The growing popularity of autonomous cleaning solutions is driven by three factors: ongoing commercial-cleaning challenges; the expanding capabilities of autonomous technology; and the increasing affordability of this technology. Robots and autonomous machines are no longer limited to science fiction movies: with autonomous solutions becoming more independently capable, they are generating tremendous buzz and interest in the commercial-cleaning industry.
The pandemic has led the stakeholders of the cleaning industry to the conclusion that going touchless is the way forward. The concept of cobotics, which has - in the past - been met with trepidation from the FM and hospitality industry, is now gaining momentum. So, what is cobotics, and what is the reason behind its heightened popularity?
Cobotics - a definition
Cobotics is a genuine collaboration between front-line workers and machines or robots. Cobots are collaborative robots, which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks that would otherwise be performed by an employee, while the employee focuses on tasks that require the human touch. Cobots work alongside individuals or teams - not in their place. They are instructed and monitored by people on the ground and are there to support workers.
“Like it or not, robots and cobotics are going to be a major part of every industry sooner than we expect. This opinion comes from my personal experience where I have used some kind of robotics myself for the last three years just to evaluate the concept. And, that was because I had a strong belief that they can change any industry in a good way. So, do we want to save time? Do we want to focus on doing other things in life while a robot is doing the routine job that has to be done? We need to think of the wider picture here, from driving to warehousing to maybe cooking someday, and for instance in our cleaning industry now where it’s needed more than ever,” says Steve Kadah, Regional Director of Operations, AKC Group of Companies.
A team of workers operates alongside a cobot. While cobots do heavy-duty vacuuming of large expanses of the floor, workers are freed up to focus on other tasks, such as the deep sanitisation of hard surfaces, something that is critical in order to stop the transmission of viruses and bacteria.
To put it simply, cobots carry out repetitive and timeconsuming tasks. This, in turn, improves the overall service. Cleaning teams are able to focus on more fulfilling and less physically strenuous work, while their management skills are enhanced.
The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of implementing cobotics
Anders Morup, Regional Director – Middle East & Africa, Nilfisk, shares a few tips for implementing autonomous cleaning in a new facility:
• Making sure your implementation runs smoothly
Autonomous cleaning solutions already excel in certain roles, adding tremendous value, but there are situations where these machines need an operator’s support. An autonomous machine cannot, for example, assess when extra cleaning is needed, so the machine depends on an operator’s input to make sense of the context in which they clean.
• Choose your super-users with care
It is important to remember that your cleaning crew is also part of the technological revolution. Such a role is exciting, but it also requires time and patience; the right team makes a difference in successful implementation; so take the time to identify employees with the potential to become superusers.
• Adopt a better way of working
Remember that implementing an autonomous solution means adapting to a new way of working — one that strengthens your cleaning operations and performance. Help your cleaning staff understand the advantages of the new approach, and how it will help them work more effectively. Encourage them to view the solution as a helper, and to adopt the best methods for using it.”
5-STEP APPROACH TO IMPLEMENTING COBOTICS
STEP 1: Strategize
A cleaning company that aims at successful implementation of cobotics must focus on detailed planning before this transformational change is implemented. Begin by mapping out a plan for the smooth introduction of cobots into cleaning operations; define everything - deployment, scaling, etc. Define clear and measurable objectives, with key milestones and key stakeholders.
Your cobotic strategy should take a holistic, organisation-wide approach to the introduction of cobots, to include:
• Technology integration
• New operating and resourcing models
• Training and upskilling
• Cultural and behavioural change
• Impact on clients and service delivery
• New financial models
• Measurement and evaluation
STEP 2: Communicate
Different stakeholders of the organization will respond to cobotics differently. Some benefits and KPIs of robotics will appeal more to different stakeholder groups than others. It’s, therefore, important to reach the right groups with the right message.
Develop a comprehensive communications plan, which will educate, reassure and inspire stakeholders across the organisation. These need to be delivered in a tailored, relevant way for each group, sensitive to and addressing their own specific concerns and drivers.
For instance, frontline staff will want to know how the introduction of cobots will impact their day-to-day working practices and that it won’t put their jobs at risk. They’ll also be interested in the benefits for them – less time doing repetitive and strenuous tasks, more varied work, an opportunity to learn new skills and manage cutting-edge technology.
