"Nothing inspires cleanliness more than an unexpected guest," said lifestyle author, Radhika Mundra, long before the arrival of coronavirus and the subsequent cleaning crusade that swept across the world. There is a growing sense that the world has changed, that things will be different after we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, “a new normal” the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, called it in a press briefing yesterday. What does that really mean, in practice?
Major events change our society. After a magnitude 7.9 earthquake destroyed 80% of San Francisco in 1906, the city found the motivation, resolve, and technical innovation to become a global pioneer of earthquake-proof architecture. The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 triggered a wave of improvement for coastal defenses. While 9/11 increased surveillance culture and changed airport security, for good and for bad, around the world. COVID-19 is more global than all those events and the changes it promises to inspire revolve mainly around healthcare, hygiene, and cleanliness.
Disasters usually bring people together physically, to share protective structures or emotional challenges, but COVID-19 has created physical separation. Other people, surfaces, and indoor spaces have become the new dangerous things in our lives all of a sudden, and the only way to feel safe is to make those things cleaner. This could trigger a boom in building cleaning systems and public health procedures in obvious, and some less obvious, ways.
Our workplaces will hire more cleaning staff while they consider longer-term investments in more efficient or effective cleaning technology. Our gyms, full of metal surfaces coated in human bodily fluids, may take a while longer to reopen until they find an appropriate cleaning solution. And, in the current climate, it is very hard to think of a safe way to have public toilets anymore. Our primary weapons in one of the greatest challenges to modern human civilization are soap and water, elbow grease and limiting social behavior.
“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 programs failing to deliver the expected returns,” says Nils van der Zijl, vice-president of sales and marketing for Softbank Robotics EMEA. “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.”
Robotics companies have certainly made their voice heard during the crisis, touting virus zapping UV-light robots, among other ideas, as revolutionary COVID-19 cleaning solutions. The robots ensure that the disinfectant properties of light reach every dark corner of rooms without risking human exposure to the virus or to the harmful exposure to harsh UVC light. These are not perfect cleaning systems, however, careful human sanitation is still required in most cases, creating a barrier for the technology.
The truth is that, if we had the level of technology that would allow us to release automated cleaning robots to deeply clean buildings without disrupting operations or missing spots, then we would have been talking about it before the COVID-19 pandemic. Disasters force us to innovate and adapt, but we can’t jump a few big steps into the future just because we need to. Robots will certainly be part of our future, for cleaning and many other tasks, but that will need to evolve step-by-step. The next stage of that journey is likely to be Cobots.
“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,” says van der Zijl. “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.”
Cobots (Collaborative Robots) are semi-automated robots intended to interact with and support humans safely, in a shared space. They are designed for repetitive or strenuous tasks that would otherwise be performed by a human employee, meaning an individual or small team of human cleaners (and cobot handlers) can cover a huge space by instructing cobots to do the “heavy-lifting” while humans cover the tricky spots. These cobots also gather various data sets as they clean, making them an active driver for the development of smart buildings.
“In order for the cleaning industry to move towards this exciting, cobot-inspired future, we need to re-frame the narrative around automation. Rather than viewing automation with suspicion, based on doomsday reports of mass job displacement, business leaders and workers need to take a more considered view,” continued Softbank’s van der Zijl, in an article for the European Cleaning Journal.
“For FM providers, the benefits of cobotics are almost unlimited. Cost efficiencies, improved performance, greater staff engagement and retention, and a modern innovation-driven brand. Those organizations that can harness the power of cobots, integrating them into their operations in a seamless and harmonious way alongside cleaning staff, will thrive over the coming years.”