Robotics - time for real industry change

21st of August 2023
Robotics - time for real industry change

Labour shortages on the one hand, high pressure on costs and margins on the other. Faced with a wide range of challenges, the commercial cleaning industry needs new innovative approaches. One solution is the deployment of robots in a holistic cobotic system solution says autonomous vacuum cleaner specialist Dr Henning Hayn, general manager of Nexaro.

THE PROFESSIONAL commercial cleaning industry is undergoing profound changes. Increasing pressure on margins, generally rising costs and wages, and the constantly worsening shortage of qualified cleaning staff are posing enormous challenges for numerous companies throughout Europe. These problems can cause or have already caused serious financial difficulties, especially for medium-sized companies. In addition, many customers now request digital and semi-autonomous solutions in their tenders.

New and innovative concepts are therefore imperative to meet these challenges. Robotics offers a promising approach to solving the problems. Autonomous and semi-autonomous cleaning devices can take over many of the tasks that are particularly strenuous and time-consuming for cleaning staff and thus provide valuable assistance.

In this way, they not only contribute to upgrading the job profile of the cleaning specialist, but at the same time increase cost efficiency and thus margins for commercial cleaning companies. However, the cost of many of the robotic systems currently available is in the five-figure euro range and the systems require extensive and complicated initial set-up and maintenance.

Reliable, comprehensive cleaning

But what can such a solution look like in concrete terms? For a significant increase in efficiency, cleaning robots must offer two things: reliable, autonomous operation on the one hand and on the other integration into an overall digital system that enables holistic coordination, control and documentation of cleaning resources, ideally in such a clear and simple way that it is possible even without in-depth knowledge of digital systems.

Let’s deal with the first aspect first. It is obvious that a cleaning robot can only be used efficiently if the need for interaction with the cleaning staff is reduced to a minimum, ie, the robot actually works autonomously. The robot must therefore not only be able to be controlled remotely, but also be able to orient itself independently in its environment. This means it must be able to map a room, recognise and avoid obstacles, and use programmed manoeuvres to get out of dead ends.

When the work is done, it must be able to independently approach the charging station and recharge its batteries for the next work cycle – without the need to replace them and charge them separately. At the same time, autonomous operation places the highest demands on cleaning performance. The cleaning must be reliable, cover the entire area and be up to the edges so no subsequent reworking by cleaning staff is necessary if possible.

Man and machine

Initial concerns that the use of robots would lead to a reduction of staff in the cleaning industry have long since been disproved by practical experience. Instead, modern, future-oriented cleaning concepts require genuine interaction between man and machine, in which both parties make optimal use of their respective strengths. In such cases, we speak of so-called cobots, ie, collaborating robots that support skilled workers instead of replacing them.

The skills and specific expertise of the cleaning staff are still needed – whether in above-floor cleaning or in areas where a robot cannot or must not be used. Robots, on the other hand, play a supporting role: They take over the tasks that are particularly strenuous, monotonous and time-consuming and thus currently represent one of the main cost drivers for cleaning companies in terms of staff deployment and intensity.

This is particularly well illustrated by the example of dry floor cleaning. The cleaning of large carpeted areas, for example in offices or hotels, has so far not only been extremely strenuous for the cleaning staff, but also very time-consuming, thus tying up a lot of personnel.

Autonomous vacuum robots can take over this work, reliably delivering good results and thus decisively relieving their human colleagues. Robots with smaller dimensions are particularly promising, as their lighter weight allows them to clean close to the edge, reducing the need for manual rework. Another advantage of smaller robots - they can be used flexibly as a fleet and therefore in different rooms of a building that a single larger device could not reach independently as parts of the building may be separated by fire doors.

Upgrade of job profile

As a result, cleaning staff can focus on more demanding tasks for which there was previously little or no time. In our example this includes above-floor cleaning, such as cleaning desks and shelves in offices. In addition, staff benefit from the elimination of off-peak working hours – especially night work – as they can be taken over by the autonomously operating robots. A positive side effect of this relief in terms of the field of work and working hours is an upgrading of the job profile, which should lead to an increased demand for the profession of cleaning specialist in the medium term.

