IFMA webinar: Getting into the nuts and bolts of cobotics

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

On Tuesday this week we had our second webinar in partnership with IFMA, with another high calibre panel. We had Elke de Jong (Innovation Specialist at CSU), Sascha Hartmann (Head of the Competence Center Experts, Dussman Service Deutschland), Peter Ankerstjerne (Global Lead FM & Experience Services at JLL and the recently appointed Chairman of the Board at IFMA). And yours truly!

If the first discussion was about the concept of cobotics and the potential for cobots to deliver efficiency and productivity, then this follow up was all about drilling down into the practicalities of introducing cobots into cleaning teams – the challenges, pitfalls, do’s and don’ts.

Elke and Sascha are spearheading cobotic adoption within CSU and Dussman respectively, so it was fascinating to hear their experiences of embarking on their journey within a cleaning contractor and facilities management provider. 

There was lots of lively debate during the session but here are three important takeaways for any manager/ director within any FM or cleaning services provider that might be considering cobotics as an answer to their productivity and performance challenges.

Think big, start small

It’s easy to get excited about the huge potential for cobotics to transform cleaning operations but it’s important not to run before you can walk. The introduction of cobotics is like any significant change management programme – it’s a journey and you need to bring people from across the organisation along with you in order to succeed – that includes finance, HR, senior leadership, union representatives and cleaners themselves.

We talked about the need to roll out proof of concept projects to demonstrate the value to all stakeholders. So, for instance, with a cobot like Whiz, businesses could start by bringing in two or three units to work alongside a single cleaning team within a specific area of a building as part of a one month pilot project.

Then, once people are comfortable with the cobots and understand what they bring, it is far easier to accelerate deployment. A good cobot-as-a-service contract enables this level of flexibility and scalability. 

Measure and evaluate the widest range of KPIs

One of the most attractive elements of cobotics is the fact that it allows cleaning contractors to take a far more strategic approach to measurement and service delivery than traditional approaches. It paves the way for performance-based contracts, based on outputs and outcomes, rather than solely on inputs (time). My colleague Stefano Bensi has written about that previously here

But it’s also important to consider the softer benefits of cobotics, particularly at this time when cleaning has a vital role to play in accelerating re-entry to buildings and driving confidence amongst end users and customers in the wake of COVID-19. 

A survey from IWFM this week found that more than a third of people are concerned about returning to their offices, up from 19% in April. Many businesses are acutely aware of this anxiety within their workforce and are looking to reassure staff that they can provide a safe environment.

By deploying cobotics, cleaning contractors can deliver a higher level of service to clients, with cleaning staff freed up to focus on high-footfall areas and spend more time on the sanitisation of hard surfaces such as door handles and lift buttons. In some instances, businesses will want cleaning teams to be more visible to end users of buildings to provide comfort and instil confidence. Cobotics can facilitate such a shift in resourcing and scheduling models.

So it’s important to think about the full range of benefits that cobotics can bring. Of course, ROI, service levels, staff retention and cleaning standards are important. But so too are less traditional and tangible measures such as employee wellbeing, end user satisfaction and maybe even rates of people returning to work post-lockdown. 

Embrace the journey of discovery

Finally, one thing that really came out of the discussion is the need to approach cobotics with an open mindset and to be prepared to continually try things. Fail fast, learn fast, succeed faster. 

Cobotics is an entirely new approach to innovation and transformation within the cleaning sector – even innovation-driven brands like CSU and Dussman, who are at the forefront of this evolution, are still at the early stages of their journey and learning as they go.

What’s important is that those individuals like Sascha and Elke who are spearheading this shift to cobotics, have the right levels of support and autonomy from within their organisations to test and optimise new ways of working as they go. And that cobot vendors such as ourselves provide them with practical guidance and flexible contracts which allow them to experiment in order to find the optimal solution that works for their own business. We have to take away as much risk as possible up front.

When you’re dealing with something as new and significant as cobotics, everybody is learning as they go. Having discussions like these with people from across the FM and cleaning industry is both useful (in terms of insight and advice) and reassuring (knowing that everybody is facing the same challenges).

It’s definitely good to talk. Expect to see more of these types of discussions from SoftBank Robotics and our customers and partners over the coming months!

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