In a world where touch-free solutions are being sourced, developed and are very much sought after, robotics are definitely the need of the hour. But are they the future? Clean Middle East, in association with Nilfisk Middle East, organized a webinar that focused on just this question.
We were in conversation with Ron Segura, President, Segura Associates, U.S.A; Javeria Aijaz, Director - ICT, Farnek Services; Anders Morup, Regional Director, Nilfisk Middle East & Africa; and Jacques Couniot, Head of Global Sales Connected Autonomous Solutions, Nilfisk.
Here are some excerpts:
Machines vs. Manual cleaning
Since cleaning robots were introduced to the industry, they have been viewed as very expensive pieces of machinery that look good but aren’t very involved. It has taken an entire global pandemic to change that view. Touch-free cleaning has become so huge that now, across the world, airports, retail centres, malls, etc are depending on robots to get the job done. According to Ron Segura, “What happened in the past is not as relevant as the current situation. Now the thought process is that robotics will minimize the need for people. In fact, work is already being reallocated from humans to machines - for instance in disinfecting.
Couniot adds, “Cleaning robots are part of a new automation trend. In fact, automated cleaning machines bring actual value to the cleaner, as it frees up time for them to perform other tasks. For example, in a mall, machines can clean the floors while the cleaner can focus on handles and harder to reach spots.
Javeria Aijaz continued, “Coming from the services industry, we experience, first hand, the cleaning role. We appreciate the innovations and advancement in technology and are aware of the benefits of automated machines over human operators. Some of the biggest advantages is that one can go beyond the work done by a human operator; moreover simple, repetitive tasks can be automated - and staff can then focus on more complex and thought-intensive tasks. A combination of robotics and humans is ideal!
Pros and cons
Anders Morup says, “We are at the cusp of change - where automation and robotics are definitely being accepted. We are currently in a co-bot - where robots and cleaners work together. As a manufacturer, we find that the biggest challenge is in the adopting of these technologies. It is a huge focus for us - we are not just going to deliver a piece of equipment; it needs to be something that is thought through and brought into the environment and is embraced by the company that is going to use the machine. Cost is a challenge, but with the COVID-19 there are other things to be thought of when you consider whether this is the right solution.”
The cleaning industry, in general, is resistant to change - it happened with the green cleaning revolution a couple of years ago, and has been seen in the introduction of robotics as well. But with the pandemic, a lot has changed. And despite people knowing it or not, it's important to highlight the pros and cons.
Ron Segura says that in the US, one of the biggest problems is finding people. “I live in the Silicon Valley, and on a normal, pre-COVID day, a person could get a job at a fast food place, which pays far greater per hour than a janitor. With robotics now you are able to pick up some of that slack – you are able to use robots to do a lot of the work that you had trouble finding staff to do. Again, the scope of work is going to be far different. The con, in my opinion, is understanding how to use the equipment effectively in different scenarios. Therefore, training is extremely important.”
Aijaz observes that Dubai advocates technology - and robotics is definitely the future! “Robots can clean way more space in far lesser time than humans. One of the biggest cons is the cost of technology – while it makes sense in the long-term, in a cost-sensitive market, it becomes expensive. But, we need to look at the broader picture, the environment and the pandemic,” she concludes!
The demand for robotics since the pandemic
Aijaz says that most retail companies and airports are interested in trying out robotic solutions that can perform certain jobs that can make the whole service industry more efficient and safer. The demand is there because of the situation.
Anders agrees. He says, “The first machines we put in operation went to airports – which are the more closed environments. But, we are now moving into more applications, and this is being sped up because of the demand of COVID-19. We are now seeing supermarkets, logistics companies, and definitely hospitals, etc depending more on robotics machines. Another advantage of having intelligent machines is that we can also update them consistently.”
Segura, adds, “Even before buildings are re-occupied, contractors, risk management and health and safety professionals are getting together and formulating a strategy for when the building is occupied. The best solution is to use technology to minimize human labour in certain areas that can be reallocated to disinfecting certain areas of the buildings. This is where robotics comes in.”
Cost in robotics is an issue that has been perceived by the industry globally - while in the long-term it makes a lot of sense, it becomes difficult to convince a cost sensitive market.
Segura says that cost is always an issue. “When purchasing robots, it is important to identify what the RoI is going to be, and if it impacts the labour. However, it is also important to consider the fact that with robots the cleaning is going to be consistent and therefore you have a satisfied customer. There is no staff fatigue; you can provide real-time reports, and that is tremendous because as a company it sets you apart from your competition. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in a new phase of cleaning whether we want it or not - we want to be able clean, sanitize and disinfect. Robotics helps document what cleaning activities have been done across the tenure of the jib and in return offers a good KPI.
Aijaz agrees about the benefits for robotics beyond that of manual labour. She also agrees that the RoI can be evaluated, but sometimes it really comes down to the kind of market that one is operating in. She says, “The GCC is a very cost sensitive and competitive market - so we try to understand customer needs before applying robotics as a solution.”
Training in robotics
Anders says that training is a huge part of Nilfisk’s development within robotics; the focus is on making it very easy for the operators and the general setup of machine. It is like an old VHS tape – there is a play, record and stop button, and that makes operating the machine very intuitive. Morup says,“Nilfisk currently has the only machine that is safety certified from a 3rd party institute through the US standards.
So for sure, safety is important, not only fo the staff but also for the people in the environment where Segura says, Training is important and it must include a process that involves machines and chemicals - and manufacturer support is a must! Another thing that Segura recommends is an implantation team – made up of an end user, vendor or manufacturer. He says, “If you have a team that is able to analyze and work with these products and then implement them, it is not left to chance. It is also good for the manufacturers, because they get feedback!”
Aijaz adds, “Training is a core part of our process. It is very important for us that when we embrace technology into our service delivery, we understand how the technology has to be used; a thorough training programme and schedule is created - so all users are aware of how it works. And we focus on following the manufacturer’s orientation documents and training plans.
Overall, the current scenario is ripe for the use of robots in cleaning and disinfection. What is crucial, however, is the manufacturer’s support in helping both the service provider and the end user understand how to use the robots effectively, in training, and in understand the long-term RoI.