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Smart floors, smart solutions18th of May 2011
The biggest trend in floor care, says 3M, is that manufacturers are now having to listen to what the market wants, and to respond with ideas that are cleaner, greener, and more cost effective.
The word ‘smart’ is taking on additional meaning for floor care operators, as more and more factors affect what the layman still thinks of as a straightforward job. The polishing of hard floors may still be the cartoon image of the cleaning industry, but the image of the low-paid worker leaning on a mop is now even further from reality; and there are increasing pressures on the buildings manager, the cleaning contractor, and the flooring manufacturer.
The big debate within the industry at present, is how best to cope with these pressures. On the one hand, the corporate building needs to keep an absolutely pristine image, and a polished floor is the accepted classic example of corporate smartness. On the other hand, there is no money around – the buildings manager knows it, and the cleaning contractor knows it.
As a result, the need is for better judged, better managed, more time effective and cost effective floor maintenance. Now has to be the time when suppliers and clients together take floor cleaning into the modern world - effectively, smart floors now need smarter solutions.
This means challenging some assumptions, which has been the point of some by 3M. According to Richard Jones, market manager in charge of floor and surface care for 3M’s Western Europe operations, it is already known there are wide variations in preferred working methods across the continent. So 3M did something unusual – it researched floor finish products and their usage right across Europe, talking to flooring manufacturers and relevant experts. Among other things, 3M looked at the estimated size of commercial flooring in Europe, which is certainly over 500 million square metres, and broke it down into types of the hard floorings to be found, and then the types of products being used on them.
The exercise was intended to show 3M whether it was practical to launch its new floor protection products in Europe, but the associated findings proved the future in flooring work lies in more than just new products. The research proved the supply chain is now looking for realistic debate and answers to a mountain of practical problems, from budget restrictions to health and safety regulations, and an appreciation of regional preferences across all of them.
In with the new
Typically the concept of ‘shine’ produces astonishing differences, which demand new attitudes. The old thinking by manufacturers was simply to make products which gave a corporate floor a bright, see-your-face-in-it shine. The new thinking is to ask: does the customer actually want floors that shine?
“In America shine is everything, and they will shine every surface as highly as they possibly can,” observes Richard Jones. “In many parts of Europe the general view is that some form of shine is OK, but a very high shine is perceived as being slippery, and so it is not always popular.
“In southern Europe, they do like more shine but in northern Europe they like less. So an original American product may well be too shiny for Europe in general!”
There is more to this than meets the eye. Many other apparently minor differences in preference can turn out to be very serious in practice, says Richard Jones. A manufacturer can no longer assume different countries like to polish in the same way.
“When we researched users across seven European countries, we asked them what was really important to them in floor maintenance. We even asked them about the tools they like to use, because although a manufacturer may think one feature is clever, it could put the user off the entire product.”
Typically, he says, there is no point in trying to persuade a cleaning contractor to buy a clever new applicator if the workers prefer a bucket. This shows the importance of listening to the regional European client, says 3M. Many of its products are already made in Europe, so the company does have an appreciation of different preferences.
“Ninety per cent of our floor pads are made in France,” says Richard Jones. “Our matting system is made in Europe, and this brings up more regional preferences.”
“There’s a statistic which suggests that something like 80 per cent of all dirt in a building is carried in through the front door, and all building owners want to prevent this. They also want to prevent it reaching the polished surface that may be inside.
“As the visitor walks in there is a degree of abrasion between mat and sole, and so the right product solution is a kind of open-weave nylon-type mat with holes in it, which ‘grabs’ dirt from the bottom of the shoe.
“But not all matting is the same. In warmer European countries, their interest is in the ‘scraper’ kind of mat which removes dried mud and that kind of dirt; in other countries, it is the mats with water absorption qualities which are more important.”
On the hard surface, the traditional assumption is that achieving a shine is a labour intensive activity. This may be a dangerous and outdated view, because it invites the temptation to see floor maintenance as a place to save money on manpower and equipment. The better solution may be a smarter one.
“It really doesn’t surprise me at all that cleaning and janitorial costs eat up so much of a facilities manager’s budget and certainly, something over 90 per cent of cleaning costs are in labour,” says Richard Jones. “So the demand now is for the cleaning industry to help the buildings managers quantify how much they are spending.
“The answer cannot be in cutting corners - it will be in looking at alternative practices and processes which will achieve the same result more economically. The principle of ‘work smarter’ is now running right down the line in floor cleaning, from ourselves to the operative, and when either the facilities manager or the contract cleaner can demonstrate a ‘smarter’ system which saves money, saves time, and has some ‘green’ credentials, this is going to get attention.
“The buildings manager may find this will now turn out to be the big point of difference he sees between cleaning contractors.”
The 3M view is that smarter cleaning does not mean mopping faster. It may mean a wiser choice of product. “The problem with floor coatings which give that high ‘wet look’ shine is that they can deteriorate, or decline, very fast. This means the operator of a high-footfall site will probably have to re-apply the protective coating up to six times a year, and each time, this means stripping back the existing coating, buffing the surface, and re-applying maybe four or five layers of new protective coating. Smarter working may mean a new kind of coating which only needs two layers – less chemicals, less time.”
This is why 3M has recently introduced Scotchgard Stone and Vinyl Floor Protectors, which remove the need for a vast amount of that work. There is nothing a market appreciates more than a solution to a known problem, and a trend we can expect to see in the cleaning trade, says 3M, is where traditional methods are costing too much time or money, then the manufacturers will have to come up with newer and better ideas.
A vast number of interested parties are now clearly keen to be up with the game on new ideas. From buildings managers there is a constant question: "Are we doing it right?", and in this the clients are not alone – many cleaning contractors are keen to assure themselves that their sales proposition is abreast of the times, and ask exactly the same question.
The positive result of this is a clear mutual interest in evolution of products and methods. There will be evolution, says Richard Jones, and this will now involve manufacturers and clients in discussion, not simply from a manufacturer hopefully aiming a new product at the market.
“There will certainly be advances – who would ever have believed that we would become familiar with self-cleaning ovens and even self-cleaning glass, or a freezer which defrosts itself?
“I’m not suggesting we’re about to produce the floor which cleans itself, but whatever inspirations we may come up with, we still have to listen to what is called ‘the voice of the customer’, because the customer’s requirements are at the heart of what makes a product work – and what the cleaning customer in Chile wants may be very different from the cleaning customer in Finland.
“I recently spoke to a giant contract cleaner, and I asked him: "What are the most important advances you expect to make next?" He replied that his four priorities were to use less water, to use less chemicals, to use less energy, and to protect the safety of his employees.
“I think he is not alone in these aspirations, and I think it is down to companies like us at 3M to create technologies which recognise these priorities.”
Demands like those will not stop coming. The major trend in floor cleaning and care is that manufacturers are going to have to be all the more ready to react.