The quest for greater efficiency and enhanced performance within the Facility Management (FM) industry becomes ever more pressing. Confronted with increasingly squeezed margins, growing competition and pressure from clients to demonstrate enhanced performance, business leaders in the FM sector are desperately in need of solutions, and fast. In an article published in European Cleaning Journal, Nils van der Zijl, vice-president of sales and marketing of Softbank Robotics EMEA, explains about the future of cobotics in the professional cleaning sector.
Despite heavy focus and investment on innovation and digital transformation over the past five years, only limited progress has been made, with most of these programmes failing to deliver the expected returns. There are too many tales of business leaders having their fingers burnt, pinning a great deal of hope (and money) on new cleaning machinery, only to discover that what they have bought has little or no impact on their operations, and new machines being shunned by their cleaning teams.
This is why the FM industry needs to take a more structured, strategic approach to innovation, one which acknowledges that cleaning is (and will continue to be) an industry which relies emphatically on the dedication and skill of cleaning teams. Technology and machines, no matter how powerful and intuitive, cannot transform operations without the right structures, skills and cultures in place. Only when deployed alongside engaged, motivated and productive cleaning teams can innovative technology start to deliver the game-changing efficiencies and performance that FM companies require to survive and grow. This is the very essence of cobotics.
What is cobotics and what does it mean for FM providers?
Cobotics is the collaboration between front-line workers and machines or robots. Cobots are collaborative robots which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks which would otherwise be performed by an employee, but they work alongside that individual or team, not in their place. Cobots are instructed and monitored by people on the ground and are there to support workers.
So, within cleaning, a team of workers operates alongside a cobot or several cobots, with tasks assigned based on the relative strengths and capabilities of people and machines. That means that cobots do heavy-duty vacuuming of large areas of floor, which frees up workers to focus on other tasks, such as dusting and wiping surfaces or cleaning windows.
In basic terms, cobots carry out the repetitive and time-consuming tasks (where they can deliver a higher and more consistent level of performance than human workers), and cleaning staff undertake more valuable and varied tasks which make a real difference to overall service levels.
For FM providers and cleaning contractors, the advantages of deploying a human-cobot workforce are immense. Firstly, they are able to fulfil key parts of their servicing agreements with significantly increased efficiencies, in terms of cost, performance and consistency. For tasks such as vacuuming, which has traditionally been a huge drain on resource, and subject to huge inconsistencies in performance, the introduction of cobots is genuinely game-changing.
Secondly, because cobots are taking on these time-sapping activities, cleaning teams can dedicate time to high-value tasks which they simply wouldn’t be able to in a traditional operating model, the tasks which clients really notice and appreciate, but currently get overlooked.
The introduction of cobots allows FM providers to meet and exceed service levels without additional resource. What’s more, cobots capture cleaning data as they go, and this data is shared and stored through the cloud so that managers can measure performance, track improvements and continually optimise operations. In fact for the first time, FM providers can demonstrate how innovation within their operating model is delivering a cleaner, more hygienic building environment, and accelerating the wider smarter buildings agenda. In this way, cobotics really does represent the future, where smart buildings will require smart cleaning.
Early adopters of cobotics are positioning themselves as forward-thinking leaders within the FM and cleaning industries, and attracting property owners and tenants who are keen to align themselves with innovation-driven suppliers and cutting-edge technologies. So, for example, we’re seeing FM leaders such as ISS and Sodexo introducing cobots into their cleaning operations and already developing plans to extend their use of cobotics, such has been the success of these programmes. Importantly however, adoption of cobotics is not just about technology; it also involves fresh thinking and new, innovative approaches to procurement.