Can robots fill the people gap?

22nd of March 2018
Can robots fill the people gap?
Can robots fill the people gap?

Japan’s cleaning industry is increasingly dominated by automation and robotic solutions, which is mainly caused by the growing difficulty professional cleaning companies experience in finding qualified staff. But what is the impact of this development on the industry and where does the cleaning industry stand in terms of employing robots? Bobbie van der List writes for ECJ.

Japan has around 127 million inhabitants, but if nothing changes to the current birth rate of 1.4 children per woman – the world’s lowest fertility rate – the total population is expected to further decline to 117 million by 2030. Even more worrisome are predictions for 2060: if the birth rate stays like it is Japan’s population will drop below 100 million. To make this demographic picture even more pessimistic, one should just look at how elderly take up a disproportionate share of the total population: in 2016 one in four citizens was at least 65 years old.

Why are these figures relevant for the professional cleaning industry, you might wonder? Well, the above reality of the Japanese population is especially damaging for the cleaning industry, as this is one of those sectors that will be hit hardest when there is a declining population, and thus a declining workforce. The average age of cleaning staff in Japanese cleaning companies is comparatively higher in that sector than in other sectors.

This can be drawn back to the fact that many elderly in Japan don’t have a sufficient pension to enjoy their old age. Cleaning is a great means for Japanese elderly to earn extra income, to add to their pension. Yet one can’t expect this practice to continue forever, as they will retire at some point. What would happen then, that’s the million-dollar question.

While the demography of Japan is not very optimistic for the cleaning industry, another social-economic issue is surfacing and has led to unexpected growth of the professional cleaning industry. In Japan, a growing number of women, who traditionally took care of the household, are now pursuing their own career, leading them to outsource cleaning to professionals. This is reflected by the growth of businesses active in housekeeping.

In the last decade, the total number of housekeeping companies tripled to 700. According to analysts the market is expected to grow further to 5.3 billion dollars, which is mainly caused by the mix of an ageing society and the higher labour participation rate of women in Japan. It means that competition for skilled cleaning staff is only increasing.

Difficult to solve

The above has really proven to be a difficult issue to solve for both the government as well as for the business world. Big corporations often don’t know where to look for qualified cleaning staff. What makes the issue more troublesome is the fact that Japan, unlike the UK, has a bad track record when it comes to letting in migrant workers to solve shortages on the labour market. And Japanese media point out that this reluctance won’t be taken away, even though a huge labour time bomb is ticking.

The Japanese government is therefore increasingly aware that humans alone can’t solve all of Japan’s problems, in fact, the government is planning to make Japan less people-dependent. This becomes clear when you have a look at Japan’s vision for the future, one that has been labelled “supersmart society”. This policy entails government spending of about 26 trillion yen (approximately €226 billion) in science and technology, over a period of five years, starting last year (one per cent of Japan’s gross domestic product).

What’s happening with the money?

One company that showcases how this is helping them to provide a more efficient professional cleaning industry is Murata Machinery - a company involved in factory automation and logistics systems, and working hard on solutions for the cleaning industry. We speak with Hideshi Nakanishi, manager business development at the centre of the research and development department. He confirms that the professional cleaning industry has problems finding enough staff to fulfil the requests they receive from companies – industrial cleaning takes up most man hours and has the biggest need for cleaners.

How is Murata Machinery making a difference? According to Nakanishi it all boils down to the SE-500IX II – which is the first ever robotised industrial vacuum cleaner. Murata Machines has developed the software of this product that is further developed by Amano Corporation.

Buffing machines and floor polishers, Amono explains, give a beautiful buffed finish to floors in commercial facilities and convenience stores. Automatic scrubbers, in addition, are mainly used in train stations, commercial buildings and factories around Japan. Carpet cleaners strip away dirt and grime from carpets subject to heave usage such as in offices and hotels. Amano cleaning solutions such as road surface cleaners and sweepers are highly efficient for cleaning paths both indoors and outdoors, and the company is one of the biggest players in the Asian cleaning market.

For a company like Amono the SE-500IX II is a life saver, Nakanishi explains. “Before it would take more machinery and more manpower to actually do the same work as the SE-500IX vacuum cleaner does.” He points out how previoulsy it would take between two and three cleaning machines to clean. What is the secret of the success of this vacuum cleaner?

“First, I would like to emphasise that the product is easy to use. You don’t need to be an engineer to operate this vacuum cleaner. It is quite simple: you push one button, then you first walk the route that is necessary, you click the ‘operate’ button and you’re ready. The robot will repeat everything: brushing pressure, water quantity, vacuum strength, everything can be programmed very easily. It literally takes one hour of training and you will save a lot of time,” Nakanishi explains.

The question is, to what extent can we expect this type of product to be implemented on a far larger scale – which could have a severe impact on the global professional cleaning industry. Nakanishi laughs when he hears this concern, as he doesn’t expect landslide changes. “There is definitely a cost challenge here. The salary for this type of cleaning operation is relatively low. But the cost of the robot on the other hand is very high compared to that of a human. The problem is that today’s robots are just too expensive.”

Labour shortages

Yet some Japanese companies are taking the risk to solve the problem of labour shortages. For instance, Japanese retail conglomerate Aeon is to introduce 400 robotic cleaners to its shopping centres across the country in the beginning of April 2018. The company explains how “self-driving cleaning machines will replace conventional floor washers operated by humans”. This will happen at night, when shoppers are out of sight. Interestingly, the deployments of robotics will save the company up to 150 million yen (€1.16 million). The company is not buying Amano Corporation’s SE-500IX II incidentally.

In some countries however, there is a bigger interest for this type of equipment, simply because labour is more expensive. “In Singapore the labour cost is lower than in Japan, so we noticed we couldn’t sell there. In Australia on the other hand, they are interested, as salaries are comparable to Japan.” In case he wants to export his product to Europe there will be other issues. “We cannot introduce it there yet due to EMC regulations, they have more severe CE-marking. In general, this is an issue for robotics developers for the cleaning industry. To export more successfully, one has to clear regulation issues and that depends on the countries you want to export to.”

Airport as testing ground

Nakanishi is very optimistic about the future, as he can say that the robotic vacuum cleaners are already fully in operation at one of Japan’s most visited sites: Tokyo’s Haneda airport. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics coming up, Japan’s Haneda Airport has initiated a robot experimental programme recently. It is called Haneda Airport Robot Experiment Project 2016 in cooperation with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Through this project the government wants to give cleaning companies the chance to test and improve their robotic technologies and promote the deployment of robotics in the services sector.
Robots developed by 17 companies have been introduced to the airport to support travel services, thereby testing their operational safety and service efficiency in public spaces. The goal is to accelerate the adoption of robotic technologies and hence improve service quality. Travellers will see robotic ground crew at the departure lounge located south of Haneda Airport’s Domestic Terminal 2 for example.

The project could prove to be an interesting testing ground for the global cleaning industry, as the deployment of robots in a place visited by millions of people every year can teach us a great deal about the interaction between robots and people. But, as Nakanishi from Murata Machinery concludes, ultimately the cleaning job cannot be done by robots alone. “So finding enough staff will continue to be very important for cleaning companies.”


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