Nils van der Zijl, vice-president of sales and marketing for Softbank Robotics EMEA, writes for ECJ on the future of cobotics in the professional cleaning sector. He explains how this new technology could deliver greater efficiency, performance and staff retention.
The quest for greater efficiency and enhanced performance within the Facility Management (FM) industry becomes ever more pressing. Confronted with increasingly squeezed margins, growing competition and pressure from clients to demonstrate enhanced performance, business leaders in the FM sector are desperately in need of solutions, and fast.
Despite heavy focus and investment on innovation and digital transformation over the past five years, only limited progress has been made, with most of these programmes failing to deliver the expected returns. There are too many tales of business leaders having their fingers burnt, pinning a great deal of hope (and money) on new cleaning machinery, only to discover that what they have bought has little or no impact on their operations, and new machines being shunned by their cleaning teams.
This is why the FM industry needs to take a more structured, strategic approach to innovation, one which acknowledges that cleaning is (and will continue to be) an industry which relies emphatically on the dedication and skill of cleaning teams. Technology and machines, no matter how powerful and intuitive, cannot transform operations without the right structures, skills and cultures in place. Only when deployed alongside engaged, motivated and productive cleaning teams can innovative technology start to deliver the game-changing efficiencies and performance that FM companies require to survive and grow. This is the very essence of cobotics.
What is cobotics and what does it mean for FM providers?
Cobotics is the collaboration between front-line workers and machines or robots. Cobots are collaborative robots which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks which would otherwise be performed by an employee, but they work alongside that individual or team, not in their place. Cobots are instructed and monitored by people on the ground and are there to support workers.
So within cleaning, a team of workers operates alongside a cobot or several cobots, with tasks assigned based on the relative strengths and capabilities of people and machines. That means that cobots do heavy-duty vacuuming of large areas of floor, which frees up workers to focus on other tasks, such as dusting and wiping surfaces or cleaning windows.
In basic terms, cobots carry out the repetitive and time-consuming tasks (where they can deliver a higher and more consistent level of performance than human workers), and cleaning staff undertake more valuable and varied tasks which make a real difference to overall service levels.
For FM providers and cleaning contractors, the advantages of deploying a human-cobot workforce are immense. Firstly, they are able to fulfil key parts of their servicing agreements with significantly increased efficiencies, in terms of cost, performance and consistency. For tasks such as vacuuming, which has traditionally been a huge drain on resource, and subject to huge inconsistencies in performance, the introduction of cobots is genuinely game-changing.
Secondly, because cobots are taking on these time-sapping activities, cleaning teams can dedicate time to high-value tasks which they simply wouldn’t be able to in a traditional operating model, the tasks which clients really notice and appreciate, but currently get overlooked.
The introduction of cobots allows FM providers to meet and exceed service levels without additional resource. What’s more, cobots capture cleaning data as they go, and this data is shared and stored through the cloud so that managers can measure performance, track improvements and continually optimise operations.
In fact for the first time, FM providers can demonstrate how innovation within their operating model is delivering a cleaner, more hygienic building environment, and accelerating the wider smarter buildings agenda. In this way, cobotics really does represent the future, where smart buildings will require smart cleaning.
Early adopters of cobotics are positioning themselves as forward-thinking leaders within the FM and cleaning industries, and attracting property owners and tenants who are keen to align themselves with innovation-driven suppliers and cutting-edge technologies. So, for example, we’re seeing FM leaders such as ISS and Sodexo introducing cobots into their cleaning operations and already developing plans to extend their use of cobotics, such has been the success of these programmes.
Importantly however, adoption of cobotics is not just about technology; it also involves fresh thinking and new, innovative approaches to procurement. Organisations benefit from flexible leasing models, deploying cobots ‘as a service’, rather than through traditional purchasing models. So rather than having to commit to large capital expenditure up front, with little certainty of life-span or long-term value, contractors will be able to pursue their innovation programmes and access the very latest technologies on a totally flexible and scalable basis, through a fixed monthly cost.
This cobotic leasing model provides business leaders with full visibility and control on costs, with all servicing and product upgrades included. What’s more, they can use the data collected by cobots to continually optimise cleaning operations and make informed decisions around resourcing structures.
The ‘people’ side of cobotics
The cleaning industry is facing huge challenges in finding and retaining high quality talent. Staff attrition rates of 200 per cent are the norm and many contractors face a constant struggle to recruit the people they need. Again cobotics can help, boosting engagement within teams and, as a result, improving retention rates. And when required, cobots can pick up the slack when problems arise due to staff churn or absenteeism.
The introduction of cobotics liberates cleaning professionals from the strain and mental drain of repetitive work. Cleaners can undertake more varied and fulfilling work, and have the satisfaction of seeing improvements in overall performance.
Not only this, but cleaning teams that work alongside cobots have the opportunity to engage with and manage the latest cutting-edge innovations, enabling them to develop new skills and competencies in some of the hottest areas of technology.
At a time when mental and physical health in the workplace is becoming an ever-more pressing concern for employers, and specifically within an industry where absenteeism rates hover around 25 per cent, any development that reduces the amount of physical and repetitive tasks that workers are undertaking and that provides a healthier, more fulfilling working environment has to be welcomed.
Over the coming years, we’ll see FM providers promoting their use of cobotics to position themselves as innovative forward-thinking employers, with a strong commitment to employee wellbeing. And similarly, we’re also likely to see building owners and developers aligning themselves closely with cobotics in order to show their commitment to innovation and improved end user experience, and to accelerate their own smart building strategies.
An unprecedented opportunity
In order for the cleaning industry to move towards this exciting, cobot-inspired future, we need to re-frame the narrative around automation. Rather than viewing automation with suspicion, based on doomsday reports of mass job displacement, business leaders and workers need to take a more considered view. Indeed, the World Economic Forum predicts that AI and automation will actually lead to net job creation, with the introduction of millions of new specialist and highly skilled jobs.
More significantly within the cleaning industry, however, McKinsey reports that whilst less than five per cent of all occupations can be automated entirely using current technologies, about 60 per cent of all occupations have at least 30 per cent of constituent activities that could be automated today. So the real impact of automation will not be in replacing people, but in changing the types of work that most people carry out on a daily basis. Cobots will improve and enrich working lives within cleaning, rather than threatening them.
For FM providers, the benefits of cobotics are almost unlimited. Cost efficiencies, improved performance, greater staff engagement and retention, and a modern innovation-driven brand. Those organisations that can harness the power of cobots, integrating them into their operations in a seamless and harmonious way alongside cleaning staff, will thrive over the coming years.
Source: European Journal of Cleaning