The robot evolution

21st of January 2019
The robot evolution

Too expensive, too limited and not fully autonomous – these were the general criticisms of contemporary robot cleaners when we last ran an ECJ Cleaning in the Digital World supplement two years ago. How far has this picture changed, asks Ann Laffeaty.

It was a little more than 20 years ago when the idea of an autonomous cleaning machine first gathered traction.

Electrolux introduced a robotic vacuum cleaner In 1996 with some success. However, early models had a tendency to collide with walls, stop short of objects and leave areas of the floor uncleaned. Then in 2002 came the iRobot Roomba which was capable of changing direction when encountering an obstacle and could also detect dirty spots on the floor.

The market began to expand and soon a wide range of autonomous vacuums, scrubbing machines and mopping systems began entering the market. July this year saw the launch of Singapore’s first fully autonomous cleaning robot: the Scrub 50. This state-of-the-art model is equipped with laser detectors, cameras and sensors to prevent it from bumping into people and objects.

The Scrub 50 takes just 130 hours to complete tasks that would take a human cleaner 300 hours according to developers JTC, WIS Holdings and Gaussian Robotics. It can sense when its battery or water supply is running low and direct itself to a refilling and docking station.

And future models may be programmed to say ‘excuse me’ when moving into someone’s path.
But this level of sophistication seemed a long way off when we last ran an ECJ Cleaning in the Digital World two years ago. Key industry players in September 2016 indicated that contemporary machines required significantly more development to make them truly viable.

Kärcher’s opinion was that professional robot cleaners required around four times the investment of a comparable scrubber dryer, and that most machines were only really viable in large, unobstructed areas due to safety and autonomy concerns.

“This is not the case anymore,” said the company’s head of floorcare product management Marco Cardinale speaking this autumn. “At Kärcher we have focused on the challenges of smaller, congested and cluttered areas when developing our KIRA autonomous scrubber dryer platform. We believe ourselves to be the only company with a clear focus on this.”

There has been a slight decrease in the cost of robot cleaner components since 2016 says Cardinale, while significant strides have been made in terms of autonomy. The company’s KIRA B 50 scrubber dryer will work autonomously for an entire shift before approaching its docking station independently. Like the Scrub 50 it will also discharge the soiled water and clean its tank before filling up again and recharging its batteries.

“The key feature of this machine is that it calculates the remaining cleaning time and only charges the storage battery for as long as it needs to complete the task,” said Cardinale. “The lithium-ion batteries have a memory effect which means partial charging will not have a negative impact on the batteries’ capacities or service life.

Attractive price

“And our machine is priced attractively because the docking station allows the customer to use a small machine to cover big areas instead of buying an oversized, expensive machine.”

In 2016 Kärcher claimed that a key challenge lay in the smart link-up of various technologies – and that this called for high performance software. The company is now making good progress with its software development, says Cardinale. “We are confident of launching a competitive and ready-to-market package in 2019,” he said.

Safety and reliability remain the key challenges when developing cleaning robots, he says. “Existing solutions have limitations in certain environments which means that either the environment needs to be prepared or the robot needs to be adapted,” he said.

Wider context

“A further challenge lies in anchoring robotics within the larger context of digitalisation and understanding robotics as a part of building services. Digitalisation in cleaning means more than simply connecting machines via the Internet: it refers to the connectivity between processes and technology which is designed to make processes more efficient.”

He feels the market will move further in this direction over the next two years. “Robotics and automated solutions are currently on the rise everywhere and the debate about the effects this will have on the human workforce is omnipresent,” he said. “Studies predict a growth in the robotics market worldwide and statistics show an increasing acceptance.

“Collaborative robots are already here driven by the production and assembly industries. But there is a rise in customer demand for new solutions that reduce the total cost of cleaning which means that market volume will increase and people will see more cleaning robots than in the past.”

The opinion of Diversey was similar to that of Kärcher in 2016: robots were unsuitable for use in heavily congested areas and their price needed to be balanced against the value they could create.

“Technology has made huge strides since 2016 due to smarter software and new sensor technology,” says Diversey’s marketing manager for TASKI machines and robotics Marcel Muller. “Meanwhile, an additional factor that has gained prominence is the total cost of ownership. Under this consideration robots still offer the most positive impact in large, open environments rather than in small, cluttered areas.

“However, the value that a robotic solution can unlock has dramatically increased compared to 2016. This is due to factors such as more advanced technology and a better understanding of how to integrate a robotic solution into a cleaning operation.

