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November 21, 2016

Robots: From Fairytale to Fairly Close

Written by  Sam Burroughs

Once upon a time, we see sepia-toned photos of factories. We conjure up memories and pull pictures from old history lessons. Automatic machines built cars, planes, trains, boats. They resurrected economies. They made wars fightable. They employed people in droves. They provided the framework for unprecedented technological growth.

The idea of robots typically creates up one of two feelings: a sense of dread only found in sci-fi movies or excitement founded in the vigor of America’s Industrial Revolution.

In the BSC’s realm, the picture is more complicated than either of those tropes. At our first thought, we see those historical images that depicted a time when automated machinery made everything easier. It made businesses possible. It made buildings larger and operation costs cheaper.

As times move forward, automated machines are beginning to advance to more closely resemble autonomous robots that can solve a problem or make a decision on its own. This is when BSCs start to feel a little uneasy about robots in the workplace. The cons can be numerous: automated systems eliminate jobs for some laborers, they require money for maintenance and specially trained staff and artificial intelligence can seem threatening and ill-fitting for the complex jobs performed by every layer of a BSC’s team.

While substantially artificially intelligent robots are still far off in our future, the cleaning industry is seeing an increasing diversification of the availability of automated machines that can efficiently perform tasks. Automated vacuums and floor scrubbers, for example, have begun growing in popular discussion in the industrial cleaning industry.

We did some investigating and gathered a list of pros and cons to consider as the age of the all-automatic begins to dawn.

The Pros:

Things that make a job easier and more efficient are very appealing. In the industrial cleaning industry, managing an employee’s time and resources to properly get the best job done in the shortest amount of time is often a big goal.

The idea of robots in the cleaning industry fit into that bigger picture, marrying the idea of efficiency and ease of completion.

If machines can autonomously perform a task at a quicker pace than what an employee could do, it frees up the employee’s time to perform more complicated, detailed tasks. The upfront investment in machines, such as automated vacuums or floor scrubbers, pays for itself in the long run.

An article in Forbes outlined the particular pros and cons of automated vacuums used in a residential setting. While industrial cleaning presents its own set of unique challenges and requirements, the ideas outlined in the article made it easier to understand the concept of robots in the work environment.

Automated machines allow you to schedule cleaning. This means that an area could be cleaned without much human interaction. This is what will free up an employee’s time to perform other tasks.

These type of vacuum cleaners also have the potential of reaching areas that are tougher for employees to get to. Since they are designed to be hands-free, their shape can be built to slide under desks or around other furniture.

In addition to having the potential to have a greater reach, automated cleaning machines can have specialized features. In the case of vacuum cleaners, some models can be programed for spot cleaning. This allows the user to focus on a specific area that needs to be cleaned, saving time, energy and increasing the overall quality of the job being done.

Lastly, robots have the potential to have many skills. For example, some automatic vacuums can double as a mop. While these features are still fairly primitive when combating the demands of industrial cleaning, their development showcases a potential for continued, rapid growth in the automated cleaning market.

As a BSC, keeping your eyes on what is upcoming is key to keeping up with the market. New innovations continue to transform industry standards. Now, we can look at some of the drawbacks of potentially using robots in this industry.

The Cons:

According to the Forbes’ article, one of the biggest drawbacks is the space you are cleaning needs to be robot-proof. In a big environment, like an office building or an airport, that seems almost impossible. There may always be the potential for something that will accidentally get swept up or damage the machine.

Employees of BSCs work in large, complex environments that involve many rooms that have different needs. Finding an automated vacuum, or any upcoming robotic innovation for the cleaning industry, to fit those diverse needs and is equipped to handle varying obstacles is still a work in progress.

One of the main purposes of considering investing in robotic machines is the idea that the machine will be able to work autonomously. But what happens if it malfunctions? For example, a robotic vacuum could get stuck and be prevented from performing its task. If it is set to complete a task autonomously, an employee may not discover that it has stopped short until the end of their shift. This creates the potential for frustrating inefficiencies.

There are also logistics that have to be tackled, such as: battery life, capacity to hold cleaning products or debris, noise level, initial cost and expenses for upkeep.

In commercial cleaning, the area you are working in may also have restrictions. For example, a robot that works in a hospital may need to be cleared by the FDA, as was the case for a telemedicine machine, designed by the makers of the popular automated vacuum, the Roomba.

As reported by Mashable.com, the telemedicine machine needed to be able to move efficiently and safely through an intense and chaotic environment. It became the first robot to receive FDA clearance for hospital use.

You always have to keep in mind the possible regulatory agencies that could have a hand in how you continue to provide top-notch services to your clients. For example, having a robot vacuum in an airport or a government building may require you to receive special approval or clearance. The idea of robots in restaurants or in agricultural distribution may, in the future, have to meet USDA standards.

In addition to meeting possible agency standards, a BSC always has to keep in mind the increasing lean toward green cleaning methods. Can these robots perform a task and meet these standards? Can they work efficiently with environmentally friendly products?

The New Zealand Herald reported in 2015 that the Auckland Airport has an entire automated cleaning system that scrubs, vacuums and sweeps. The system is designed to use sonar sense to avoid obstacles, is programed to stop instantly if someone tries to interact with it and can use UV light systems to get rid of germs.

These up-and-coming features in the industry bring about one of the biggest concerns of BSCs: safety. Would you be liable if someone, whether it be an employee or otherwise, was hurt by an automated machine? What about if it accidentally damages property?

Weighing these hypothetical pros and cons can help you think more analytically on an issue that is increasing in prevalence in the industry.

Epilogue

Ultimately, BSCs will have to decide if automated machines can replace roles of certain laborers or if they will complement existing jobs.

The idea of robots in the industrial cleaning setting creates many complex questions that include: are there options for higher skilled roles for employees? Can it incorporate green-cleaning technology and practices? And are you investing in the right machines at the right time?

In an article in the Boston Globe, research reported showed that part of the appeal of robotic cleaning machines is that people created emotional attachments to them.

While the study in the article focused on the Roomba, its look into emotional reactions to these robots showed that part of the brain views the cleaning machine as a social entity. The robot’s autonomy made it more than just a machine.

These cleaning machines can appear as if they are interacting with humans, responding to commands and keeping a schedule like an employee. Marketing for these machines make them humanistic, giving the illusion of having artificial intelligence or personifying the robot so that it has a certain personality.

Is this an employee you want to invest in? BSCs will be keeping their eye on these machines, with the potential of viewing them as employees, as they continue to develop. With these pros and cons we can see just the beginning of integrating robotic employees into the janitorial workforce.

Last modified on November 21, 2016

1 comment

  • Comment Link M Hays November 22, 2016 posted by M Hays

    Just testing the system......

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