Rethinking automation

Autonomous cleaning machines are increasingly being deployed across Australia and New Zealand as building services contractors and facility managers seek to save time and introduce efficiencies into their cleaning and hygiene workflows.

According to ABI Research the co-bot market is set to grow substantially over the coming decade. The market had a global valuation of US$475 million in 2020, and is expected to reach US$8 billion in 2030, with a projected CAGR of 32.5 per cent.

Automation advancements  

The pandemic and its lasting effects are causing companies to reconsider the way they operate. Current labour shortages and ongoing supply chain issues are leading more businesses to look for ways to automate labour-intensive, repetitive, and hazardous tasks

According to Tennant Company Australia and NZ, autonomous cleaning provides a range of benefits and the importance of these rank differently for each user.

Some cleaners are looking for, among other things, to reduce human risk associated with cleaning in industrial environments whilst others are looking to increase or deliver a more consistent level of clean provided by their equipment and current staff.

“The obvious benefits come from improved efficiency and productivity through the re-purposing of existing labour. The “co-bot” nature of the AMR scrubber means that it can perform the low-level cleaning tasks whilst working alongside human labour. This frees the cleaning staff to perform high touch and high visibility cleaning which increases the level of clean and the image of a facility.”

Ebin Sebastian, managing director of NZ Cleaning Supplies, says one of the main benefits of autonomous machines is improved efficiency and productivity through the re-purposing of existing labour.

“For any cleaning organisation the biggest cost is labour,” explains Sebastian.

A 2020 Honeywell study revealed more than half of companies are more willing to invest in automation because of the pandemic and its lasting effects. The same study showed companies see increased speed of tasks, greater productivity, and increased employee utilisation and productivity as the top three potential benefits from automation.

There has been resistance to autonomous machines from some cleaner and facility managers in the past. Historically, there were concerns that robots would come at the cost of human jobs, while the upfront costs of the technology worried some potential buyers.

However, perception is shifting across numerous industries, and leaders are reinventing how they operate by combining the data-driven sophistication of automated robots with human teams. While autonomous machines may reduce the use of personnel, they can enable other cleaning tasks to be performed in parallel instead.

In New Zealand, Kärcher’s Ryan de Goede, National Key Account Manager – Professional, says autonomous machines such as Kärcher’s-automated Kira (Kӓrcher Intelligent Robotic Application) B50 scrubber dryer, can clean floors without any decrease in quality, while also freeing up the team, who can then use this time to perform more challenging or intricate tasks in other locations.

“Often, qualified cleaners who could in fact be using their time to do more complex tasks are called on to carry out the cleaning of the floor. In other cases, such as in retail units or in the transport and logistics sectors, other employees often fill the gap, yet they are then not available to contribute to the core business.

“In this way, people and machines can work productively together, ensuring that cost-effectiveness is significantly higher for floor cleaning than was previously possible,” he says.

Co-bot collaboration  

According to Tennant Company Australia and NZ, one of the major current issues BSCs indicate they are facing is finding and retaining cleaning staff as well as being able to access proof-of-performance reporting.

The company says the use of AMR cleaning technology can assist in reducing these issues. Not only does a robotic cleaner free up the staff’s time for other cleaning tasks, but it is able to work seven days a week and at any hour of the day. Being able to provide quantitative data on the level of service being provided has also been an issue in the past for BSCs.

With robotics the ability for a machine to automatically record and later report when and where it has cleaned can reduce or even remove this requirement. Proof of coverage mapping shows clearly what areas were cleaned and even what was missed allowing for spot cleaning or adjustments in the cleaning process.

There are also safety benefits for cleaning teams and facilities, according to Dallas Vincent, director of New Zealand-based Mode Robotics, distributor of Whiz, SoftBank Robotics’ automatic sweeper robot.

“There’s been strong uptake of the Whiz locally, and we’ve been doing a lot of work around educating the market about autonomous machines and they can help both contractors and suppliers.”

Lifting, pushing, pulling, or bending is often an integral part of the cleaning protocol, with cleaners required to manoeuvre heavy equipment and perform repetitive movements daily. However, thanks to innovations in vision, mapping and safety, autonomous machines can help prevent or reduce common and avoidable cleaning injuries.

