Why Robots are NOT the Future

As a floor-care professional, I hear and see stories about the impending “robotic takeover” in our industry, (reminds me of the Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 80’s and 90’s). I’ve heard all the benefits of robots cleaning commercial facilities. These range from huge savings on labor costs, increased and steady production rates which have no considerations for any human factors such as fatigue, scheduled breaks, vacations, adverse working conditions…including the fact that robots don’t complain! I decided to do some research and dig deeper into this topic to see just how long I have until doomsday, when my job will be replaced by a robot. Here is what I found out;

  • The human labor savings are not as significant as the equipment manufacturers are leading us to believe. With current technology, robots still require a human ear and eye to ensure there is no trapped debris under the machine. When debris gets trapped the machine usually leaves a line of water behind, which when dry is noticeable to customers. The machine cannot sense this and if it could, would not be able to remedy the situation. Also, in a recent publication regarding Wal-Mart’s usage of automated robotic floor cleaners, the units must be continually supervised by humans to ensure the safety of customers and Wal-Mart employees, voiding any savings proposed by the manufacturer.
  • In many cases “autonomous” floor cleaners do not work well around fixtures and displays, glass storefronts or non-partitioned passageways, (such as the interior entrance to a mall from a retail store). Since these robots rely on laser technology to find their way through a store, they do not “see” glass and have reportedly caused significant damage due to this factor.
  • Robotic machines still require daily and periodic maintenance by humans.
  • These machines are very, very costly, ranging from $15,000 to over $75,000. By the time any ROI is realized on a robotic floor cleaner, it is likely due for replacement.

It is worth mentioning the socio-economic impact that the proliferation of robots brings to our nation. Currently, there are approximately 2,384,600 janitors employed in the United States[1]. Many of these positions are considered low-income and are difficult to replace when displaced by robots. This could have massive negative implications on America’s purchasing power, which ultimately can lead to lower spending habits of your customers.

I loved Rosie from the Jetsons as much as the next kid. She was a huge help to Jane Jetson – “Never fear, Rosie’s here!” was her favorite slogan. In the commercial cleaning industry, where there is a wide range of standards and expectations from a diverse group of store and facility managers, you simply cannot take out the human element. With current technology, robots cannot solve crises, have conversations with store managers, listen to problems and come up with solutions, etc. At least for the foreseeable future, I think my job is safe.

[1] 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey

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