The robot co-operative

17th of August 2023
The robot co-operative
The robot co-operative

How happy are cleaning staff about using robot assistants? ECJ looks at the human-robot relationship and asks manufacturers and cleaning companies how they can help to improve it.

THE ROBOTS ARE COMING. And human cleaners are increasingly having to learn to work alongside them. But do they appreciate the labour-saving potential that cleaning robots provide? Or do some feel resentful, wary - even threatened by these new machines?

Staff members need to be fully instructed and involved in the implementation of robots, says Gausium’s global business development director Peter Kwestro.

“Humans generally resist changes they do not understand. They need to be made to realise that cleaning robots represent no threat to their jobs and can help them work smarter, not harder. Most users feel comfortable working with robots if their introduction is properly implemented.”

He says cleaners quickly come to understand the value of robots once they see how they can reduce their workload, relieve them of repetitive tasks, reduce stress and help to prevent repetitive strain injuries.

“They also appreciate the consistent cleaning results, ease of operation and the increased prestige they receive from building users,” he said. “Their promotion to ‘robotics operator’ gives them a higher status and increases their sense of responsibility and involvement since they are working with a tool that is priced like a small car.”

An initial degree of time investment is always required, he admits. “Just like any other new colleague, a robot needs to be shown around the building on its first day,” he said. “Once this mapping process has been completed the cleaner simply needs to pick the right programme and press a few buttons.”

Checking on a robot is no more onerous than keeping tabs on any other cleaning machine, he claims. “The cleaner simply needs to make sure that the filters, squeegees, brushes and pads are sufficiently clean and not worn out.”  And the job of the robots – far from replacing humans – is to act as co-assistants and create more interesting work for the cleaner. “The aim is to make the cleaner more productive and efficient without increasing their workload or stress levels,” said Kwestro.

Gausium aims to make its “co-assistants” as autonomous and smart as possible to allow cleaners to operate them easily in multiple languages, he said. “They should be able to start, pause and stop them and send them off to remove spills and stains on demand,” said Kwestro. “This is what makes them attractive to cleaners.”

And he feels there is no need to equip robots with ‘faces’ or provide them with banter to make them more acceptable to human operatives. “A robot should look like a cleaning machine -  not a joke-telling humanoid device,” he said. “The fun factor of these types of robots wears
thin pretty quickly. And a human-like robot can be disconcerting for young children and the elderly while also making cleaners feel that their jobs are not being taken seriously.”

Gausium robots are user-friendly, consistent and reliable due to the company’s GMind-X software and AI capabilities based on deep learning technology, according to Kwestro.

Most cleaners understand that robots can help to make their work easier, agrees Kärcher’s robotics product manager Alina Seitter. “It is important for the robot’s acceptance and integration into the team that its behaviour is understood and its operation intuitive and simple,” she said.

“Employees appreciate the fact that some of the more physically demanding tasks are being eliminated and that other, more skilled jobs are being created in their place. The effort with which cleaning staff previously needed to carry out time-consuming floor cleaning is sharply reduced by robots, leaving them time for more complex tasks. And the job profile, reputation and motivation of the cleaner is enhanced by the fact they are working with state-of-the-art technology.”

She admits some cleaners have reservations about working with robots. “When the first scrubber dryer robots were launched, their route plans could only be created by service engineers with technical equipment and programming knowledge,” she said.

Skilled human cleaner

“It is important that today’s models can be configured without expertise or technical know-how. With the aid of improved sensors, higher data quality and modern operating concepts any user can now create, correct or combine routes without technical support.”

Many of today’s machines can take themselves off to the docking station, she adds. “Here the robots can autonomously charge their batteries, drain away the dirty water and fill up with fresh water,” she said. “In an ideal scenario, scrubber dryer robots can also clean extensively right up to the edge without the need for any additional manual work. And with the aid of high-performance software, sensors and the ability to move backwards autonomously, they can even free themselves unaided from impasses.”

