Every facility management and housekeeping company worth its salt is talking about robotic cleaning today. Their customers are beginning to understand the importance of processes over personnel, and service providers appreciate the consistent quality delivered by robots, which humans cannot provide while performing repetitive tasks like cleaning.
Beyond the clamour for robots, is there a clear understanding of what robots can do? Can a client just pick a robot off a rack and push it into use? The cost of robots can be prohibitive; is there a way around it? And once the investment is made, is the ROI to the liking of customers?
Debashis Das, CEO, Bharati Robotic Systems and Miraj Vora, Head-Sales & Marketing, Peppermint Robots demystify the world of cleaning robots.
Customisation is key
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Each facility has a different layout and unique cleaning needs which require a bespoke solution. For example, a warehouse sees goods enter and leave the premises all the time and the cleaning area keeps changing. It is impossible for a machine to follow a predetermined path in a map that is ever-changing. Robots are programmed to detect obstacles and reroute intuitively.
Das said, “We have kept ground-level dynamics in mind while designing solutions. There are many variations in terms of practical challenges that FM teams face while dealing with so many kinds of clients in different segments”. His company has a checklist of 400 data points for each facility, based on which it configures the cloud-based back end for each robot.
While some configurations are standard for each industry segment, site-specific configurations are the norm rather than a special addition in robotic cleaning.
Vora shared an example: “Let us say I have to supply a robotic scrubber-dryer to the headquarters of a corporation. The floors are made of granite; I cannot use the same machine that is used in a warehouse. The granite needs super soft nylon brushes and a very low flow of water to prolong its lifespan, and we will make sure we provide this in the robot to be used on it”.
That robots are expensive is not a revelation. But some modifications — such as the need for a shorter battery life, as communicated by the client — can cut costs and make the machines more affordable.
A manufacturer may work directly with FM heads as their robotic partner, or with FM service providers looking to introduce robotics in their cleaning SOPs. Das said, “We don’t sell robots as a product, but supply them as a service for that location.” Vora had a different take: “Looking at the efficacy of robots, many clients choose to convert their rented robots to outright purchases. They start with Opex but move to Capex very fast”.
Who operates robots at the site?
While robots are automated, someone still needs to be present on the ground to deploy them. Peppermint Robots is taking janitorial staff through a bronze, silver and gold training and certification program to become robot operators.
Said Vora, “The same people who were riding on or walking behind machines now have time to do other tasks during their shift, since all they have to do is wait at the docking area or maintenance bay for the robot to return, remove waste water with the click of a button and push in fresh water with the click of another”.
Compared to the turnover of a company, its spend on FM is miniscule. However, despite demonstrated benefits, clients are still apprehensive about spending on cleaning robots.
Das put it plainly: “When you use our end-to-end solutions, your expenses on an entire staff for floor cleaning are replaced by the cost of paying one person to take care of the robots.”
Manpower-based housekeeping requires multiple levels of supervision, the cost of which may not be considered while tabulating efficiency. Apart from saving on costs of supervision, attrition and consumables, the return on investment for robotic cleaners is considerably shorter.
“The industry standard for ROI in automation is 33 months; we can provide that in less than 24 months”, claimed Vora.
Ultimately, every client wants to know the uptime of a machine. With swappable batteries, a robotic cleaner can operate through multiple shifts, pausing only for a newly charged battery.
Demand from the market
As operations in many facilities become multishift, the ability to provide a consistent cleaning experience across shifts moves the consensus in favour of robotic cleaning. But who are these customers? Those who belong to hygiene-conscious sectors like food processing, pharma, warehouses etc, who became early adopters as well as repeat customers.
Peppermint Robots has two dozen robots deployed in western India alone, with products also being shipped to Dubai. Bharati Robotics Systems has over 40 machines in the west zone, with clients in automobile manufacturing, heavy electricals, malls, hospitals and more.
Customers’ learning curve
Customers know that they want robots, but do they know why they want them? That’s a tricky question.
Many customers acquire machines after watching manufacturer-planned demos that project the strength of the product, without understanding whether it is suitable for their facility. They may not know what or how to expect, ask, check or judge the product. As Das put it, “The real problem is that even if someone can afford a robotic cleaner, they can’t use it because people don’t fully understand the value that robotics can bring.”
“As one of the first companies in this space, we are in the educating and priming phase for customers and the market. Customers too are happy to give us a learning curve of six months to a year to fully understand what we can do for them”, said Vora.
The future of the future of cleaning
While both companies assemble their robots in India, some parts are still imported. However, Bharati Robotic Systems already boasts of end-to-end automated solutions for deep cleaning, sweeping, scrubbing, vacuuming, carpet care and more.
Vora put it aptly when he said: “All new technologies have three phases – big, small, and invisible — both in terms of size and the mindspace they capture. Cleaning machines were once a revolutionary innovation; now, everyone accepts them. We are still in the first phase of robotics in India.”