“And the clear trend of labour shortages - partly as a result of ageing populations - is driving forward the expansion of these robotic solutions.”

Among Diversey’s latest models is the new TASKI Swingobot 2000 which combines 2D Lidar sensor technology with the ability to clean large areas based on high water and battery autonomy. It is connected to the cloud for full visibility and remote updates.

In 2016 Diversey claimed that the chief role of robots was to complement the human workforce and provide an extra tool for cleaners. “When we look back on our original vision - that our autonomous solutions would be 100 per cent safe and work in collaboration with the human workforce - we now see that this vision has become a reality,” he said. “Robot cleaners give the workforce more time for other tasks such as washroom and surface cleaning.”

More demand

And he feels that the demand for robotic solutions will increase over the next two years. “At Diversey we are continuously improving our offering based on customer needs,” said Muller. “It is always about ‘the next thing’ and our organisation is well prepared for the challenges of the future.”

ICE concurs that cleaning robots were not suitable for every floor space two years ago. “However, today’s robotic scrubber dryers can not only safely clean in open areas, but also in environments where people are constantly walking around - demonstrating total obstacle avoidance and safety,” said marketing director Julie Kitchener.

“Costs are still typically higher than for traditional scrubber dryers, but automating cleaning is about offering flexibility along with cost savings and improved standards.”

ICE has launched a new automatic machine – the Robo 3 – since our interview two years ago. “The Robo 3 has eight sonic bumper sensors plus a precise navigation system and flashing warning lights for enhanced operator safety,” said Kitchener.

Mapping out a site would take around an hour with the company’s previous model, the Robo 2. “The Robo 3 can chart a facility’s cleaning zones in just one minute,” she said. “It can also drive itself to the start point and clean multiple areas during one cleaning cycle.”

She says the market has shifted significantly during the past two years. “We are now seeing a real cultural change and a wide interest in automation and all it brings,” she said. “We know that the technology is available and is reliable, so it’s simply a case of application and acceptance.

“For example, we are seeing an increasing appetite for climbing robots for window cleaning and for use on the external surfaces of high-rise buildings, providing a huge opportunity from a health and safety perspective. Any repetitive or dangerous tasks will be naturally taken care of by machines, leaving humans free to concentrate on the jobs that require leadership and decision-making.”

According to Kitchener it is no secret that the cleaning industry has been slow to accept robotic solutions. “However, you only have to look at the difference between Interclean 2016 and 2018 to see how the industry is now getting behind robotic equipment,” she said.

“Acceptance from cleaning staff can still be a challenge, but we have found this is not an issue once the machine is on site and staff understand how it can enhance their role.”

So how will the market develop over the next two years? “Now that we can clean complex floor areas quickly and efficiently there’s the issue of interaction and user interface to consider,” she said. “The next step is to utilise computers to provide a huge amount of management information as part of the Internet of Things.

“The remote management of automated machines is already possible and an invaluable feature of automated cleaning. But this will inevitably evolve to provide an even deeper level of information.”
Like other companies, services provider Atalian Servest believed cleaning robots to require a certain level of manual intervention when we spoke to them in 2016.

Some way to go

“They still have some distance to go in terms of advancement,” says managing director cleaning Sean Fisher. “We are constantly monitoring the market and there has certainly been progress. But
the machines are still not hugely commercially viable and they still require a certain amount of manual intervention to operate effectively.”

He says there is a market need for a small robotic floor scrubber for use in compact retail environments. “I am aware of at least one supplier who is building one as we speak, which is hugely exciting,” he said. “We have seen a demand for this type of solution from forward-thinking businesses that are constantly looking for ways to offer more effective services and products.

“As a service provider we’re keeping a close eye on what’s available so that we can create the best offering for our customers.”

Atalian Servest currently uses robotic solutions at some customer facilities including shops, smaller distribution centres, airports and healthcare environments. “We’ve had great feedback from the team and a positive response from customers,” said Fisher.

However, it is not always easy to change clients’ perceptions, he said. “For example, robotic solutions can be used when customers are on site - but the challenge lies in persuading them to accept this,” he said. “A lot of our customers have tackled the issue head-on after careful conversations and planning.”

He believes that robotics will have a significant place in tomorrow’s cleaning world. “There will always be a certain requirement for cleaning teams on the ground, but data will be key,” he said. “It’s about tracking teams and harnessing the data to provide the best possible service.”

• This article is part of the 2018 ECJ supplement Cleaning in the Digital World. Click here to read it.

 

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