Digital technology and automation might have been slow to make their presence felt in the commercial cleaning industry, but adoption is now rapid given the cost and efficiency benefits delivered. In some cases, technology innovations are not simply being adapted to suit buildings—they are being designed into them from inception. As commercial cleaning enters the realm of Industry 4.0—incorporating the Internet of Things and cloud computing—it is not just those at the sharp end of the sector who must keep up to speed. Those who supply it can benefit if they too are ready to adapt.


The rise of the digital janitor



“The future of commercial cleaning is autonomous.” So says Avidbots, a Canadian manufacturer that produces commercial cleaning robots. Not the most objective analysis, it could be argued, but the fact remains that floor cleaning is the fastest-growing robotic category in the U.S., according to Cleaning and Maintenance Management magazine.

一位加拿大商业清洁机器人制造商 Avidbots说:“商业清洁的未来是智能化。”虽然不是最客观的说法,但事实却是如此。根据美国《清洁和保养管理》杂志统计,清洁机器人在美国增长最为迅速。

It’s easy to see why. Up to 95% of the cost of cleaning a floor is labor, but commercial cleaning operators have already tried every strategy available to reduce manual labor costs. There is simply nothing left to cut, with contracts as flexible as they can be and margins on janitorial products as tight as possible, without endangering safety or quality.


What robots are already able to achieve is often stunning. Take the example of the Hefter Robot cleaner, used at airports and hospitals in the U.K., which can cover 200,000 square feet per day. The robot uses lasers to navigate the cleaning area, keeps a log of which areas it has already cleaned, and can return to its docking station at the end to refill and recharge.


Likewise, Serbot manufactures window-cleaning robots. Their Gekko cleans 15 times faster than human crews and can even eliminate the need for harsh chemicals through thermal technology.


In healthcare, robots are proving their worth, solving the uncomfortable truth that manual cleaning solutions are often not working. More than 2 million secondary infections are transmitted through bacteria every year in the U.S., either through inadequate cleaning or pathogens that are developing resistance to chemicals. Machines such as theXenex, which uses UV light instead of chemicals to sterilize rooms, can be leased by hospitals to mitigate the expense.


Increasingly, Integrated Project Development is designing robotic cleaning into building architecture, with sensors that anticipate the needs of on-site robots. At the same time, we have not yet reached the point where automation replaces humans entirely. We are developing robots that standardize human tasks and maximize their efficiency, but we still need humans to manage the machines, monitor their tasks, and maintain them in working order.


A caveat for janitors and cleaning staff


We cannot compete with robots for performance or efficiency, but neither should we provide any excuse for them to take over. One area in which commercial cleaning companies (along with healthcare, and food service) need to stay on top of their game is in safe sanitary practices to eliminate the spread of harmful bacteria. Implementing a robust hygiene system of barrier and anti-bacterial protection can reduce absenteeism by 13% by not exposing workers and customers to harmful pathogens or bacteria.


Why the ‘Internet of Things’ matters…



Robots by themselves are relatively limited in impact. Connect a fleet of robots to a network, however, and you have significant potential. This interface between connected smart devices is the basis of the Internet of Things.


Smart applications are an emerging trend in the commercial cleaning sector. Each new device introduces a marginal gain that solves a tiny problem, but can contribute to considerable cost-saving when applied over a multi-national organization.


Take, for example, the humble soap dispenser in the bathroom. In conventional janitorial service, a supervisor would check operation of all dispensers according to a routine-based cleaning system, and refill as required. That schedule may be adapted according to peak periods identified throughout the day, or according to the availability of the janitor. Now imagine a smart soap dispenser that sends an activity report to a cloud-based network with every press of its lever. When it is approaching time for a refill, it can send an alert to the management team, and give an accurate report detailing its use throughout the day. Instead of an inanimate object that needs attention, the commercial cleaning business now has an intelligent source of valuable data that can help reduce costs and increase operational efficiency.


A cleaning mobile management system allows commercial cleaning operators to monitor the status, performance, and cost of every device, not just in a single building but across a national network. Mobile pads or tablets mounted on cleaning carts for example, can tell operators where and what to clean thanks to a network of smart sensors that illustrate everything from fill level on waste bins and soap dispensers, to spills or hazards on walkways.


The Intellibot machine used in schools, hospitals, and offices, for example, uses an Intelli-Trak wireless reporting system that sends real-time performance reports on the entire robot fleet, allowing the cleaning manager to have complete visibility of cost and progress.


This data can even be fed back to the distribution network to forecast the need for supplies and materials, direct traffic toward peak targets, or implement cost savings according to bulk orders.


Automation is good for distributors


Somehow, the gradual overthrow of conventional practices by an army of robots could be good news. The demand for cleaning and maintenance supplies is, after all, increasing, and will reach reach $7.1 billion by 2019. How, you may be wondering…?


Quite simply, a more efficient sector with lower operating costs leads to improved demand based on bigger budgets. Commercial cleaning operators still need supplies and support. Liberating parts of their budget with the help of a robot or two means they can invest more in the disposables, chemicals, and equipment to complete their tasks to a higher standard. Bear in mind that the majority of cleaning and janitorial supplies are still sold to end users by distributors. Only 3% or so is purchased through office supply, while 8% of the market has shifted to warehouse clubs, usually servicing smaller, independent users.


And before we give the impression that all the innovation is happening on the service side, let’s not forget that suppliers and manufacturers too are constantly refining their products with better-performing, eco-friendly, and cost-effective resources.




Robots, automation, and smart applications will continue to revolutionize the commercial cleaning sector, but this does not mean there has to be some “rise of the machines” scenario. The janitorial sector is still highly accessible to the small, independent operator. Greater innovation—whether in the form of robotics or high-performance supplies—ultimately impacts the bottom line. Robots may replace feet on the ground in years to come, but businesses that embrace innovation will find it possible to thrive with a restructured operation.  









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