“Robotic machines allow cleaning teams to redirect or repurpose staff previously involved with the floor cleaning process,” says Vincent.

“For instance, most cleaners will use a backpack vacuum, which over time can cause injury due to its weight and possibly result in workers’ compensation. By eliminating the need for cleaners to perform labour-intensive tasks, robots can help reduce health and safety hazards and reduce possible injury.”

“Automation is the future, not just for the cleaning industry but across most service industries. Humans will remain integral to the cleaning process, but we see it becoming increasingly more of a partnership between human and robot over the next five to 10 years.”

Finding the right solution

According to ABI Research, 150,000 new mobile robots will be deployed in brick-and-mortar stores by 2025*, and the use of co-bots is expected to grow 46 per cent annually through 2030. ABI also anticipates a 30 per cent increase in productivity due to robotics across all industries, including cleaning, in the next 10 years.

Kärcher’s De Goede says the perception around autonomous machines changes daily, with the advancement in technology, autonomous machines are becoming a lot more frequent in day-to-day living, like self-driving vehicles and delivery robots.

“The cleaning industry has come a far way and is ready for the adoption of robotic cleaning machines. There will be some resistant to this path of cleaning, however, Kärcher, is going to be working endlessly with companies to demonstrate the benefits of this machine and the ongoing assistance this machine will delivery to the company and the cleaning staff.

“We predict that over the next 12 months we will be working closely with businesses and companies to demonstrate the huge advantage of our autonomous cleaning machine.”

While Sebastian believes AI is still in its infancy in New Zealand, he expects greater adoption as the technology advances over the next three to four years.

“While the technology has become more readily available in past few years, I think there is still a way to go. There is a place for it, and a lot of major companies, like Amazon and Walmart, have adopted the technology, but when we talk to contactors, they are still using more traditional machines.”

For organisations considering the use of autonomous machines, Tennant Company Australia and NZ says robotics is only one piece of the equation, and the machines still must provide an efficient clean.

“Cleaning performance should not be overlooked. Having a robot that performs is important, but if the floor isn’t being left consistently clean, dry, and safe then the autonomous value is questionable.

“It is also imperative for peace of mind that ongoing machine support be considered. Where is the product coming from? Does it have a record of success in the market? What is the support and direct service structure like? What happens if there is a breakdown or a technical issue? What are the ongoing costs?

“Additionally, having a dual-mode machine, which is one that can be used either in full autonomous or manual mode can present benefits to a business. If there’s an emergency or spot cleaning is required, then a team member can jump on the machine and operate it themselves.”

Where to from here?   

Kärcher’s De Goede says as customer expectations change, so too should your cleaning solutions.

He says it’s important to remember that a cleaning robot should take the weight off the shoulders of your cleaning team, provide support, and do exactly what is required of it at any point.

“If we have learnt anything in the last couple of years, it is that the world is forever changing and so is every business. Companies have and continue to face large scale labour shortage of trained safe members. Allowing machines to assist team members and move them into areas where further cleaning is required by hand, just allows them to spend more time in those areas and not scrubbing the floor.”

According to Tennant Company Australia and NZ, as the technology matures, the company is finding that the theme of conversations is shifting away from “what can AMR do for us?” to “we understand the benefits, but what can your product do, how does it do it, and how can you support it?”.

Tennant Company Australia and NZ says this has led to a change in the conversation with BSCs. The fact that BSC clients are also starting to understand the technology better means that BSCs can help them explain the benefits more readily. Tennant  says it sees robotic machinery as a way of tackling the three Ds – dull, dirty, and dangerous work.

“The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the importance of maintaining a clean, safe, and healthy working/trading environment. Robotics in the cleaning space allows a BSC for example to increase their scope of work and to see ways in which they can broaden their level of service whilst using their current labour base.

“The ability to remove staff from the monotonous task of operating floor scrubber for hours on end and instead empower them to work on higher-value tasks is a win for both staff and the business.”

This article first appeared in the August issue of INCLEAN NZ. Read the original article here

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