On the other hand, clients will want reassurances that the introduction of cobotics will not result in any disruption to normal operations or drop off in standards. They will be eager to hear how cobots will improve consistency in cleaning and to free up resources to focus on enhanced service delivery – and also to increase the comfort factor to allow their own employees back into the workplace.
STEP 3: Train
Training lies at the core of every transformational change. It is essential for businesses to provide frontline workers with the necessary training to work effectively alongside robots. Without the right level of training, cleaning teams will not know how to work alongside cobots and how to get the maximum benefits.
“In cobotics, we say that instead of a person running a single machine for the whole day, he or she can instead supervise 8 robots, so training is not an issue at all. As a matter of fact, a lot of people get the idea on how those cobotics work with a minimum amount of training. I can confidently say that once a sufficient number of robots and cobots are implemented in the market, training will not remain an issue, because it will be something they’ve already got used to,” says Steve Kadah from AKC.
FM providers and cleaning contractors need to deliver a comprehensive upskilling programme that encompasses both technical skills – how to programme, monitor and manage cobots on a daily basis – and broader education around the role of cobots within the workforce, to ensure frontline staff have the understanding and right behaviours to work in a hybrid human-cobot cleaning team.
Cobotic leaders also need to pay attention to trends within the cleaning industry and ensure their training programmes are compliant with changing client expectations and demands during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Step 4: Assign responsibility
The next important step is to identify frontline staff members and supervisors who can take responsibility and act as ambassadors for cobotics within their workforces.
An ambassador programme can do wonders in overcoming the resistance to change and building the right kind of engagement that contributes to the overall success of a programme. It is essentially about creating champions or promoters for cobotics within the business itself. And what is more important is the fact that these people are not chosen from among the managerial staff. Rather, they are chosen from the frontline cleaning staff who are working alongside cobots on a daily basis and are reaping the benefits of that.
A cobotic ambassador programme could include:
• Videos, where ambassadors introduce the key benefits of cobotics.
• Written testimonials showcasing how cobotics have made their work easier.
• Taking their input into training sessions, with ambassadors talking about how they approached working with a cobot, their learnings and advice.
• Q&A sessions with supervisors to address concerns amongst the wider frontline cleaning workforce.
Step 5: Implement change and take feedback
The last, and perhaps most important part is introducing cobots in the workplace. While doing this, it is important to keep taking the feedback of the cleaning staff. Feedback will enable the ground problems to come to the notice of the management. This will also call for the change of multiple processes, worker timetables and a lot more.
A Service Provider’s Perspective
-by Benjamin Wessendorf, Business Head at Isnaad, Imdaad.
Imdaad hasn’t used cobotics so far, although they have already tested several robotic solutions in the past. Robots today are much more user-friendly and robust, as well as safe and more efficient. However, considering the initial investment and the low labor cost in the region, the implementation would not pay off over a period of a contract, and the productivity that can be achieved through manual labor in relation to the cost would be higher.
Therefore, it can be considered as an expensive marketing tactic only. Cobotics will help mitigate the risks related to labor absenteeism and transmission of the virus through the reduction of manpower in daily operations. Therefore, providing cobotics proves itself to be efficient; I have no doubt that this will be the way forward. The concept is attractive, but it has to prove itself – if successful, it will help the cleaning industry take the long-awaited next step to provide higher quality and greater consistency, increase customer satisfaction, and bring back the profit margins needed.
Simply said, it will elevate the service industry and bring more value to cleaning. Given that there are no real technological challenges, I believe that cost is the biggest hurdle to implementation of cobotics – be it as a one-time investment, or a monthly fee. The current market is hyper-competitive and purely price-driven, so the concept needs to showcase that it can convincingly fit into this scenario. It is evident that in many other regions, especially Europe, the US, and Japan, the barriers to implementation would be different due to higher labor costs.
If this hurdle is overcome, the concept would be of interest in any sector or industry. In times of a pandemic or threats to humanity – which I foresee will remain as a ‘new normal’ due to overpopulation, industrialization and destruction of the environment – the need for smart, less labor-intense solutions are of the utmost importance for all stakeholders.