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Technology: Transforming the cleaning sector

21 June 2024

MICHELLE DANIEL explores the burgeoning opportunities in technology within the cleaning sector, highlighting the pivotal role of AI-powered management software, advances in tracking and monitoring solutions, and the evolving landscape of robotic evolution.

The opportunities for technology are currently endless within the cleaning sector. With the arrival of AI, and more specifically machine learning, advances in software, tracking and robotics are certainly gathering pace. But while people are always talking about the next big thing, and it can all sound very exciting, the reality can be very different, so what are the latest developments and emerging innovations are transforming the cleaning operation.

A-I powered management software

Whether you are providing or managing soft services, such as cleaning, there is a universal requirement to know how and what a team is doing, so we have reached the tipping point where there is no escape from using technology. In fact, tenders now require companies to outline their approach to innovation, so embracing management software and mobile computing is all but expected rather than simply nice to have.

Cleaning and FM software is already proven to deliver tangible savings in terms of productivity improvements, cost reductions and management time savings. These solutions not only support effective day-to-day coordination and scheduling, but also provide the insight needed to target continuous improvement both from an efficiency and quality perspective. Then there is the added benefit with regards compliance monitoring for service delivery, health and safety, and other aspects of an organisation.     

For any company, the biggest cost is their workforce, so you do not want to be paying people just for them to be underutilised. Therefore, it is about understanding when and where changes can be made to improve and right size an operation. It is also about freeing up supervisors as a system can tell them what they need to know – when jobs are complete, when inspections are needed, what everyone is doing – so they can make better use of their time.

AI is going to have a huge role moving forward, taking the software to the next level by using accumulated data – typically over a two-to-three-year period – to develop highly accurate, efficient and responsive operations. By analysing this information, alongside other data streams, it becomes possible to identify peaks and troughs, as well as better define cleaning requirements, and adapt rotas accordingly.

By considering variables, such as weather conditions, it is possible to focus available resources and predict where cleaning operatives will be needed the most. On bad weather days in a shopping centre, for example, there is likely to be more intensive reactive requests, especially at entrances and in receptions. Meanwhile, on Saturday morning there could be a higher proportion of children amongst visitors, so the cleaning team should be prepared to deal with more spillages and breakages.

From a reporting perspective, AI will allow bespoke reports to be requested and created instantly, providing real value to internal and external stakeholders. Imagine having an AI chat box that could handle requests, whether a snapshot for a board level director or more detailed intelligence for an FM manager. Of course, any solution of this kind has be trained to understand key words and potential anomalies, so the right information is provided.

Advances in tracking and monitoring

QR codes and RFID have long been used as an effective means to track activity and share operational information, but these are ageing technologies that will soon be replaced by more sophisticated tracking and monitoring solutions. QR codes provide a cost-effective means to capture attendance data but can only contain fixed information. With RFID, you need to buy in bulk, and while the tags are relatively cheap, the scanning technology can prove expensive.

Geolocation is another way of capturing attendance of start and stop times, but it is not ideal for all requirements. It can certainly detect when someone arrives on site with high levels of accuracy, but it is unable to track someone’s movement in a multi-storey building. Furthermore, there are potential legal issues if you are using someone’s person smartphone to monitor them, so it is necessary to seek permission and potentially offer some form of incentive.

Moving forward, we are going to see greater use of sensor technology, which can be used to effectively track cleaning staff and trigger jobs based on actual traffic levels. It has been around for some time, though uptake has been slow, mainly due to cost. The initial outlay can still be barrier, but the cost is coming down all the time and this technology is certainly the future. The return on investment and improvement opportunities, when combined with AI-powered software is huge, so this is something to watch over the next year or two.

With sensors, daily schedules can be replaced by usage-based cleaning, where jobs are triggered according to traffic levels in and out of an area. A rest room, for example, can be cleaned when a certain number of people have entered and used the facilities. This can be supplemented with additional sensors in equipment, such as toilet roll holders or soap dispensers to detect when consumables need replacing. Some sensors can also be fitted with cameras, where appropriate, to spot if there is water on the floor or even if someone has fallen over and needs assistance.

Meanwhile, scanning technology, whether in a mobile device or fitted on a cleaning robot – will have the ability to identify cleaning requirements and maintenance defects in real-time or on-demand. Traditionally, a cleaning operative might scan a QR code and work through a checklist of inspections, but this will eventually be replaced by a proactive monitoring and detection system that targets precise needs in the most efficient manner. 

Robitic evolution

AI driven, autonomous cleaning machines are becoming a viable solution for certain applications and requirements. There are still some questions from the marketplace around efficiencies and return on investment, but we are seeing greater acceptance and adoption in certain vertical sectors where speed is a priority or there is a need for a quiet and inobtrusive cleaning function. The technology is still in its infancy, but there is growing understanding with regards to where value can be added and how it can support physical cleaning teams.

Hospitality is one sector where we are seeing uptake due to the need for rapid turnaround of rooms to maximise hotel performance and profitability. In particular, there are machines that can work alongside the operative to increase how many rooms are cleaned in a shift – with an improvement of 10 to 15 per cent achievable – while freeing up time for supervisors. The machine maps out the room and then cleans the floor area that is reachable, returning to its starting point and shutting down ready for emptying and moving to the next room.

There are also machines that are suited for larger, open spaces such as corridors, conference rooms and front-of-house receptions, which can operate safely and discreetly while these public areas are still in use. These deliver a consistent level of performance, with HEPA filters to improve air quality’ while providing a deeper level of cleaning than is achievable with most vacuum cleaners to better protect carpets and hard flooring.

For the best results, robots should be integrated with a physical cleaning team, so they are aligned with existing processes and complement the operation. They can be a very useful tool to improve performance and productivity, but they are still a tool, and as such, need to be managed and operated correctly. Training is certainly required to ensure cleaners, supervisors and managers are handling and maintaining the robots correctly, or there is a risk that they will not achieve the desired results.

The sophistication of robots is only going to improve in the future, evolving to take advantage of emerging AI, tracking and cloud-based technology. Enhanced connectivity will bring together both human and robotic resources into a single management system, while advanced sensors will deliver greater levels of control and functionality. This will also support high levels of reporting and monitoring, with scanners even able to proactively detect cleaning and maintenance issues.

Embracing innovation

Simply purchasing the latest technology will never deliver the desired results, if there is not buy-in from top to bottom within an organisation, and a committed team to champion the project. Typically, the person making the decision is not the one that will be using it day-to-day, so addressing negative pushback is key. The most successful technology implementations are the ones where everyone is engaged, they understand the reasons behind it, and it is simple to use. 

Adoption in technology has often been cautious within the UK cleaning sector, in part because everyone seems to have had a poor experience before. However, AI-optimised software solutions and robotics offer new ways to streamline and automate cleaning processes and functions. In fact, there is the potential for significant efficiency and productivity improvements, while helping to gain greater operational understanding than ever before. 

Michelle Daniel is chief operating officer at Omni Software Solutions

For more information visit www.omnisoftwaresolution.com