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The future of cleaning is cobotic

16 May 2024

Dees Maharaj, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), OMNI Group, explores the growing role of cobotics in overcoming labour shortages in the cleaning sector.

Severe staff shortages continue to represent a significant challenge for most FM service providers. The cleaning sector, in particular, is suffering from a shrinking labour pool brought on by tighter immigration and lack of interest from UK workers, so can advances in robotics help plug the gap? Using machines alongside physical teams – often referred to as cobotics – has been touted as a potential fix to the problem, but uptake has been cautious and questions remain around efficiencies and return on investment.

AI driven, autonomous cleaning machines are becoming a viable solution for certain applications and requirements, enhancing efficiency and productivity levels during daily cleaning operations. We are seeing greater acceptance and adoption in certain vertical sectors, especially where speed is a priority or there is a need for a quiet and inobtrusive cleaning function. Therefore, this technological innovation and automation can increasingly play a key role in offsetting the impact of labour shortages.

Hospitality

Hospitality is one sector where we are seeing uptake due to the need for rapid turnaround of rooms to maximise hotel performance and profitability. There are machines that can work alongside the operative to increase how many rooms are cleaned in a shift, with an improvement of 10 to 15 per cent achievable. The machine maps out the room and then cleans the maximum available space – typically 80 to 90 per cent of a room – returning to its starting point and shutting down ready for emptying and moving to the next space. In contrast, a human operative will only clean what they see.

There are also machines that are suited for larger, open spaces such as corridors, conference rooms and front-of-house receptions, which can operate safely and discreetly while these public areas are still in use. These deliver a consistent level of performance, with HEPA filters to improve air quality, while providing a deeper level of cleaning than is achievable with most vacuum cleaners to better protect carpets and hard flooring. This includes capturing what is referred to as occupied dust, where particles are kicked up when someone walks on carpets, even when they have been manually cleaned.

Integrated processes

For the best results, cobotics needs to be closely aligned and integrated with existing processes, complementing the physical team to get the job completed in the most efficient way possible. The cleaning machines can be a very useful tool to improve performance, but they are still a tool, and as such, need to be managed and operated correctly. Training is certainly required to ensure cleaners, supervisors and managers are handling and maintaining the robots correctly, or there is a risk that they will not achieve the desired results.

The sophistication of robots is only going to improve in the future, evolving to take advantage of emerging AI, tracking and cloud-based technology. Enhanced connectivity will bring together both human and robotic resources into a single management system, while advanced sensors will deliver greater levels of control, functionality and monitoring. Furthermore, scanning technology fitted on the robot will eventually have the ability to identify cleaning requirements and maintenance defects in real-time or on-demand to support usage-based cleaning and maximise resources.

The technology is still in its infancy, but there is now a growing understanding with regards to where value can be added and how it can support physical cleaning teams. The opportunity exists for those service providers that can harness the potential of cobotics to work alongside people, improve productivity, and alleviate work pressures. This can help overcome labour challenges by improving operational performance, and in time, even make the sector more attractive to prospective workers.









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