IFMA webinar: Cobotic food for thought

The introduction of cobotics will be game-changing for the FM industry… but the journey to adoption is challenging and FM leaders need help and guidance along the way.

By Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA 

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That’s the main message I took from this week’s IFMA webinar.

I was privileged to be on the panel with some of the leading thinkers from the European facility management industry, representing all sides of the sector, supply and demand –  We had Peter Ankerstjerne (Global Lead FM & Experience Services at JLL), Dianna Steinbach (VP International Services at ISSA) and Alexander Granderath from DRG Consulting.

The webinar explored cobotics, its potential to transform FM and commercial cleaning services and, in particular, to accelerate the industry’s recovery post-COVID-19.

Having reflected on the discussion, here are a few thoughts I wanted to share and that I certainly need to keep front of mind over the coming weeks and months. 

A single cobot can trigger widespread operational and cultural change

As I’ve said previously, cobotics is about so much more than technology. It involves new commercial and operating models, widespread training and upskilling, and new cultural behaviours.

This was evident in the webinar – the range of topics covered was vast, from servicing levels and finance, through to HR and business development. Cobotics really does touch (and positively impact) every aspect of facility management.

So thinking more broadly, with the right cobotic strategy, FM businesses can execute on many of their wider digitisation and workforce transformation goals. They can begin to re-imagine how they go to market, creating competitive differentiation and delivering better outcomes for all stakeholders – frontline workers, managers, clients and the end users of buildings. 

By starting out on their cobotic journey now, organisations really can steal a march on the competition, not just in terms of enhanced operational performance and productivity, but in creating a future-looking brand built around employee wellbeing and innovation.

Decision-making becomes more pressurised in challenging times

When you are as passionate as I am about the potential for cobotics to impact the bottom line, and you can see the benefits that cobots are already delivering in some organisations, it can seem like such an obvious choice. Why wouldn’t you begin your cobotic journey in response to COVID-19? Surely now is the perfect time!

However, in this week’s discussion we talked about the added pressure that FM leaders are facing during the pandemic and the absolute imperative to make smart decisions which work both now and in the long-term, particularly where investment is concerned. With revenues down and money scarce, FM leaders simply cannot afford to back the wrong horse and invest in the wrong technology. 

As a technology industry, it’s so important that we recognise this. We need to minimise risk and provide guarantees as much as we can to alleviate the pressure. We have to create the right conditions for FM businesses to pursue their innovation goals and emerge stronger on the other side of the current situation.

Perceived barriers are often the biggest barriers

At the end of the discussion, we asked our audience of several hundred FM professionals, to identify the biggest barriers to cobotic adoption in their organisation.

The highest response (34%) related to concerns that cobots would lead to job displacement and HR issues. This was followed by worries around system integration and prohibitive costs. 

Hopefully the discussion served to allay some of these perceived concerns. 

We certainly talked in detail about the benefits of cobots to frontline staff in their everyday working lives – taking away repetitive and strenuous tasks, allowing them to undertake more rewarding and high value work, and empowering and training them to develop new skills. 

We also looked at the commercial model of cobotics, where cobots are used ‘as a service’, with no up-front capital expenditure required and complete control and flexibility on cost.

The tide is turning towards cobotics but we need to do more to reassure and educate people around this new approach to innovation

It’s our job to understand and listen to concerns and provide the information, evidence and guidance that FM leaders need to make smart, informed decisions. 

And it’s vital that we show our commitment to delivering the measurable impact the industry needs at this time – through shared risks and rewards, and common objectives. Whether it is frontline staff working alongside cobots, or tech providers working alongside clients, cobotics is ultimately about close collaboration and genuine partnerships. 

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