When will the smart revolution come?

21st of May 2018
When will the smart revolution come?
When will the smart revolution come?

Smart solutions in the guise of mobile apps, robots, sensors and web-based tools have exploded on to our world. But is the “smart revolution” leaving the cleaning industry trailing behind, asks
Ann Laffeaty?

According to many estimates at least two-thirds of Western Europeans now have access to a mobile phone. Meanwhile, technology in industry is becoming much more prevalent in the form of mobile platforms, sensors, robots and web-based solutions which are increasingly being adopted in the automotive, mining, healthcare, manufacturing and military industries among others.

In the cleaning sector we are constantly being informed of high-tech systems that are claimed to improve efficiency, hygiene and productivity for the customer. But are these innovations actually being adopted, or is cleaning on the whole being carried out in the same way as it always has?

The cleaning sector is definitely lagging behind other industries in terms of innovation according to Kärcher’s digital products manager Dr Friedrich Völker. “This is particularly the case when compared with the aviation, automotive and retail sectors for example,” he says.

“The relatively advanced age of owners of small to medium-sized service contractors plays an important role and there is a huge generation gap when it comes to accepting digital solutions. For example, having a digital tool for tracking and comparing working hours seems completely logical for the younger generation while their more senior counterparts are often unwilling to give up the use of
pen and paper.

“Another issue is the additional cost of digital solutions which cannot always be directly offset by the time savings they produce. Often the use of technology is about increasing quality or transparency – factors that are more difficult to sell in a price-driven market.”

However, he feels that interest in digital solutions is growing. “Owning and using smartphones has become the norm for almost everyone in the developed world – and that includes cleaning personnel,” said Völker. “Within the last two years the industry has become more open to smartphone-based solutions that optimise cleaning.”

According to Volker it is the machine manufacturers and FM software providers who are spearheading the advance into smart solutions. “These types of companies know how to develop products based on innovative technologies and they see it as a way of differentiating themselves,” he said.

Kärcher’s own product portfolio includes a fleet management solution for cleaning machines; a tool that tracks and analyses manual cleaning activities; a quality control app and an early prototype of a system that uses sensor-generated data to dynamically schedule cleaning activities.

More efficient

“I strongly believe that the cleaning industry is not far from fully embracing digital solutions,” said Völker. “Digitalisation in any industry moves slowly at first. Once mainstream players adopt the technology the rate of change explodes. If by this point you have not yet taken steps to manage your company’s digital transition it is too late. That is why many players drop out of their respective markets once they become digitised.”

He believes tomorrow’s cleaning services will become significantly more efficient due to automation and intelligent control systems. “If you look at those industries that have already been digitised you will see two main outcomes: full transparency and greatly improved efficiency,” he said.

“Once cleaning along with related processes such as setting up schedules and ordering detergents and consumables become smarter it will be harder to cheat customers by not delivering the services they were promised  - something that is unfortunately happening today.”

Service provider Gom’s business development manager Bart van Tiggelen disagrees with Völker that the industry is lagging behind in terms of technology. “We may not be at the forefront of smart solutions but neither are we the least progressive sector,” he said. “Our industry is evolving and we are always looking for unique tools that set ourselves apart from our competitors.”

Book cleaning online

Gom offers an internet-based platform that allows companies to book their cleaning online from initial quotation to contract management. “Customers and end-users are embracing our efforts in using technology, though many are not yet willing to invest in these innovative tools,” he said.

He points out that some smart solutions are not yet appropriate for the industry. “Our customers’ increasing demand for flexible solutions makes it difficult to replace cleaners with robots, for example, and this means people will remain the main ingredient for some time,” he said.

“On the other hand we see smart solutions for support activities such as staff planning, administrative tasks and automated invoices becoming more widespread. And the possibilities for communicating with customers are also becoming more advanced and enabling us to better serve them within their just-in-time demands.”

He feels that the relatively slow growth in cleaning technology can partly be blamed on a lack of investment.  “All investment has to be made by individual companies and there is only so much we can do on our own,” he said. “If the industry were prepared to combine its efforts and budgets we would see much more rapid development.”

The smart revolution is actually just around the corner according to Essity’s Tork Solutions European marketing manager Anna Königson Koopmans.“The cleaning sector has certainly not been a forerunner in terms of technological change but it is starting to pick up on new technology quite rapidly,” she said. “But ours is a fairly traditional industry – one that is determined by certain preconceptions as to how cleaning should be carried out.”

Driving the change are managers of high-traffic locations keen to try out new ways of working, she says. “These types of venues are seeking to improve their hospitality and customer satisfaction levels through increased efficiency,” said Königson Koopmans. “Facility cleaning companies are also discovering that they can achieve significant value through working with real-time data.”

