A clean environment is of utmost importance in industry, particularly sectors such as pharmaceuticals, livestock, and food and drink, where germs and dirt need to be dealt with properly in order to avoid product contamination and the risk of making people ill. Depending on the size of the operation, tasks such as floor cleaning and washing are typically reliant on an individual cleaner, up to a whole team of cleaners, armed with an array of equipment and chemicals.
However, data released in February on behalf of automatica, the trade fair for robotics and automation, claims that UK employees want robots to take over unhealthy (83%), hazardous (77%) and monotonous (72%) jobs.
The survey of 1,000 UK employees also found that the majority of workers not only want robots to take over the dirty, dull and dangerous work, but about 70% think that robots give people the chance to learn more qualified work and create more opportunities for education and training (www.is.gd/anoluw).
With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation and robotics may just be able to take on the labour-intensive cleaning regimes that many have come to loathe. Indeed, the technology is there, and advancing, as many companies are starting to show with innovations and products for different markets.
COMMERCIAL KITCHEN BOT
British tech company Cambridge Consultants has delivered a prototype automation system that is said to address one of the most unloved tasks in commercial kitchens.
Using a combination of consultancy and expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, ‘Turbo Clean’ automates the process of clearing food trays and washing dirty dishes (pictured). The automation system is part of a wider business transformation initiative undertaken for a multinational commercial catering company.
Combining deep learning, machine vision and robotics, it recognises the contents of returning food trays, removes the items from each tray, including food waste and cutlery from plates, glasses and other crockery, and loads the different items into a dishwasher.
Cambridge Consultants first analysed the kitchen tasks most suitable for automation, identifying those that would generate not only commercial value, but human appreciation, and that would be welcomed by staff and management alike. After conducting primary research within commercial catering operations, the technology company pinpointed the single process that staff most wanted to automate, and that would yield the best business benefits: clearing trays and washing dishes.
The result is an entirely new kitchen cleaning procedure, whereby one food tray can be processed every six seconds. The deep learning-based system was trained using images of thousands of trays with every conceivable combination of messy crockery. The machine vision not only recognises items and waste on each tray in milliseconds, but can also classify items such as bowls, plates, glasses and cutlery.
Turbo Clean also boasts the ability to identify new variations of items, meaning it can cope with new sets of crockery and cutlery, without the need for reconfiguration.
“Working with our client, we were able to design a system that uses a novel combination of technologies and to take them from initial discovery right through to the prototype ready for commercialisation. We look forward to continuing our support in the future,” says Nathan Wrench, commercial director at Cambridge Consultants. “It’s widely accepted that AI and robotics will impact almost every business. But it’s vital to understand both what is technically possible and what is commercially viable, to ensure that a business thrives through this time of technological revolution.” See the automated system in action at www.is.gd/copabi.
Lely International is a dutch company with UK dealers in Yeovil, Stafford, Devon and St Neots. It produces a range of products for the agricultural sector, with robotic solutions focused on areas such as milking, feeding, housing, care and animal health. Among its solutions is the Discovery 120 Collector, which took top spot at the International IERA Award for Robotics and Automation last year, alongside two separate robotic innovations from companies in Germany and the USA (www.is.gd/ejogur).
The Discovery 120 Collector is a barn floor cleaning robot for the dairy industry. It has been designed to vacuum up manure on solid walkways, whilst also being able to spray water at the front and the back for dilution and cleaning. Its total water container capacity is 70L, while total water output via nozzles is max 3.5L/min.
Its drive mechanism is made up of two electric motors, with each motor driving one wheel, reaching a driving speed of up to 200mm/sec. It navigates a programmed route via gyroscope, and is controlled on its way by built-in ultrasonic sensors.
Once the vacuum tank is full, the Discovery can drive itself to a specified dumping location, where it empties the manure and refills the water bags, before returning to the charging station (charge time: six hours maximum).
Siebren Woudstra is a farmer in Gersloot, the Netherlands, with 160 dairy cows. Since 1974, he has cleaned the solid floors of the barn with a fixed scraper system. However, through word of mouth, he heard that Lely had a manure scraper (www.is.gd/anibom).
“[The robot] is just what we were looking for because we could get rid of the poor working manure scraper,” he explains. “I expected the number of hoof problems to subside, firstly due to obstacles being removed from the barn, and secondly due to hoof infections subsiding because the floors are much dryer. [The robot] does what it has to do. It scrapes and sucks and keeps the floor clean, leaving a good amount of passageway around it. It works well.” An animated video of the robot in action can be found at www.is.gd/upedul.
These are just some of the product and prototype examples currently available or being developed for different sectors. The rise of technology has been a major talking point over the last decade and will continue to be so. Cleaning bots certainly look like they have a future.
