Flashback 1984: Robots Are Cleaning Up

Ed Selkow /

This post was originally published in Office Guide To Tampa Bay 1984 and written by Ed Selkow. Ed is now Co-founder of Scientific Maintenance Corporation - The world's first facility services company engineered around robotics. It might have taken a little longer than expected for robots to gain traction in commercial cleaning, but we appreciated reading Ed's foresight into the future way back in 1984!

It would not be hard to have a machine roll into your office and dust your desk; however, everything sitting on top would be "dusted" right off, onto the floor.

It is past 5:30 and most everyone has already gone home. As you walk to the elevator you pass the half-open door of the utility room. Inside the small room, someone is tinkering with the machine that will be cleaning your office.

With the necessary adjustments made, the machine that will dust and vacuum moves on its own down the hallway with a muffled, whirring sound. As you step onto the elevator, the machine turns into the first office and begins its nightly duties. You know that no offices will be "forgotten" or half cleaned, as they sometimes were in the old days.

Is this science fiction or possibly 100 years in the future? Probably not, because as you read this the technology exists. Robot manufacturers and some cleaning business firms are designing robots to clean your building. Research is now going on that could yield a working robot at any time.

I had the opportunity to attend Robotech 83. The first International Conference and Exposition for the Application of Automated Manufacturing Technology, held during the week of October 2, 1983, in Tampa.

During Robotech, I spoke with one robot manufacturer who said that prototype of a working robot capable of performing routine cleaning tasks could be built for approximately $250,000. After the first one was designed, each robot could possibly be manufactured for around $20,000. I was not the first to talk with him about robots that clean. He had already been approached by a food processing company to design a machine that would clean floors by itself.

There are now more than 200 manufacturers of industrial robots in the US. Almost all applications presently are in the manufacturing industries, with automakers as the #1 users.

The robotics industry is an outgrowth of the machine tool industry, which explains why over 95 percent of all robots work at assembling products. About 40 percent of all manufacturing jobs are in product assembly. It is in this setting that robot makers are gearing up for a steady 35 percent annual growth rate into the 1990s.

Certain problems must be addressed before the cleaning contractor's dream comes true. It would not be hard to have a machine roll into your office and dust your desk. While dusting the desk, however, everything sitting on the top would be "dusted" right off, onto the floor. And every time a desk or piece of furniture was moved, the robot would be unable to find it. The problem stems from the machine's inability to sense its own surrounding.

As yet, we do not have affordable software to control the machine's activities. Programs that could be changed to accommodate variations in the office, such as a desk being moved to the other side of the room, are necessary. The prices of these programs are key factors here.

From a cleaning contractor's point of view, the price of the robot would have to be justified over a specific period of time. The standard practice of writing one-year cleaning contracts with 30-day cancellation clauses (which are in effect 30-day contracts) further complicates the feasibility of buying a robot that cleans.

One approach that could speed the development of those robots might be a closer working relationship between the people who design and build the buildings and we who clean and maintain them forever after.

The Building Service Contractors Association International, an organization comprised of firms that provide cleaning services, produces a booklet called Planning for Maintenance: A Guide for Architects and Building Developers. The publication presents guidelines for structural innovations that would streamline the cleaning process. I believe that this approach could provide a building owner with a structure that would be designed for maintenance. With this type planning, robots could be implemented very soon.

So what will all this mean to those who own and operate buildings? Benefits such as consistency in the quality of cleaning services and a higher degree of dependability. As the margin of human error is reduced, fewer foul-ups occur. This is important, as the majority of problems a cleaning company has are attributable to people rather than mechanical failure.

Down the road, domestic robots will serve people in their own homes in different ways. This is not as outlandish as it sounds; some research is currently underway for development of domestic robots. In the beginning, commercial users will be the first to have the resources for and interest in robots that clean.

A comparison can be made between the development of robots and that of the computer. Computers first appeared on the job; as the technology improved, the cost came down and now they are found in the home.

The possibilities for the use of robots in cleaning are staggering, but rest assured there will be resistance. It has been said that the only person that likes change is a wet baby and these developments will not come without screaming from those who will benefit the most. So be on the lookout for the brave souls who will bring you strange-sounding news. Welcome those who give you new ways of doing old things and enjoy the advantages of technology.

What do you think about Ed's predictions way back in 1982? Was he on the mark? What role do robots have in commercial cleaning today and into the future? Please share your comments below.

Ed Selkow

Co-founder of Scientific Maintenance Corporation. The world's first facility services company engineered around robotics