Are robots ready for work?

2nd of November 2016
Are robots ready for work?
Are robots ready for work?

Manufacturers of cleaning robots believe their products represent the future of cleaning. But how viable are they now, asks Ann Laffeaty?

This article is from ECJ's Cleaning in the Digital World supplement.

Robots were a major highlight of this year’s ISSA/INTERCLEAN exhibition in Amsterdam. Several companies unveiled their new autonomous machines and provided show-stopping demonstrations on how they could clean entire floors without any human intervention.

Suddenly everyone was talking about robots and their place in the future of cleaning. But there is no disputing the fact that robots require a high level of investment on the part of the customer, plus
a commitment to changing work practices. There are also doubts as to whether robots can operate safely in environments where there are obstacles, people and clutter.

So while they may represent the future, are robots actually viable today?

Kärcher’s head of floor care product management Marco Cardinale thinks not. “While there are scrubber dryer robots already on the market, in our view they are not fully developed,” he said.

“Today’s robots are still only viable in large, unobstructed areas. Also, the investment they require is four times higher than that of traditional comparable scrubber dryers. And there is room for improvement as regards the degree of safety and autonomy they offer.”

As an example he says humans are still required to fill and empty robots’ tanks. “Robots are currently unable to replace the work of humans in the cleaning industry,” he said. “Just think of the task of cleaning cluttered areas, offices or sanitary facilities for example. Even state-of-the-art technologies are currently unable to emulate the efficiency of an expert.

“The challenge lies in the smart link-up of the various technologies - and this calls for high-performance software.”

Ceo of Adlatus Robotics Matthias Strobel is cynical about those who question the viability of today’s robots. “We have experienced a high demand from end-users, facilities management companies and from industry,” he said. “When traditional companies claim that today’s cleaning robots are not sufficiently developed for general use I think it is a case of wishful thinking on their part.

“Many companies seem to have woken up to the idea of robots following ISSA/INTERCLEAN and are now strengthening their internal efforts in robot development while keeping the topic out of official statements.”

He claims today’s autonomous floor cleaning robots are both technically feasible and economically reasonable. “For example, our Adlatus CR700 model is designed for use in congested areas such as supermarkets, hospitals and logistics and production areas,” he said. “It can also be used in areas with fewer obstructions such as malls and airport buildings.” However, he adds the model is less suited for use in offices and sanitary facilities.

High investment

According to Strobel the Adlatus CR700 is the only cleaning robot that comes with a service station for autonomous battery charging as well as fresh water fill-up and waste water deposal. “This allows the robot to work autonomously for longer periods of time and during a night,” he said. “The role of the human cleaner is then to keep an eye on the machine and perform other tasks such as changing the brushes and refilling the tank.”

He concedes the market-entry cost of robots can be three or four times the investment required for traditional machines. “However a positive economic efficiency calculation is key when entering the robots market,” he said. “And we are already working on tomorrow’s models with the view to making them more autonomous and cheaper, too.”

Industrial cleaning equipment chairman of ICE Darren Marston agrees with Cardinale that robotics are not suitable for use in every floor space. “However, we think that many companies would be pleasantly surprised at just how many daily maintenance tasks do lend themselves to autonomous cleaning,” he adds. ICE’s Robo 2 uses laser radar technology to enable it to clean a range of environments including shopping centres, airports, railway stations, educational institutions, hospitals, warehouses, showrooms and public facilities.

“While we would not recommend a robotic cleaner for extremely cluttered environments such as busy offices and washrooms, the Robo 2 has been specifically designed to cope with complex floor plans,” he said. “These include retail stores of any size from local convenience stores through to the largest of out-of-town superstores. And it can clean around any obstacle whether it is temporary, moving or static.”

He acknowledges that the capital investment required for a robotic solution is higher than that of a traditional scrubber dryer, though he disputes Cardinale’s assertion that the cost would be four times that of a conventional machine. “However we have gone some way to minimising this leap of faith by offering our robotic cleaning machine on a rental basis, giving our customers immediate benefits without any capital outlay,” he said.

