Dirty job, few takers
There are an estimated 77B square feet of commercial floor space in the United States (slightly larger than the State of Delaware) and a potential commercial cleaning market of $78B, according to Marketdata Enterprises Inc.
With the Great Recession, real estate bust, rising office building vacancy rates, and cutbacks in the frequency of cleaning by clients behind it, the commercial cleaning industry is again on the rise. The industry is projected to increase 10 percent over the five years to 2019, due to the ongoing upswing in the recovering economy.
With that rise will also come an increase in workers needed to do all that cleaning, like vacuuming Delaware once a day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics at the U.S. Department of Labor sees about a 12 percent increase in jobs from 2.3M to 2.6M.
Make way for robots?
So, the looming question for developers of commercial cleaning robots looking towards the industry for an entree for their machines is, will there be there room in that manpower surge of some 280,000 for cleaning crews comprised of their inventions?
Priced at $322,000 each, the makers of Care-O-Bot, Fraunhofer IPA, feel confident that there is indeed room for its rather expensive but very versatile robot cleaner.
Beyond sticker shock, the case for robots
Since the median salary for human cleaners is $10.73 ($22,320 per year), according to the Department of Labor, with the majority of building cleaners getting $9.49 per hour, does Care-O-Bot seem price competitive? Then again, can it complete work comparable to a human worker?
Definitely on Care-O-Bot?s side is the future worker shortage arising from government-imposed immigration restrictions?new immigrants are a traditional high supplier of manpower to the facilities management and general cleaning industries?plus the fact that no one wants to make a long-term commitment to a job with an impossibly low wage to live on.
In addition to the personnel turnover rate and because of it, traditional and conventional cleaning companies also experience the largest turnover in contracts, losing up to 55 percent of their cleaning contracts annually due to lack of quality service and non-performance.
?High turnover rates in the cleaning industry make it extremely hard to create a cohesive and highly productive staff, the crux of any successful business,? so says Dianna Bisswurm from the trade publication Cleanlink.
?There has been a lack of existing studies documenting just how high turnover is in this industry, leaving many working with ballpark figures gleaned from anecdotal reports. The average turnover rate most often used in industry conversation is around 300 percent, but a CleanLink survey found a much lower industry average of 73 percent.?
No matter how one slices the figures, losing three-fourths of your workforce is not a good thing; whereas the long-term, on-the-job permanency of robots could well be a refreshing reality for any employer and quite possibly a mitigating factor for buying robot cleaners.
Then too, since 70 percent of professional building cleaning work consists of cleaning floors and disposing of waste, robots have a low bar to entry if capable of performing well at those two tasks.
Test drive in Berlin
In December 2013, the German, mega-cleaning contractor Dussmann (20K employees; $673M annual sales) tested Care-O-Bot?s on-the-job capabilities.
?Dussmann carried out initial user tests, which successfully demonstrated the feasibility of such cleaning applications using currently available technology,? says Richard Bormann, Research Assistant in the Robot and Assistive Systems department.
?For professional cleaning contractors like Dussmann, these positive results hold out the prospect in a few years? time of putting this technology to cost-effective use with suitably customized robot systems in order to make up for the growing shortage of qualified personnel.?
Cleaning floors and waste-paper baskets
In the course of daily floor-cleaning, Care-O-Bot scans offices for any dirt, which is removed using a cleaning device. First, the robot navigates its way autonomously through open offices to inspect the floor surfaces. Dirt is automatically detected, mapped and then removed by the robot using a battery-powered vacuum cleaner.
Using algorithms for object classification, the robot is also able to detect waste-paper baskets, which it grasps with its arm and empties into a collection bin.
Over skilled for low-skilled job?
According to a report from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, ?A big reason for the high price is the sophisticated technology in the robot’s head.
?Thanks to color cameras that survey their surroundings in a way similar to human eyes and an infrared 3D scanner, it can even recognize faces. When a person’s photograph is fed into its electronic memory, Care-O-Bot can distinguish it from a multitude of other people’s faces.?
Does a robot cleaner really need to see in color or to recognize faces? Can add-on services be adapted to Care-O-Bot like washing floors, swabbing out restroom toilets?and replacing toilet paper? No matter how great a staff turnover, humans can easily accomplish these low-end but necessary job functions.
More importantly, although Dussmann is part of the consortium getting Care-O-Bot ready for real-world cleaning chores. When will it purchase a few? It hasn’t yet.
However, that Care-O-Bot can already perform 70 percent of the necessary work is a big leap forward.