Today, equipment manufacturers are eager to capitalize on the technology that has transformed cleaning robots into plausible, labor-saving machines. For distributors, however, the question isn’t just about how well the machines work, but how effectively they will sell.

While the price of the robotic equipment is likely still too far out of reach for smaller distributors, others see the machines as a potential “boat anchor” in the jan/san distribution business.

“We’ve been aware of [floor-care] robots since back in the 1990s,” says Keith Schneringer, director of channel marketing and sustainability at WAXIE Sanitary Supply in San Diego. “People were intrigued but it was something that was too cost-prohibitive for customers to utilize. In the last two to three years, we’ve seen some movement.”

Schneringer believes the collision between technological innovation and the rising costs of labor have resulted in a product that is not only more practical, but more economically feasible for his customers — especially in markets where janitors remain scarce.

“Instead of having a person walking behind, you can take that person and use [him or her] in other aspects of cleaning,” says Schneringer. “[He or she] can then go focus on detail-oriented work, or other occupant-facing oversight. And you can let the machine go off and do its thing. Then you gain back time.”

Most robotic floor care equipment costs slightly higher than a full-time janitor’s annual salary. Still, the idea that the machines can be programmed to cover more square footage, and clean more consistently and reliably than human workers, is an attractive selling point.

“It’s about economic return on investment,” says Schneringer.

When Nichol’s was approached by a manufacturer to start selling the machines, the company weighed the benefits and saw it as an opportunity to place the company ahead of the curve. Since then, the company has sold roughly a dozen machines. That may not seem all that impressive, until one remembers the machines cost about $30,000 each.

“We decided that the technology improvements did make some sense,” says Huizenga. “We’ve always been pretty technology forward, and we were willing to take it on. We felt good about moving the machines. They haven’t sat on the floor too long.”

That same sentiment is what moved ACME Paper and Supply to start selling the machines.

“Our decision [to sell] was based on our industry’s need for greater efficiency and productivity requirements that are primarily generated using equipment,” says Phil Carrizales, a janitorial division manager at the Savage, Maryland company. “With building service contractors’ margins shrinking and the property managers demand for high-quality results, it was a simple decision to make.”

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