers, FM providers and other key stakeholders prove the effectiveness of their cleaning efforts.  

Improving the workplace experience 

Cobotics may also help us feel more productive at work. Even before the pandemic, there was a growing sense that people understood the impact that factors such as indoor air quality and cleanliness have on their day-to-day wellbeing generally. According to data from more than 900,000 employee surveys by global employee experience benchmarking firm Leesman, air quality is important to 67% of the office-based respondents. Yet Leesman’s findings also suggest a significant gap between expectation and reality, with more than half dissatisfied with the air quality their workplace provides. And it’s a similar story for cleanliness, with three-quarters of Leesman respondents reporting that general cleanliness is important but only two in three satisfied with this element of their office.

Further research reinforces the material connection between these factors and people’s performance. Recently, Harvard University’s public health school undertook a study to determine how air quality impacted people’s productivity. Researchers worked with more than 300 individuals for more than a year, using an app to trigger personalised cognitive tests at specific times and when sensors detected a depletion in air quality. This study found that increased concentrations of fine particulate matter and lower ventilation rates (measured using carbon dioxide levels as a proxy) correlated with slower response times and reduced accuracy on the cognitive tests. Researchers also observed impaired cognitive function at concentrations common within indoor environments.  

Tackling the labour shortage

Right now, then, there is a significant contradiction at play. Demand for higher-quality and more intense cleaning services has never been as high as it is now, yet the cleaning sector is currently grappling with a massive labour shortage.

Last year, according to a British Cleaning Council (BCC) report, 11 of the UK’s biggest cleaning firms had 1,917 vacancies in total. Nine months after its publication, the problem hasn’t gone away. BCC chairman Jim Melvin said: “Firms across the sector cannot get the staff they need and given the triple effect of the Immigration Act, Brexit, and the pandemic, it is arguably unprecedented. During the pandemic, we’ve seen how essential good standards of cleanliness and hygiene are to protecting the public from the most recent virus, and now that is being threatened because we are struggling to recruit the staff.”

Cobotics can play a huge role in plugging that gap. The technology can under-staffed teams by taking on much of the ‘leg work’. In truth, however, this is just scratching the surface of its potential in supporting and even transforming cleaning services over the coming months and years. 

Separate research by Softbank Robotics in 2020 found that innovation is a top business priority for 90% of FM leaders, while 70% of supply-side organisations said they were facing increasing pressure from their clients to demonstrate it. Cobotics provides the sector with the power to do exactly that. 

FM has an unprecedented opportunity to capitalise on the hugely positive attention it has received over the past two years as a business-critical function. But the sector is also under growing pressure to become a smarter and more forward-thinking one. Cobotics will help position it as a key lever when it comes to both analysing and shaping the built environment in the future.  

Stefano Bensi is general manager at SoftBank Robotics EMEA.

For more information visit www.softbankrobotics.com/emea/en/index