Immediate response

Essity’s Tork EasyCube uses sensor technology to keep staff informed about cleaning requirements and dispenser refill needs via their smartphone or tablet. This enables them to respond immediately when an issue arises rather than have to carry out repeated maintenance checks in case a problem occurs.

According to Königson Koopmans the cleaning industry has a strong incentive to catch up with other sectors in terms of technology. “For example, there is increasing pressure for cleaning to be carried out more quickly to enhance efficiency,” she said. “The way to achieve this higher output usually involves making further demands on cleaning staff - basically to make them work faster. But this is problematic since it often results in negative impacts on staff turnover, absenteeism and the quality of service delivered.

“This in turn leads to lower levels of client satisfaction plus a frequent change in cleaning contractors and new procurement processes. These challenges in combination with tough price pressures are encouraging forward-thinking companies to find new ways of working. We believe it will be these proactive companies who will take action to stay ahead of competition.”

Telelog support and implementations manager Malene Salbol believes there to be built-in challenges in the cleaning sector that are instrumental in slowing down the rate of technological change.

“When dealing with a remote workforce you cannot ensure all staff have a smartphone or access to the internet,” she said.  “And if you dictate that cleaners must use an app via their private phone there may be some mobile contract expenses to cover which are hard to quantify.”

Other problems arise when customers witness cleaning staff checking their mobile phones on site, she said. “This might be construed by the client as a sign of low productivity.”

However, she believes the sector is gradually switching on to the potential of technology-based solutions. Telelog offers mobile applications for staff tracking, lone worker protection and service auditing via a smartphone or tablet at the client’s site.

“One issue with our services is that clients are having to assess which members of staff have a smartphone and which of them are technologically able to use the application,” said Salbol. “This is why we still offer other ways of logging employees’ hours such as via a phone or though biometric devices.”

Head of marketing at Vectair Systems Louise Goldsmith does not believe that the industry is utilising technology to its full potential. “If you look at the hospitality sector you will see a world in which brands, chains and boutique hotels are staying ahead of the latest trends,” she said. “This is partly due to online reviews which are key to creating brand and customer loyalty. In a sector where choice is widespread and where competition thrives it is important for a hotel to stand out from the crowd.

“Systems such as online and iPad check-ins eliminate the need for a large reception area while also helping to reduce queueing – and this has enabled hotels to enhance guest experience.” However, she agrees with Salbol that equipping cleaners with mobile devices is not always practical. “While it would be great for cleaning staff to be able to use their smartphones and iPads, they often have no way of connecting to the internet on site or they lack the ability to do so,” she said.

Lagging behind

According to Goldsmith, the sector is particularly lagging behind in the fields of online training, marketing and social media. “There is a distinct difficulty in actually reaching the people who carry out the majority of the work - and this is where other industries are getting ahead,” she said. 
Vectair offers a range of smart aircare solutions including aerosol dispensers that calculate servicing cycles via a microchip and urinal maintenance systems that are said to limit water usage by up to 90 per cent through controlled flushing.

So where do stakeholders see the industry in 10 years from now? “I think a larger percentage of the population will have access to affordable smartphones and tablets in 10 years’ time,” said Salbol.  “This increased exposure will bring greater familiarity with technology and boost the usage of mobile devices. Meanwhile, advances within virtual reality will allow for new training platforms and change the way in which staff are trained and hired.”

Essity’s Anna Königson Koopmans believes that tomorrow’s industry will look very different from now. “Artificial intelligence will play a much more prominent role, while data volumes will continue to grow and the tools made available to analyse this information will improve,” she predicts. “Real-time insights will be the hallmarks of the winners going forward since customers will demand access to better data in order to make decisions.”

Gom’s Bart van Tiggelen warns against the risks that the future may hold. “While robots will have advanced a step further in 10 years’ time, the cost of these types of solutions will remain high,” he predicts. “Meanwhile, new and emerging business models might have an unforeseen impact on traditional working relationships with possible advantages but also with risks to cleaning staff.

Risks to cleaning staff

“For example, an increasing number of platforms allow workers to ‘rent’ themselves out to businesses with no reference to pensions, paid sick leave or the use of responsible materials. This type of set-up would make workers more fragile.”

And Vectair’s Louise Goldsmith believes that in 10 years’ time we may have come full circle. “Look at the development of mobile phones: we have moved from brick-style phones to small flip phones and now the trend is to actually have bigger phones again,” she said.

“The world is becoming more technologically-minded and more computer-focused. But some of the best technology encompasses complex designs behind the scenes while in fact being very simple to operate. I think people are increasingly crying out for simple solutions that actually work. Sometimes simple is best.”


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