Cleaning in the digital world

2nd of July 2015
Cleaning in the digital world

New smart technologies are affecting every aspect of our lives, however the professional cleaning industry has been slow to adopt them. But the new digital age will inevitably have a significant impact on the sector, writes Paul Harleman, business development director applications for Vileda Professional International.

Read The Second Machine Age written by Erik Brynjolfsen and Andrew McFee and you will find out how new, smart technologies will change our world dramatically. Not in 20 years from now but the so-called digital revolution has already started and will have amazing consequences for human society. Life will change, things will be done in different ways, professions will disappear, new professions will come and nothing will be the same as it was. Are new technologies going to influence cleaning business as well? No doubt they will.

Erik Brynjolfsen and Andrew McFee are talking about a digital revolution because they compare the impact of ongoing new digital technologies with the effects of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the period when James Watt introduced his improved steam engine. The steam engine was a revolutionary new technology starting an exponential economic growth, creating new living standards for mankind. What the steam engine did to replace physical power, digital technologies will do to mental power.

Traditional products are based on mechanical and electrical parts. When you add  sensors, microprocessors, data storage and software you get a smart product. One step further is to add technology and software which create products able to exchange information with each other. For instance, a car connected to a diagnostic machine. And then we have smart, connected products. Smart connected products can create a smart system and smart systems can be connected as well. Michael Porter and James Heppelmann wrote an interesting article about smart connected products, clearly explaining what impact the development of smart connected products has on all
businesses (Harvard Business Review, November 2014).

Robots are a special kind of smart, programmable products. They are specifically made to execute certain actions autonomously. For instance a robot welding car parts together.

Cleaning and the digital revolution?

The digital revolution absolutely will have effects for professional cleaning. Developments can be seen in two areas. First, there is the management of the cleaning process. Especially for the pre-cleaning phase and the post-cleaning phase a large variety of software products that can be integrated into existing systems is already available - for tasks like quality checks, calculation, planning of operators. Companies like Facilityapps (NL) offer a wide range of apps for these kind of applications.

But also for the operational cleaning itself, several products are available. Datec, a Norwegian company developed a software product called CleanPilot which supports operators with a trolley mounted tablet ‘telling’ them where and what to clean. And this is only the beginning. Imagine buildings become smart buildings, fully equipped with sensors that ‘hear, see, smell and feel’. Smart sensors will detect where operators are in the building.

The data is sent to an operating system and the operator gets feedback on what to clean in the room. On request cleaning instructions are presented on a smartphone and if there is an incident the supervisor can see on his smart device which operator is nearest by. Sensors can also recognise if a room is in use or not and for instance how many people visited the toilet.

Valuable information for an efficient cleaning programme in that specific moment. In the near future communication with foreign operators will be no longer be a problem because highly developed translation software will translate while you are speaking. Waste bins will have a sensor that detects the fill level and alert the operator when it has to be emptied. Just a few examples of what can be expected.

Second, digitalisation of cleaning actions. It seems like the time has come for cleaning robots. Not only robots for specialised tasks like pool cleaning or cleaning solar panels but also robots for indoor building cleaning. Scrubber dryer robots, vacuum and sweeper robots are already on the market. For instance the Hydrobot, Aerobot and Duobot cleaning robots from Intellibot Robotics (USA), a company recently bought by Sealed Air.

Also the Canadian start-up company Avidbots stating on its website: “We are firm believers that the future of commercial cleaning is autonomous and we are passionate about driving this change. The interesting thing is that both companies are not rooted in the ‘traditional’ cleaning industry. It tells us that forces of competition will change as well.

Robot scrubber dryers

Among the traditional producers of cleaning machines the Swiss Cleanfix company has had a robot scrubber dryer (Robo 40) on the market for several years and will launch a second version, the Robo2. So cleaning robots are already on the market and there is more to come. But although the execution of cleaning tasks looks very simple, for robotics experts it is highly difficult to replace the human cleaning operator by a machine. That is why cleaning operators will do their jobs for decades to come.

The cleaning of a building is simply too difficult for a machine because it has so many variables. Certain cleaning tasks however will be taken over by robots. Specifically those cleaning tasks that have limited variables and have to be done in an environment that does not change all the time. For instance floor cleaning in an indoor sports hall.

Every time essential technologies significantly improve it will create new possibilities to many different products. For instance, scientist and commercial organisations are working on new battery technologies which will increase the capacity of batteries 10 to 20 times. Also radar technology is under continuous development and will be better in the future. The moment these new technologies are at a commercial level it has impact on all kind of products and businesses. And that also means cleaning.

Human beings get smarter. We realise more and more that the best cure is prevention. And we have to prevent because we are running out of resources and the costs of curing are increasing. Prevention is not a new issue in cleaning. Most mothers tell their children to put off their shoes before entering the house because it prevents a lot of extra work. But new technologies enable us to prevent in a much more sophisticated way than before. See for instance how automobile producers develop cars that are equipped to prevent crashes.

New possibilities

Will this trend manifest in professional cleaning as well? Yes, I think so. The high tech vacuum entrance mat designed by the Japanese company Paionia Furiokuki is a good example. It brushes the soles of your shoes and vacuums the dirt. It is not the best solution but the first car was not either. If these technologies evolve, buildings will remain clean much longer and cleaning them will be easier. That will for sure have an impact on the professional cleaning business.


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