Fast Facts: Breaking Down the Basics of Robots and Cobots
Not too long ago, ‘robots’ was a scary word for workers and employers alike. Robots in the workplace? What does that even mean? Long confined to cartoons and comic strips, the futuristic notion of robotics eventually replacing human labor seemed like a far-off possibility, hardly something that seemed imminent, at least.
Technology has come a long way in a short time, though, and devices largely operated by software or Artificial Intelligence (AI) are not just commonplace - they’re nearly everywhere you look, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
The cleaning industry, theoretically a dynamic and useful proving ground for robotic/automated devices, offers an interesting glimpse of what the future of automated or computer-assisted labor might look like: a hybrid work environment augmented with technology, but still largely dependent on human intuition and supervision to ensure quality performance.
Let’s look at a few common questions that people tend to have about robotics.
1. Autonomous vs. Automation: It’s probably the key question at the core of the debate swirling about robotics: how much can these robots really be trusted to do? The terms “autonomous” and “automated” are both frequently deployed when discussing the technical capabilities of robotic equipment, and they are so similar that it would be easy to confuse the two. When a device is described as “autonomous”, it can safely be assumed that there are capabilities and tasks that the device can be entrusted to perform wholly on its own. This can, for example, mean that a robotic floor machine has been programmed to follow a particular path at a particular time and clean to set standards. Let it do its thing. When something is “automated”, though, the device typically requires a human component to either start or supervise the process, check chemical levels, make adjustments, etc. Think of an “autonomous” device as one that operates independently, and a device offering “automation” as something that bolsters the capabilities of a human worker by making something easier.
2. Are robots coming for all of the jobs? This concern is not just understandable, it’s one of the most common questions when it comes to introducing robotics into the workplace. The short answer is…not quite. Robots may feel like they’ve been lurking around the mainstream for years now, but truthfully, the technology is still new, and it’s growing in capabilities all of the time. The machine learning process never stops, and because of this, machines are able to improve their own performance frequently – and they make mistakes, too. Even the most independent and advanced robots still require a human to maintain the machine, handle the programming, set the tasks, monitor the results and quality, assist with breakdowns, and much more. A robot may be a great tool, but it’s still just a tool. If a machine needs to be used in multiple buildings, for instance, it’s got to have someone move it back and forth. Most robots fall under the category of what’re called “cobots” - a term meaning “collaborative robot”, a device that helps make a task more efficient or effective, but doesn’t replace the human element.
3. One of the challenges facing widespread adoption of robotic devices is a simple one: what powers the equipment, and how long does it hold a charge? A robot that needs 8 hours to complete a job, but needs to be recharged twice to complete the task, will require someone watching to make sure the device is able to swap batteries or oversee a recharge. Over the last couple of years, supply chain woes have shown that availability of needed batteries and resources isn’t always right at-hand, and can pose a challenge to continuous operations. As battery advancements continue - offering longer charges and more powerful performance, the popularity of robots will likely increase due to the ease of keeping them running. As of now, 4 main battery types dominate the scene: wet flooded, AGM, GEL, or lithium ion. The arms race to make a better, longer-lasting and cleaner battery is on.
4. What do robots look like? Robots come in all sizes and shapes, making them ideal candidates for a number of jobs and facilities. The typical floor device might closely mirror human-operated equipment both in terms of size and performance, meaning that cleaning processes would look familiar to workers that are being introduced to robots in the workplace. Many companies, though, are also working to develop machines that operate in smaller and quieter ways. At the Cincinnati Airport in Northern Kentucky, robots that can operate 24/7 have been in rotation for around a year - designed to operate quietly in order to not disturb passengers, and work in small, hard-to-reach spots that might usually get passed over. Many retail stores have been operating human-sized robots to control inventory and clean spills - now, as robots get smaller, it won’t be long before hardly anyone notices them at all.
5. What’s next? Robots aren’t just for spot-cleaning floors or checking paper towel inventory - in fact, they’ve left the ground entirely in many ways. Drone-based robots are not only being used to clean areas such as windows and rafters, they’re useful for getting into the upper reaches of tall rooms, or facilities that might offer significant obstacles to regular, easy cleaning. They can also be used in flyover applications, such as cleaning an empty arena or stadium by distributing disinfectant aerially, swooping over entire rows and sections in mere minutes. Though we typically envision floor equipment-sized machines when we think of cleaning technology, the uses are nearly limitless, and the data that computer-based devices can collect is invaluable when it comes to quality assurance and developing more efficient processes.
Jackson Silvanik is the Managing Editor for Contracting Profits, and lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. He joined Trade Press Media in 2021 and also edits and writes for Facility Cleaning Decisions, Sanitary Maintenance and CleanLink.com.