Are You Ahead of, or Behind the Curve in Cleaning Automation?

The Nilfisk-Advance Horizon Program

Nilfisk-Advance, on October 4th, announced its new Horizon Program in a special introduction made digitally available around the world. In conjunction with Pennsylvania-based Carnegie Robotics, they expect to release in early 2017 some of the first autonomous cleaning units to the facility maintenance industry. Prototypes will be available later this month at the ISSA Interclean in Chicago, October 25-28.

HORIZON PROGRAM

Horizon is not the name of a single product, but of the overall program of moving to robotics-controlled cleaning equipment. After years of the most robotically controlled cleaning device many are familiar with being a Roomba®, the industry is on the cusp of changes that will have important long-term effects. Your department may well change significantly as a result. Have you thought about some of these potential changes?

In the digital announcement, Advance captain Jonas Perrson said, 

"With The Horizon Program, our sights are set on bringing about fundamental change in cleaning. Consistent with our history, Nilfisk is continuously responding to the changing needs of markets and customers with innovative products and solutions. With the Horizon Program, we are setting a course for a long-term, strategic program of autonomous and connected cleaning solutions and putting forth the most sophisticated technology that will completely redefine how we look at productivity and total cost of ownership. Our view of the future is one that makes incredible strides in cleaning technology."

ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMY

The real story of the announcement to team up with Carnegie Robotics is probably not simply the initial features of the devices. Those features are going to be somewhat universal with other types of robotic or autonomous operation, and added "on top of" current technologies - like orbital scrubbing - that are already making important differences in cleaning effectiveness.

Equipment of the near future will be able to:

1. "Learn" an area that you pre-define by "teaching" the borders of. Cleaning equipment will be able to discover the obstacles and challenges within an area, then put together an algorithm to deal with them and provide a specific floor care task.

2. Tell you about the efficiency of the cleaning process through "connectivity," reporting to you through apps, how a specific set of steps performs. The ability to fine-tune chemistry use and water should offer a way to lower both costs and the carbon footprint your cleaning department leaves. 

3. Interpret your instructions of how to clean an area following your demonstration. The machine will then remember that "protocol" for later use.

The robotic solutions to these issues are not significantly different from those being worked on as autonomous trucks, cars or drones are introduced to the world. The real story is probably that Nilfisk-Advance is teaming with one of the emerging robotics companies that will be moving not just cleaning maintenance, but many other industries into the future of automation. This emerging trend will become an expected efficiency, and not just a phase that will pass.

BEYOND TRAILBLAZING

Aside from trailblazing, Advance is doubling down on a trend that has been taking place even without adding autonomy to make cleaning equipment smart. That trend is the recognition that like all industries, automation holds an important, if not critical, key to making the cleaning department more cost-effective.

If automobiles were still being built one-by-one as handcrafted products, they would still be just toys of the very rich. Trains and animals would still move freight and people. Henry Ford extended widely the use of assembly-line automation techniques and fully interchangeable parts to kick-start that industry from an efficiency basis in 1913. In the process, he created the first line of cars that many of his employees could afford. Today, the automotive industry continues that trend by being one of the most robotically automated of all.

If you are a manager of a facility maintenance department, adding automation options is one way to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your staff. (See Equipment Empowers Your Maintenance Staff.) Making the equipment more capable of operating on its own is an extension of that effectiveness. It would appear that when Perrson speaks of looking at "the total cost of ownership" in a new way, he seems to be pointing out that the return on investment in equipment is an exploding opportunity.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESS

As the leader of your department, here are some thoughts that may be simmering on the back burner, each of which the heat is about to be turned up on:

1. Am I ready, or do I have the readily accessible talent on-staff, to become more technically oriented in my management approach? Am I eager to take advantage of the rising tide of efficiency upgrades becoming available to my department?

2. Does my management style include room for taking advantage of additional data management? What can we learn from the increasing connectivity available, and the reports on chemistry use, efficiency of operation, scheduling of repairs and wear-item replacements that will entail?

3. Am I willing to consider the design and size of my staff in light of this re-direct in the basic nature of cleaning? From the structure of how my staff cleans (zone, team, advanced, cooperative) to what type of cleaner has the best return on investment (staff member, automation-assisted staff, automous device) do I have an open mind to how my department might be staffed and structured entirely differently in four years, two years, or even next year?

So, are you ahead of, or behind the curve? That may not be the right question after all. The larger point may be, are you and your department members flexible, and open to the new opportunities and realities technology is creating?