Any coherent cleaning concept needs the know-how of a skilled human cleaner, she says. “A human will see a room, recognise the need for action, break it down into work steps and find solutions for unforeseen problems that cannot be standardised,” she said. “Machines will not be able to do this for the foreseeable future.”

Kärcher’s KIRA B 50 cleaning robot can be configured by any user and is said to offer intuitive menus, pictures and clear instructions. It can also make its own way to the docking station for battery recharging, says Seitter.

Sodexo, provider of cleaning services, has received positive feedback from frontline colleagues using robot assistants, says the company’s UK and Ireland head of cleaning Lauren Kyle. “Inevitably with any kind of change some people are hesitant at first. But as they recognise the value of using equipment that helps them in their role they generally welcome the robots.”

Staff members like the fact machines take on the more strenuous tasks such as vacuuming, she said. “People get used to robots quickly and adapt to a slightly different way of working.”

She understands why some cleaners might fear that robots will ultimately take over their jobs. “However, cleaning is a skilled profession that still requires humans to carry out most of the tasks involved – and many cleaners play a vital customer service role,” she points out.

Ease of use is key to making robots more attractive to human cleaners, she says. “No one wants to work with tools that aren’t right for the job, so an easy-to-operate functionality is the most important feature,” says Kyle.

Staff at Anabas are similarly positive about the deployment of robots across the company’s sites, says account manager Jean-Patrick Judson. “These machines take on monotonous tasks and reduce manual handling, which eases the strain on cleaners. They also allow them to focus on the finer details that make the biggest impact, such as cleaning high touchpoints to curb the spread of germs in the workplace.”

Upskilled operatives

Like other commentators he feels robots are unable to function without human input. “They will not replace our people, they are assistants,” he said. “Robots can only be active after initial programming via a series of sensors which requires analysis of the workspace. And cleaners are required to maintain these devices to ensure they are always fit for use, while management information and data analysis needs to be conducted by humans.”

Judson admits a certain level of training is required. “Operatives need to be upskilled to manage the technology - but this is true of any change in service provision,” he said. “The benefits of robots outweigh the time investment required for initial set up and training.”

The majority of cleaners prefer to focus on less repetitive tasks that bring added value to their employers, according to manufacturer Cleanfix’s senior sales executive Julien Rochat. “Floor cleaning is not the most interesting of jobs, and most cleaners are happy to have the help of a robot,” he said.

“Installation is not a problem because it takes place only once by an external person, after which the robot frees them from several hours’ work per day. The only task the cleaner then has is to replace the brushes and rubber blades and empty the filter.”

He believes most cleaners quickly accept the presence of a robot. “They might play with it at first to see how it works but within a few days they will show little interest.”

He feels that any attempt by the manufacturer to ‘humanise’ robots with faces and chat is unnecessary as far as cleaning staff are concerned. “A robot simply needs to be well designed and safe,” he said.

“Cleaners very soon forget the robot is there. So its appearance is only important if it is likely to come into contact with the public in environments such as airports or railway stations. Here the robot should look friendly and attractive because it becomes a marketing tool that promotes the company.”

Rachat believes very few cleaners fear being replaced by robots. “The automation industry has shown us robots can be used for basic and repetitive work where humans don’t provide added value,” he said. “There will always be plenty of tasks that can’t be automated and in today’s challenging world it is crucial that companies remain competitive.”

He adds many companies are struggling to hire human cleaners. “The paradigm has shifted: we’re no longer thinking robots will take over the jobs of humans but that they will do the jobs humans no longer want to do,” he said.

Cleanfix manufacturers a range of autonomous scrubber dryers.

SoftBank Robotics general manager Stefano Bensi also feels the transition is generally quick and easy when cleaners begin working with robots. “Our own Whiz vacuum cleaner doesn’t require extensive training: the cleaner simply needs to teach it a route,” he said. “After this the teach-and-repeat technology allows it to learn the space and enables it to protect itself, people and property.

Labour-saving potential

“Cleaning staff are then only responsible for the battery, bag, brush and filter replacement. And the amount of time autonomous machines can save cleaners more than makes up for the time needed to programme, check and empty them. In our experience, cleaners are overwhelmingly positive about the labour-saving potential of robots.”

