by Jeff Cross — Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of ISSA
When you walk the trade show floor at ISSA Show North America, you can’t help but feel mesmerized by the array of technology, and at the top of the list of innovation is what’s happening with robotics and automation.
Smart facility executives and managers take it beyond the show and implement smart technology into their cleaning operations. There are some details that decision-makers must consider in order to make sure they are informed on these important issues.
ISSA Today reached out to technology leaders in the industry to obtain information that is applicable not only to the world of cleaning today, but also the future. Read on to see what you can use and implement in your own facilities.
Bridging technology and cleaning
Kris Dihrkop is the director of strategic accounts with ICE Robotics, and knows that, although robotic technology seems like a new development, it has actually been part of the cleaning industry for decades. “Until now, technology and cost limitations have kept it from being widely accepted and adopted. Previous robots required extensive mapping performed by factory engineers, navigation limitations, infrastructure changes, and high upfront costs,” he says. “Current cleaning robotics solves many of these issues by integrating some of the latest technology and business models from the tech industry.”
Dr. Greg Scott is the president and CEO of Service Robotics & Technology (SRT). His company works across several segments of automation, from commercial Internet of Things (IoT) systems to robotic hardware and more. His company’s mission is to help facilities to become “smart building ecosystems.”
“We are addressing the gap between the development of service robots and connected IoT hardware and the adoption of that hardware in a way that improves staff efficiency, meets regulatory compliance, and reduces costs,” Scott explains. “And it’s all about the software,” Scott adds, as his company has developed a software framework “that brings together smart devices from different manufacturers without requiring any modifications to hardware.”
Robotics utilize advanced vision and sensor detection to ensure safety and productivity. “The top priority is to protect people and property,” according to Dihrkop.
“To ensure safety, robots are equipped with multi-layered sensors that both accurately map the environment but also detect any changes in their surroundings. They can even detect sudden changes such as a person walking into its path,” he points out. “Powerful onboard computing and operating systems analyze this information to allow the robots to stop and navigate around obstacles or call for human assistance. Some common sensor technologies used today are light detection and ranging (LiDAR), 3D sensors, and time-of-flight (ToF) cameras. These sensors each perform a specific task to optimize performance.
“Today’s cleaning robots are equipped with easy to operate user interfaces (UI) and simplified user experiences,” Dihrkop adds. Employees can be trained to program and deploy robots in a matter of minutes. “This is especially important in a dynamic environment where reprogramming may be more frequent. This is possibly the biggest advancement in cleaning automation as ease of operation significantly improves efficiency and lowers cost of ownership.”
“Tracking all of this is critical,” Scott says. “A map-based facility management system is intuitive to the building managers. This not only displays the location of IoT sensors, smart dispensers, and robots, but also allows your facility manager to monitor sensor readings and know exactly where problems lie when they arise. When coupled with occupancy data, asset tracking, or custodial robots, being able to visualize the situation as it happens and automatically adjusting your team’s workflow based on sensor readings or emergencies allows for greater efficiency across the custodial team.
“This is where automation really shines,” Scott continues. “Devices sharing data and sensors from one device, can automate the actions of another,” he explains. “Built-in reporting from across devices provides oversight and insight, allowing building managers to optimize their practices and reallocate staff to places in the building that need more attention. This all transforms commercial facilities into smart building ecosystems.”
“The need for greater automation in the custodial industry was apparent before the pandemic,” according to Scott.
“With high staff turnover and difficulty in adapting to major unexpected tasks, custodial managers are juggling a lot to maintain clean facilities and a safe environment for their company,” he says. And Scott feels that today, the problems are amplified with the assurance that as much was done as possible to mitigate COVID-19 risks, both for return-to-work, and then on a daily basis for every building in the country.
Today’s technologies can definitely provide that assurance. “The autonomous floor cleaners, UV robots, smart bathrooms, and more are incredible systems and offer components to greatly help in this process,” Scott claims. “Unfortunately, each only provides insights to custodial managers about their subsystems, rooms, or specific capabilities. Information and insights are not shared across these platforms. And, as such, a true sense of a building’s needs is not known until a smart building ecosystem is created.”