For the smooth integration of the robot into the daily work of the cleaning personnel, the easy operability of the device and the software are among the most important items in the specifications of a future-oriented and market-driven system solution. In our Nexaro cobotic system approach, we have even set ourselves the goal of ensuring that setting-up and maintenance of the device can be performed by the property manager or a cleaning specialist with an affinity for technology - without the need for an external service technician - in order to offer cleaning companies the greatest possible flexibility.

Safety and security

The requirements for the second aspect, namely the integration of the robot into an overall digital system, are similar to those for cleaning performance, because this system must not only take over control and coordination, but at the same time be able to document cleaning performance – both quantitatively and qualitatively. Which areas were cleaned? What was the cleaning performance? Were there any error messages due to obstacles or other problems?

A detailed log of the cleaning services performed helps companies optimise their processes and also serves as proof to the customer. After all, sophisticated software can not only manage a fleet of cleaning robots, but also include staff scheduling and thus serve as a central tool for the entire organisation of the cleaning service.

All in all, these two aspects result in a further, third requirement: meeting the highest standards in terms of safety and security. On the one hand, this applies to navigation. Various sensors installed in the robot as well as precise laser navigation ensure reliable coordination and environmental detection and, thanks to functional redundancy, offer maximum safety, for example when working around stair edges or detecting obstacles.

In addition, modern cleaning robots rely on laser or ultrasonic sensors for navigation, which are used not only to scan and map the premises in detail when the robot is first set up, but also to react to movable objects such as chairs during everyday work. The use of camera-based navigation, however, is prohibited for obvious reasons.

This brings us to another aspect, namely data security. Whether in an exhibition hall or a hotel corridor, an office building or a logistics centre, data protection is one of the basic requirements of a coherent cleaning concept in every area of application. At Nexaro, we therefore rely on an integrated cellular connection instead of WLAN for communication with the robot in order to be able to ensure compliance with safety standards.

The data is also hosted on secure servers in Germany, which are set up and maintained in accordance with the applicable data protection regulations. In addition, a laser-based navigation system developed in Germany is installed, so that no sensitive data can be tapped here either.

Certified compliance

External inspection bodies certify the manufacturers’ compliance with the relevant standards and directives, thus guaranteeing cleaning companies the greatest possible security and reliability. The Machinery Directive is one of the most important international specifications. It regulates a uniform level of protection for accident prevention and its requirements must be met by robots in professional use. Generally speaking, the safety and security requirements for a cleaning robot are similar to those for an aeroplane.

Last but not least, particularly sensitive areas can be additionally demarcated with magnetic strips so that the robot is stopped by a haptic boundary in addition to the software-based barrier - for example, if an area is secured with an alarm system and therefore may not be entered.

The future of robotics

If the robots meet the above criteria, they offer various advantages not only to cleaning companies and professionals, but also to customers, because the cleaning robots not only guarantee high cleaning quality but can also be deployed as often as required, either individually or as a fleet. Where previously cleaning was only carried out for visible soiling, the robots can be used as often as desired without additional effort and enable a consistently high level of cleanliness.

Experience has shown that this can even be verified based on the air quality, which in turn and in line with the holistic approach is controlled and documented in the associated software. Given these tangible benefits, the use of autonomous or semi-autonomous cleaning robots is already part of numerous tenders.

But why are robots still relatively uncommon in the commercial cleaning industry? In my opinion, this is because the complexity and diversity of the above requirements could not be met in the past. In particular, the high acquisition, set-up and maintenance costs as well as the complexity of robotic systems have been too great an obstacle thus far. In the early days of robotics, it was often necessary for cleaning staff or a technician to accompany the robot, making the use of robots both impractical and unprofitable.

Thanks to major advances in development, this has now changed, paving the way for forward-looking approaches. At Nexaro, we are currently launching one of the first solutions that will profitably meet customer needs and revolutionise the professional cleaning industry.


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