He believes customers increasingly expect their facilities teams to help enhance the building occupier’s experience. “That puts pressure on cleaners to become more customer-facing and to demonstrate the difference they make,” he said. “Robots allow cleaning teams to come out of the shadows and focus on important, high-traffic areas while the technology performs mundane tasks such as vacuuming large floor surfaces.”

There is always the risk that cleaners will feel threatened by technology, he says. “However, this problem isn’t exclusive to the cleaning industry: as a society we are inundated with news stories about AI replacing humans and destroying jobs,” he points out.

“But for the foreseeable future it will simply not be possible for robots to replace cleaners. They represent a collaborative effort between human and machine and while Whiz runs autonomously, it requires a human to set it up and maintain it.”

Cleaners tend to be anxious when first starting to work with robots, says service provider Cleanology’s CEO Dominic Ponniah. “They worry the machine will take over their jobs and are fearful of breaking the robot and the cost implications that represents,” he said. “But once they are trained, their anxiety abates and they embrace the technology.”

Using a specialist machine helps to break the monotony of carrying out repetitive jobs, he says. “Cleaning large event spaces, factories and schools can be a challenge but these machines enable operatives to clean large spaces more quickly and thoroughly,” he said.

He believes any efforts made by manufacturers to humanise robots have little impact on their appeal. “When we have trialled machines with ‘voices’ our operatives have asked for the sound to be muted,” he said. “There is also a risk that customers may object to the additional noise on the premises.

“So instead of friendly faces and speech, machines should simply be easy to use and come with detailed instructions and training.”

Robots can only achieve 80 per cent of the cleaner’s work, he says. “Human cleaners have a greater eye for detail and scrubber dryer robots won’t go right to the edge of a floor area, which means a human will have to clean the edges manually,” he said. “And someone also needs to clean, maintain and operate the machines.”

Acceptance more widespread

Hako’s application technology trainer and consultant Klaus Serfezi agrees ease of use is more important than humanoid features on a robot. “Ease of use will reduce the learning curve for workers who are unfamiliar with robotics or automation,” he said. “The key to
developing attractive robots is to prioritise safety, usability and collaboration and to only incorporate fun features where they are appropriate.”

He says cleaners appreciate the fact that robots relieve them of tedious and physically demanding tasks. “This allows them to focus on specialised jobs that require manual dexterity or attention to detail,” he said. “Often the cleaning robot is accepted as a good colleague and is even given a name.”

Hako’s Scrubmaster B75i autonomous scrubber dryer has a 3D camera and LiDAR sensors to allow it to safely navigate defined areas. Its touchscreen operation is described as simple and intuitive to use and it provides up to 99 per cent cleaning coverage, according to Serfezi.

Working with technology represents a major change for some operatives, says Principle Cleaning commercial director Matt Kuwertz. ”Some are cautious and wonder how it will affect their jobs,” he said. “However, the more they use the technology and understand why it is being introduced, the more comfortable they become.”

Acceptance of robots is becoming more widespread, he says. “Many cleaners can now see how robots are making their duties more effective and how they can free up time, allowing them to focus on areas that a machine can’t fulfil.”

Some cleaners will inevitably fear being replaced by robots in the future, he says. “However, robots need human support and there are many tasks they cannot achieve,” he said. “And they can’t interact or form relationships like humans.”

He believes easy-to-use functions are key to making robots more attractive to human cleaners. “This helps to speed up their transition into the business,” he said.

However, he believes robots have not always been as easy to use as they are now – and this has sometimes caused problems for cleaners.“Robots do occasionally rely on human intervention and when things out of the norm occur, it can be a pain-point for operatives because they see these unexpected delays as adding to their workload,” said Kuwertz. “And in the past many robots have not performed to the levels promised. As a result they have often ended up sitting unused in cleaning cupboards for months on end.

“But it genuinely feels as though we have now turned a corner. Battery technology is significantly better, performance is improving and there is now a real opportunity for us to use robots as part of a hybrid solution that creates added value for customers.”


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