He adds that humans are still required to fill and empty tanks and to supervise a robot’s performance. “We are not marketing robotic floor cleaning machines as a complete replacement for personnel, simply as a cost-effective aid to repetitious and time-consuming tasks,” he said.

Like ICE, Diversey Care is at the forefront of the robot movement and global marketing machine leader Laurent Ryssen agrees with Marston that today’s robots are not necessarily suitable for all environments.

“This does depend on customer expectation, however,” he said. “I believe we will learn from the early robots on the market and that this first functional series will generate a strong base from which we can develop new versions that will fulfil higher expectations and needs.

Right mindset, right site

“While today’s robots cannot work in all environments, if you combine the right mindset with the right site you will end up with a functional robotic cleaning solution.”

He shares the opinion of other manufacturers that robots are not suitable for use in heavily congested areas. “However in a particularly congested area, a mopping system might be a more productive and efficient solution than a traditional machine in any case,” he said.

He believes the role of robots is to complement the human workforce. “The robot and human should collaborate and cleaners should use the robot as an extra tool to ease the cleaning task,” he said.

Facilities management provider Servest is a fan of autonomous technology and uses a robot scrubber dryer at customers’ premises. However the company’s facilities management managing director Vince Treadgold is ready to admit that robots have some limitations.

“While this type of machinery can be used in all sorts of areas regardless of square footage, applying the technology to clean small spaces just wouldn’t be cost-effective,” he said. “A robot cleaning machine probably requires around double the amount of investment as a typical scrubber dryer in terms of cost.  So this technology only really works in bigger spaces since the labour provision wouldn’t stack up if robots were used to clean smaller areas.”

However, he says cleaning firms should consider the purchase of a robot cleaner as an investment. “If the industry embraces the technology it can be developed on a larger scale and at a faster rate -
and the price will change in our favour,” says Treadgold.

Despite their efficacy, he believes that robots can only fulfil certain functions. “Robotic technology can greatly assist the general cleaning landscape but machines still need a great deal of manual intervention,” he said. “However technology is moving along at a rapid pace so I’m sure it won’t be long until these minor grievances are rectified.”

He adds that humans still have a vital role in cleaning. “For example, while the machine is cleaning the surface area in question the operative can focus on tasks that require more detail,” he said.  “This means that utilising the tech can provide an overall higher standard of cleaning where robots and humans complement each other.”

According to Treadgold, the demand for robotics is likely to accelerate over the next two years. “The tough economic climate will drive investment in this area as businesses seek to implement innovations that will improve quality and give them the edge over their competition,” he said.

Natural evolution

ICE’s Darren Marston believes the technology will evolve naturally. “The words cheap, safe and autonomous are all subjective and the speed at which robots develop will very much depend on take-up from the market,” he said. “We do not believe there is a beginning and an end to this story – it is very much a journey. But we are working hard and for certain environments we believe robotics are already the ‘go to’ solution.”

Kärcher’s Marco Cardinale says his company is currently working on robot development. “Our focus is on developing a robot that is suitable for use in all kinds of environments to enable us to offer our customers genuine added value,” he said. “In the medium-term we will bring a solution to market – but 100 per cent functionality and safety are absolutely essential.”

He feels that robotics will figure prominently in the future of the industry. “In the years ahead, autonomous machines will support the work of commercial cleaning contractors - but only in certain areas and for clearly defined tasks,” he said.

Diversey is continuously working on new robotic solutions, according to Ryssen. “We are using market feedback to ensure that we keep creating the best future solution for our customers,” he said.

“The technology is evolving fast and the market is responding positively. I would not be surprised to see more cleaning robots on the market. However the price of any robot is related to the value it creates, so the rate of innovation and how the market evolves will teach us how valuable the robots of tomorrow are likely to be.”


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