It is a known fact that infectious diseases, primarily colds and flu, have a significant impact on the success of students in the classroom and create a substantial cost to school districts.
It has been reported that the common cold and influenza account for approximately 189 million missed days of school annually and 126 million absences from work by parents who stay home to care for sick children. And an infographic published by ISSA, the worldwide cleaning industry association, says teacher absences cost about US$25 billion annually, while the cost for hiring substitutes is estimated at $4 billion annually.
Our industry is on the front lines for disease prevention in schools and other types of facilities; it also faces continual pressure to improve cleaning levels without increasing expenses. Trying harder and doing more of the same is not a long-term answer. However, new technology advances may provide the tools to help achieve your cleaning goals.
A new generation of floor-cleaning equipment incorporates robotics to provide hands-free operation. This capability is helping schools to become healthier by freeing janitorial staff to clean higher-value areas, such as high-touch surfaces that contribute to colds and flu, without sacrificing floor cleanliness. This automation is one of the biggest productivity improvements since auto scrubbers were first introduced in the 1950s.
You might think of robotic scrubbers as traditional auto scrubbers with cruise control. Mechanically, robotic scrubbers are very similar to traditional auto scrubbers, using the same type of motors and pads and requiring similar maintenance. In addition, an array of sensors combined with onboard intelligence allows the machine to see its environment and move autonomously.
Using robots to accomplish more and make tasks easier may seem like a new idea. In reality, robots are already part of our daily lives. Two examples are ATM cash machines and automated car washes.
There are two primary actions that can help to reduce infectious diseases: have the students wash their hands more, and clean the surfaces the students are touching, such as drinking faucets, computer keyboards, desks, and lunch tables, more frequently. While we may not be able to influence the handwashing, we can clean these high touch areas more frequently. It sounds simple; however, budget constraints are a limiting factor in the number of available labor hours to address this critical activity.
One solution is to turn over the repetitive floor-cleaning tasks to robots, which can allow your staff to focus on high-value cleaning. For example, based on production rates in an ISSA publication, 612 Cleaning Times, gaining four hours per night by multitasking would allow a custodian to clean 720 desk tops, 436 lunch tables, or 514 drinking fountains each day.
Productivity is the distinct difference between robots and traditional scrubbers. Janitors can accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time. While the robots are cleaning the floors, janitorial staff can work on other projects.
Hands-free robotic operation works best in straight hallways, gymnasiums, and cafeterias—areas where the machines can do long, uninterrupted runs. These are the same areas that make tedious work for the operators. Guiding a traditional scrubber up and down long hallways and in gyms takes precious time away from cleaning more critical areas.
If your school has traditional architecture and straight hallways, you could benefit from a high percentage of robotic cleaning. If you have lots of curved walls and short hallways, the percentage of robotic cleaning will be reduced and may not make sense. Robots would not be used in bathrooms or offices, which are too small, or classrooms, where there are too many obstacles for the robot to get around.
Today, robots are cleaning in many public facilities—including schools—with excellent safety records. The robots are equipped with an array of built-in safety features to protect students, teachers, and staff. Basically, robots use a variety of sensors to see their environment, deciding the best way to clean each area and how to move around obstacles in real time. Multiple redundant sensors prevent the machines from going down stairs or running into objects or people.
Children—not to mention teachers and staff—tend to be very curious about the robots; however, there is no need for concern about operating the machines in high-traffic student areas. If a student or teacher approaches or steps in front of the robot, it will stop and wait for that person to pass by. If the person does not move, the machine will try to go around him. If the person continues to step in front of the machine, the robot will stop, call an attendant via a pager or text to a smart phone, and wait for help.
The effectiveness of robotic cleaning is sometimes determined more by the people using the machine than the machine itself. A willingness to try new tools and develop new cleaning processes is important to achieve the greatest impact.
For example, in one school the robot is started, while the custodian dust mops in front and then circles back to burnish behind the scrubber. In another school, the robot cleans one wing while the custodian cleans the bathrooms and empties the trash. It sounds simple; however, it does require rethinking and managing the workflow to maximize the gain in productivity.
Cleaning robots can cost two to three times the price of a traditional auto scrubber. Are they worth the investment? It depends on your objective.
If you need to clean more without adding to your custodian headcount, robots can be a good addition to your team. They let your valuable employees work on the important higher-level jobs, while the robots focus on the floors. However, if you are looking for a simple drop-in replacement for a worn-out traditional scrubber, a robot may be more than what you need.
No matter your objective, robots are a growing part of our lives. They will continue to evolve and improve, taking on the tedious, repetitive jobs and making our lives easier, more productive, and more satisfying.
Erick Frack is the president of Intellibot Robotics LLC, a manufacturer of robotic commercial floor cleaning equipment. For more information, visit www.intellibotrobotics.com.