Sri Sridharan is the chief product officer with Zan Compute. His company’s goal is to provide data-driven optimizations and actionable recommendations to the cleaning industry.
“COVID-19 has put cleaning and disinfection front and center in facility maintenance. While the cleaning industry is crafting new process and implementation strategies, it is paramount to consider the required technology components that will ensure the implementation of those process to be efficient and effective,” he says, adding that ultimately the goal will be to provide the safest environment for building occupants and providing the required visibility to ensure peace of mind and comfort.
All involved in technology, automation, and smart buildings agree that any implementation of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting processes should be data driven. “In other words,” Sridharan explains, “understanding of population density inside the building, usage of areas, be it restroom, common area, or others are key and should drive the cleaning and sanitization process.”
While struggling with cleaning and facility maintenance issues now, everyone is thinking about what is coming after this pandemic is over and how technology, automation, and robotics will help.
“Our sensor-based solution will help with post-COVID-19 recovery in the cleaning industry and in providing peace of mind to the building occupants,” Sridharan says. “We have multiple sensors and AI-based solutions that help in this scenario. Social distancing and resource optimization in commercial office spaces will be critical.
“Sensor and the object monitoring sensors can direct the staff to the high touch/high traffic areas to make sure the necessary cleaning and disinfecting is accomplished on an appropriate schedule, and also monitor the density of occupants in all areas, sending alerts when social distancing recommendations could be in jeopardy,” Sridharan adds. “Sensors can monitor usage and material levels and provide data-based visibility into cleaning actions done at the specific areas.”
In recent years, restroom monitoring technologies were gaining traction, but post-COVID-19 it is critical to have additional tracking and insights across the entire facility. “There are two key tracks to organize the requirements,” Sridharan reveals. “One is looking at it more from areas in a facility like entrance/exit, restrooms, common areas, etc. The second is from a personal perspective, like building occupants, and cleaning staff.”
As with all systems, there are what some could call “weak links” that need more attention.
The first would be called “data silos,” Sridharan notes. “In smart buildings today, every segment has a different set of players and very few of them talk to each other. For example, occupancy data may be separate from both HVAC, lighting, and maintenance systems. All three of them gain by sharing this data,” he explains. “AI platforms that pull all the data together to analyze and show dashboards have to work with many different data formats and normalization efforts.”
The second, is that technology must not be just a utility and treated as a peripheral piece. It should be ingrained in the regular cleaning process. “The user experience needs to be simple enough to facilitate this,” Sridharan continues. “We create systems tailored to accomplish this with input from cleaning professionals and in-field experience.”
Another weak link is attempting to implement too much and not fully applying and using what you have.
“What we find is many companies are trying to implement some of the latest and greatest technology coming to market,” Scott says, “but they end up with a closet full of smart devices. What we do to help, is bring together those different platforms into one connected ecosystem, where device data, monitoring, control, reporting, and even automation are all tied together.”
In addition, Scott says, “Today, that hardware is even more important, and bringing it together in a single AI software package can inform custodial staff where to focus their COVID-19 mitigation efforts.”
The new normal
According to Sridharan, “Data-driven scheduling of resources for better control of cleaning requirements is here to stay. COVID-19 exposes the need for this, but the industry has already started realizing the benefits, and will continue to do so moving forward.
“Occupant visibility of cleaning may slowly become unnecessary after the COVID-19 pandemic disappears completely,” Sridharan adds, “when people get comfortable about the premises and the cleaning processes.”
And for facilities struggling with budgetary issues, many companies have a solution.
“Historically, robotics has been associated with high upfront costs and significant capital investments,” Dihrkop explains. “But this is being addressed by adopting the SaaS (software as a service) model that is commonplace in the software industry. And some companies are engaging in a subscription model that provides cost predictability and allows organizations to better reallocate capital.”
Whether managing a small or large facility, using smart technology, automation, and robotics is an option to seriously consider and implement, not just now, but in the future.
About the author
Jeff Cross is the editorial director of ISSA Media, which includes ISSA Today, Cleaning & Maintenance Management, and Cleanfax. He can be reached at JeffCross@ISSA.com or 740-973-4236.