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It's midnight, the offices are empty and an army of robots is working its way through the building. Some vacuum, others scrub, and outside yet more clean windows and trim lawns.
Science fiction? Not at all. Welcome to the world of robotic building maintenance.
How did we get here?
The first robot went to work in 1961. That was at a General Motors foundry where the robot performed repetitive yet dangerous tasks. Since then robots have proliferated throughout high-volume manufacturing: automotive painting and welding are some of the most highly robotized applications, although packaging and assembly work are rapidly being automated too.
These applications all have one thing in common: highly structured environments. Everything the robot needs to touch, handle or work on is located precisely and predictably. That's important because robots have just been machines that move through programmed paths. They have had no awareness of their surroundings.
New sensor technologies are changing that. Sonar, LIDAR (laser-based scanners) and cameras let robots “see.” While nothing like human sight, (computers still struggle to understand pictures) this lets them search for or avoid objects that they need or are in their way. In manufacturing it's opening the door to “collaborative” robots that work alongside humans on assembly lines. In facilities management it's enabling the automation of many tasks.
No one likes tripping over buckets of dirty water, and a noisy vacuum disrupts conversations and meetings. That's why vacuuming and scrubbing or mopping are best done outside normal office hours. That means keeping the lights and heat or air-conditioning on, and paying a cleaning staff to work at night.
One company offers a range of automated floor scrubbers and vacuums. These machines come equipped with sensors providing a 360-degree view of their surroundings, letting them detect obstacles and pausing to let people pass. They even come with detectors to stop them falling down stairs.
Almost every modern downtown is dominated by towers of glass and steel. As architects devise ever more complex structures with intricate curves and angles, keeping those windows clean is becoming harder and more dangerous. It seems like a good robot application, if a way can be found for the robot to attach itself to the structure. Some researchers are addressing the idea of providing tracks or rails on the exterior, but one model uses vacuum to attach itself to the glass. A rotating brush and a supply of demineralized water then remove grime as it crawls along, one panel at a time. And unlike human cleaners, this machine works day and night and in poor weather.
Anyone responsible for maintaining a large solar array will be interested know there are robot models that can clean rooftop panels and others intended for large-scale solar farms. Dirt reduces the efficiency of photovoltaic arrays, so regular automated cleaning could have an immediate payback.
Like vacuuming, daytime grass cutting is noisy and distracts employees trying to focus. In contrast, a robot lawnmower will quietly go about its work at whatever time is best. Several companies provide a range of machines to replace human lawn maintenance crews. One additional benefit: since there's no operator, these can easily slip under trees and obstacles like solar arrays.
As manufacturing companies have found, there are advantages to using robots besides saving on wages and benefits. Automation means tasks can be performed without regard for time of day, so maintenance can happen when the building and grounds are empty. It's also possible to save on light and heating or cooling, because when robots need to “see” they can carry their own lights and sensors. Perhaps most important, robots can perform jobs that are difficult or dangerous for humans, like working on the outside of tall buildings.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) the market for professional cleaning robots is small but growing. Their forecast is for sales of 2,550 units per year by 2017, but as sensor technologies open up new robot applications the total number in facilities maintenance could be much larger. For example, several manufacturers have suggested robots could be deployed for building security functions.
Robot technology is advancing rapidly, and new sensor technologies mean it's no longer just for high-volume manufacturing. Many other industries stand to gain, including facility maintenance.
Bob Goossens is the chief operating and technology officer for Acieta.
All facilities, from office buildings and apartment complexes to restaurants, airports and hospitals, must know how to effectively prevent lapses in environmental hygiene in order to keep employees, occupants, visitors, and patients healthy and safe. It’s easy to see the impact that infections have on public health, considering that each year in the U.S., Norovirus alone causes roughly 19-21 million cases of gastroenteritis, up to 71,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths according to the CDC.
The common cold and influenza also affect millions of people each year. A new study shows that an alarming majority of U.S. workers, up to 60%, admitted to attending work while sick with the flu. Thankfully, there are simple measures that facility managers can take to reduce the risk of disease-causing pathogens.
A Healthier Environment
An infection outbreak can disrupt the day-to-day operations of a facility. However, organizations can prevent infection outbreaks and reduce the impact of those that do occur by following these easy tips.
1) Adhere to hand hygiene best practices
Many infections can be spread either by eating contaminated foods and liquids, touching contaminated surfaces, or having contact with someone who is infected. Thus, effective hand hygiene is important in the fight against many infections. A facility should encourage staff, occupants and visitors to regularly wash or sanitize their hands – though soap and water should be used when hands are visibly soiled. Signs should be posted to serve as reminders, and hand sanitizer, soap and paper towels should be readily available at all times.
2) Conduct frequent surface cleaning and disinfection
Another key defense against the threat and spread of infection is the efficient cleaning and disinfection of general surfaces and equipment, such as in restrooms, lobbies and other frequently used areas in a building. Although all surfaces can harbor an infection, high-touch surfaces such as door handles, toilet seats, desks and light switches are believed to represent a higher level of risk and should be cleaned more frequently to limit the risk of infection transmission.
3) Consider alternative cleaning products
All disinfectants come with trade-offs. Historically chlorinated disinfectants have been used widely in some sectors, such as healthcare, but less so in non-healthcare facilities due to their limitations, including:
AHP To The Rescue
There are new disinfectant technologies on the market that avoid these potential issues, including a technology called Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide (AHP). In AHP, the active ingredient has no odor and is generally safer for surfaces than chlorine, creating a better alternative. As the hydrogen peroxide breaks down to water and oxygen after use, it has a favorable sustainability profile as well.
AHP disinfectants also help ensure disinfection occurs by addressing the issue of contact time. Disinfectants need to keep the surface wet for a specific amount of time to ensure they kill the pathogens claimed on the label. Some disinfectants cannot keep a surface wet for the full contact time with a single application, which would require the user to reapply the product to comply with the label directions. As workers are unlikely to reapply a disinfectant, selecting disinfectants that keep the surface wet for the full contact time is preferred. AHP disinfectants are designed to have realistic contact times, helping to ensure that disinfection is achieved in a single application.
Facilities never want to be a breeding ground for disease-causing pathogens. With a combined focus on hand hygiene, surface cleaning and disinfection using the appropriate products, facility managers can help reduce the risk of infection for employees, staff, and visitors caused by environmental transmission.
Peter Teska is the global healthcare sector expert at Sealed Air's Diversey Care. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
Advances in technology are making robotics more and more viable for crucial facility tasks, are you taking advantage of the benefits they can offer?
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