The pandemic has turned cleaning and other mundane building tasks into a challenge, stoking interest in machines as cost-effective solutions.
The Neo is a 1.2 metre-tall, 450kg robot floor scrubber. The high-tech machine can cruise large commercial buildings on its own, with no human supervision required.
Since its introduction in 2016, Neo's sales have roughly doubled each year, said Faizan Sheikh, the chief executive and a co-founder of Avidbots, the Canadian startup that created the robot. This year, however, demand has shot up 100 per cent just since the pandemic-induced shutdown in March. Suddenly, the need for thorough, reliable and frequent cleaning is front and center.
"Before, a top executive at a big company would not really have known how their facilities got cleaned," Sheikh said. "They would have outsourced it to a facilities management company, who might outsource it out again."
Now, company leaders are showing more interest, asking questions about the cleaning process and schedule, as well as safety and effectiveness. "That can lead to interest in automation," he said.
Indeed, cleaning robots are having a moment in commercial real estate. Their creators are promoting the machines as cost-effective solutions to the cleaning challenges posed by the pandemic. They can be put to frequent use without requiring more paid labor hours, they are always compliant, and some can even provide the data to prove that they have scoured every inch assigned.
The autonomous robots available now are primarily for cleaning floors and carpets, but companies are busy developing other cleaning applications. Boston Dynamics, a robotics design company in Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, is in a partnership to develop a disinfecting solution that can be mounted atop its 4-legged Spot robot, a company spokeswoman said.
Robotics are also being used to relieve humans of repetitive back-office tasks like accounting, according to a 2018 report from Deloitte. As more buildings incorporate smart technology, data collection and conversion will become increasingly important.
Somatic, a startup in New York, is working on a robot that can clean bathrooms using a spray technology, said Michael Levy, the chief executive. Removing a human cleaner from the bathroom makes the area safer because of the reduced risk of spreading germs, Levy said. And the robot will always do the job exactly as it is programmed to do.
"You have to let the chemicals set to do their job, but compliance is tough in the industry," Levy said. "If you tell a robot to leave the chemicals for 36 seconds, they leave the chemicals for 36 seconds every single time."
The idea of robotic cleaning is not new. The first attempts were in the 1970s, Sheikh said, but the technology was not up to the task, and the machines were "extremely cost prohibitive."
The Neo is sophisticated enough to create its own maps of a facility after being walked through it a single time, he said. The customer then works with Avidbots to develop cleaning plans, which may vary depending on the day of the week.
"After a human selects a cleaning plan, you press start and walk away," Sheikh said. "The robot figures out its own path."
Designed for facilities of at least 7,430 square metres, Neos sell for US$50,000 ($75,000), plus US$300 ($450) a month for software that tracks cleaning performance. At that price, the break-even point for the buyer is 12 to 18 months, Sheikh said.
They can also be rented for US$2,500 ($3,750) a month, including maintenance and software, on a minimum three-year contract.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport deploys its Neo three or four times a day to clean the hundreds of thousands of square feet of tiled floor, said Brian Cobb, the airport's chief innovation officer.
"Neo has the artificial intelligence capability where, as it's moving along its original path, if it sees something in its way, it will go around it," Cobb said. "If the obstacle is there the next day, Neo will incorporate it into its map."
Before Neo's activation in January, the airport had three workers cleaning floors every night, amounting to an average 24 labor hours per day, Cobb said. The Neo has taken over a portion of that, though workers are still needed to do heavier floor maintenance, like burnishing and recoating. It also frees cleaning staff to focus on making sure that "high-touch" areas of the airport are cleaned more frequently during the pandemic, he said.
SoftBank, the Japanese multinational conglomerate, introduced the Whiz autonomous carpet cleaner through its robotics unit in November, said Kass Dawson, the vice president of brand strategy and brand communications at SoftBank Robotics. Already, more than 10,000 compact Whiz robots have been deployed around the globe.
They caught the attention of Jeff Tingley, the president of Sparkle Services, a cleaning company in Enfield, Connecticut, that works in large commercial facilities throughout Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. He said he had long been interested in robotic cleaning but had not found the technology to be advanced enough or cost effective.
"Vacuuming is one of the most time-consuming processes in cleaning. With Whiz, you can essentially wipe out 90% of the vac time required," Tingley said. "You still need humans with backpack vacs for under desks and chairs, but we've gained a lot of hours."
The Whiz leases for US$500 to US$550 a month, which includes maintenance and data collection that provides clients with "the confirmed clean," Dawson said.
The robot's software was developed by Brain Corp, a San Diego company that teams up with outside manufacturers mainly in cleaning and warehousing industries. Brain Corp's autonomous technology, BrainOS, is also in robots made by Tennant, Minuteman, Kärcher and others.
In the second quarter this year, retailers' use of BrainOS-powered robots climbed 24 per cent from a year earlier, said Chris Wright, Brain Corp's vice president of sales. Median daily use rose 20 per cent, to 2.58 hours from 2.15, he said.
He noted that much of the increase was during daytime hours, signaling a major shift in cleaning schedules.
"Cleaning is now coming to the first shift because it's becoming important to companies' image," Wright said. "Everyone's a little tentative when they walk into buildings now. One of the things that will immediately put people at ease is when they see cleaning happening."
Tingley has seen it when the Whiz is moving around an office floor. It's a "friendly machine" that stops if you walk in front of it and uses a blinker to signal when it's turning, and people seem to like it, he said.
"During this fearful period, the folks in buildings have blank looks or even unhappy frowns," he said. "When the Whiz passes by, it brings a smile to their face. It's almost like a pet — everybody wants to name it."
Written by: Lisa Prevost
Photographs by: Ty Wright
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