BOX OUT: CLEANING BOTS IN BRIEF
Food and drink: German chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven visited the booth of motion plastics specialist igus at the Hanover Trade Fair during April. They were shown ‘cost-effective robotics made in Germany’, including a service robot arm that could soon dry the dishes and lay the table on call. “We would like to continue to provide the federal chancellor with the service she had in the chancellor’s office after her term of office. This will give her more time for other things, such as writing political or scientific books,” joked MD Frank Blasé. He continued: “In one or two years, such a robot will be ready to go into production and affordable.” www.is.gd/qufano
Ground handling: Nordic Dino, a supplier of aircraft washing robots and washing services, released a version of the aircraft exterior cleaning robot ‘Nordic Dino’ with an electrical driveline and zero emissions, in 2017. It is said to reduce carbon footprint and work towards a more sustainable future for aircraft exterior cleaning. Benefits are a better and safer working environment and lower total cost of ownership, with reduced maintenance and operating costs, the company adds. www.is.gd/tarori
Domestic: Electrolux announced the U.S. launch of its Pure i9 robotic vacuum cleaner last year, following its release in Europe. The robot can auto-adjust to floor type for maximum cleaning performance, while the Pure i9 app can be used for scheduled cleaning and remote control. Other features include, 3D Vision navigation with camera and laser, and an anti-tangle brush for cleaning in corners. www.is.gd/micefe
Retail: Supermarket giant Woolworths has reportedly introduced a robot at a store in Sydney, Australia, that cleans up spills and identifies hazards. A spokesperson told Daily Mail Australia that the new technology aims to make the store safer by roaming around and looking for potential safety hazards, allowing a staff member to act quickly. www.is.gd/uvoyek
Concept: An automated cleaning system consisting of hundreds of flying mini-robots won the Electrolux Design Lab competition in 2013. Created by Columbian designer Adrian Perez Zapata, the ‘Mab’ system works by scanning a house to determine what areas need cleaning. Its central unit then sends its army of 906 robots to clean and deodorise surfaces by touching them with a drop of water. “My concept Mab only requires a short initial configuration to function autonomously, so you could arrive home and see a swarm of mini-robots roaming around cleaning independently,” Zapata said. The Electrolux Design Lab competition invited design students from around the world to present their ideas for future household environments.
BOX OUT: COMMENT – WILL ROBOTS TAKE OVER FLOOR CLEANING?
There’s no doubt that new disruptive technologies are driving greater automation in this sector. The prevalence of cloud-based technologies such as workforce management software has made it significantly easier for service providers to manage teams of staff across multiple sites, remotely, whilst providing cost savings and adding to the bottom line. By integrating robotics, and embracing cloud-based information intelligence, efficiency and productivity measuring and monitoring can get a whole lot easier.
Robots are now available to perform a number of cleaning functions, to supplement human employees; not replace them. We know that not all cleaning tasks can be replaced with connected solutions. A robot is just like a computer; it needs human instructions. It needs setting-up correctly to optimise the cleaning task. It won’t move furniture and clean under things, but it will increase cost-savings, consistency and the need to repeatedly train hundreds of cleaning operatives in a sector that has a notoriously high staff turnover rate.
We recently collaborated on a project to increase productivity in the cleaning environment with The Perfect Little Company (TPLC). TPLC has successfully developed robotic vacuum cleaning systems for the commercial market, which are already being used to support schools, offices, warehouses and cleaning contractors across the UK. The robots are usually rented in groups of 10, complete with a trolley, designed to increase efficient use of the robots. Depending on the size of the site, a single operator will typically use between one and four trolleys (10–40 robots) to spot vacuum 4,000ft2-6,000ft² (371.6m2-557.4m2) per hour. A single robot will typically be able to fully vacuum 800ft2-1,200ft² per hour. This means that a single operator (one cleaner), with the additional support of robots, can increase the size of area vacuumed from 4,000ft²-6,000ft² per hour.
During the time that robots spend vacuuming, the cleaners can focus on other cleaning duties, such as removing waste, wiping and dusting. On average, it takes 15 minutes per trolley to distribute, collect, then empty the robots, so that creates 45 minutes of “free time” per hour for cleaners to carry out other duties. Through this partnership, we are not only able to provide clients with much more detailed analysis on the reliability of employees, but also their productivity, and it makes it easy for clients to identify those employees that are important to retain and where to deploy them whilst the robots clean.
Robots introduce a new level of efficiency that human cleaners are simply incapable of; a person can only vacuum or mop so many square feet per hour. Robots enable cleaning to take place at any time, day or night, they can also remain operational without intervention for longer periods.
Implementing robots into an existing cleaning programme both reduces the health and safety risks associated with cleaning, and improves the time management of other cleaning duties. Once a robotic workflow is planned and implemented, a site-specific schedule is created, and staff are trained to become ‘robot assisted cleaners’ who are proficient in the distribution and management of the robots. This process then becomes the cleaner’s task. Smartphone, mobile technology and in-app communication tools deliver added value by allowing them to log these completed tasks. Contract compliance checks can then happen in real-time, remotely.
This market will continue to grow exponentially, and we have no doubt that further technological advances will be developed to disrupt and transform the sector. The cleaning sector will begin to attract younger and technically-qualified workers who understand the technology used to clean complex environments, so it is critically important that cleaning contractors invest in upskilling their staff with the new technologies that will inevitably come into play during the next five to 10 years. Progression in technology is facilitating a shift for cleaning providers to deliver better value by managing contracts, mobile workforces; both people and robots, more efficiently.
Christian Berenger is managing director of Ezitracker Remote Workforce Management