The future of cleaning (part 1): Condo Disruption Series
Cleaning services. Probably not the first subject that comes to mind when thinking about disruption in the condo world. But there is a lot in store for condos that will require serious thought from boards and management.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll break the subject into two categories for cleaning in a condo. First, there are general services that clean the common area. The person or people that go around vacuuming hallway carpets, polishing the floor in the entrance, wiping down the elevator panels, and the list goes on. Let’s call this ‘Common Elements Cleaning’. Second, there’s the people who enter individual units to clean bedrooms, wash dishes, do laundry while the resident is off at work or between AirBNB users. Let’s call this ‘Private Space Cleaning’. Because of the length, I've separated in two posts.
Common Elements Cleaning
It’s amazing that common element cleaning hasn’t changed in the last century or more. Go back 100 years and think about how other service industries are evolving. Amazon re-invented mail-order shopping, doctors are using software to diagnose patients and cashiers at retail stores are even becoming rarer by the day.
For cleaning services, the evolution has been crawling. Sure there’s the Dyson, the Roomba (or iRobot), and I’ve seen YouTube videos of autonomous cleaning machines, but in the majority of condos and homes, cleaning equipment revolves around a person, a bucket, a mop, some cleaning detergents, rags and a vacuum cleaner. Transport a cleaning person from 1917 to today, and I bet they could figure things out in 15 minutes. Maybe less.
But all that is about to change. Within 5 to 10 years we’ll start regularly seeing robots cleaning condos. What needs to happen before we see robots in our hallways?
First the technology for cleaning machines is not quite there yet. Intellibot, an industry leader in automated cleaning machines has great machines that would drive the late Steve Jobs or Elon Musk nuts. They get so much right but the machines don’t incorporate the latest in artificial intelligence (AI) technologies or a sensible dose of human centric design. Watch this video and you’ll understand why.
Far too much of the day to day operation requires a technician to maintain, service, fill and instruct the machine. Sure, it’ll save on time and reduce labour costs… but the upside isn’t quite enough to motivate a condo to invest in the technology.
When the robot will be able to prep itself for work, charge itself, know when to start and finish its day, and be easily programmed by the building manager, then the technology will be ready. And from what I can tell, the AI technology exists, they just haven’t incorporated the latest AI into cleaning machines. Have a look at these new or near to market technologies and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. Rethink Robotics (assembly line robots), HelloGbye (travel booking); and X.AI (calendar assistant).
Cost is the other factor. And will always be the principal hold up to any responsible condo who wants to keep their financials in check.
To understand the price point required to make this a practical purchase, I created a model to explore costs.
1)The robot will only clean floors - carpets and tile;
2) The building in question gets about 15 hours of time per week spent on the floors and the robot works at the same pace as a human;
3) The human cleaner is being paid $18/hour and excludes inflation;
4) The robot will require $2/hour of upkeep, this includes electricity and regular maintenance.
At $10,000 for the robot, it’s an easy decision. All expenses are recouped in less than a year. If a robot is $50,000, suddenly you need 4-5 years before you recoup your costs. A more difficult decision, especially when it’s introducing a new technology. A sharing program might be an option… but logistics will be difficult. Unless of course the robot is smart enough to commute between buildings. And don’t rule that out.
So once technology is in place… something should happen very soon given the state of AI advances over the last few years and ongoing investment. The first AI cleaning machines will cost plenty… but costs will drop quickly. If car companies will be able to put an autonomous car on the road for $50,000 in 5 years, I’m sure a $20,000 autonomous floor cleaner is easily within reach.
As we adopt new technology, we also have to understand what we will be giving up. First, thousands will lose jobs. Some new jobs will be created, but it can’t possibly match the number of jobs lost. Second, we lose some security in our buildings. The cleaning person who works at your building regularly acts as the eyes and ears in the hallways. Possibly lending a hand to an elderly person with groceries, or spotting a suspicious character who may be trying to break into a unit. A robot would likely be entirely indifferent to strangers or the person struggling with heavy bags.
How is this disruptive to your condo?
The staffing model for your condo may change. This requires you to understand your commitments to employees or labour suppliers.
A cleaning machine will occupy some space in your building. Is there space available that allows a machine to connect to water and electricity?
Building security may be impacted.
Costs savings will reduce annual maintenance spend.
What should your condo do?
Fortunately, the technology is still a few years away. Sit back, wait and stay tuned for the salesperson to request a meeting.