Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Technology Squeeze: Housekeeping/Cleaning Personnel

The other day I discussed trends in technology that are eliminating jobs in the low-wage retail sector—jobs that people and policy makers probably never thought were really at risk. We have been conditioned since the industrial revolution to expect manufacturing workers to be replaced by automation, but low-end service personnel?

In this post I will discuss another occupation, in the next of many expected posts about professionals who haven’t expected to be culled by technology, but should probably start to worry. I use the word ‘culled’ deliberately, as humans can expect to be in the loop in these professions for quite some time, rather than eliminated wholesale; robots are still too dumb. Human-supervised clusters of self-checkout stations are an excellent example of a template we can apply, with some creativity, to many other areas.

Today’s target is housekeeping/cleaning. Hotel chains, airports, and hospitals all have large numbers of similar bedrooms and/or bathrooms that are periodically cleaned by crews of roving service personnel. A cleaning person or team of persons go through one room after another, vacuuming, dusting, swapping out the sheets, and scrubbing the bathtubs, sinks and toilets. I expect these institutions to begin employing smaller teams using robotic assistants. (If I google hard enough, I’ll probably find that this has already begun.)

Vacuuming is a chore that has already proven tractable to robotic servants, as in the case of the Roomba. Roomba operates in a semi-random pattern to accommodate endless room configurations; As a result, it misses spots, and doesn’t work very quickly. But since one hotel room is pretty much like another and must be vacuumed frequently, it would be easy and worthwhile to configure commercial-grade vacuum robots with layout programs—or the rooms they service, with discreet boundary wires or paints—to make coverage quick and thorough. A worker arriving in the room to clean it would check the floor over for situations that might cause the vacuum trouble, then unleash it while changing the sheets and cleaning the bathroom. The vacuum would be finished by the time the worker is ready to move on to the next room.

And what about bathrooms? Cleaning a bathroom is probably the least enjoyed and most difficult task in housekeeping. As a result, it is often not done as often or as well as it could be. This is considered acceptable in our homes, but not in public facilities, and especially not in hospitals. So I look to healthcare to lead the deployment of bathroom-cleaning robots, even before they can pay their own way from a labor standpoint. A toilet-cleaning robot might look like a non-descript box just a little larger than the toilet it cleans. After removing any excessive debris from the target, a worker wheels the machine over the toilet and plugs it into water and power supplies (a hose socket might be built into a specially designed toilet made by the maker of the cleaning machine). The machine sinks down and forms a gentle water-tight seal with the floor, and proceeds to scour the toilet from all sides with scalding hot water jets and/or disinfectants, like a high-powered dishwasher. It blow-dries the toilet when finished, and signals completion to the worker, who was free to perform other tasks during the cleaning. The machine is unplugged and wheeled to the next target.

As for sinks and bathtubs, robotics might be forthcoming here, but would initially work best with fixtures designed for automated cleaning—combination sockets for mounting, power, and water used by service people who always make sure the target is sufficiently prepped for scrubbing before plugging a very utilitarian-looking machine in.

Robo-moppers for the floors? Why not? The key to each of my above scenarios has been force-multiplication of human labor rather than dependence on the intelligence of robots. If eighty percent of the time a robot won’t have any problems, it makes sense to let a robot do eighty percent of the work. If a human will identify and correct the remaining twenty percent, the robots can do it all. The end result: lower costs, cleaner facilities, and workforce reduction among institutional cleaning personnel.

(To repeat an earlier disclaimer: I’m not passing judgment on the employees or decision-makers who will be involved in the transition. I wish only to explain an economic reality I hope we will be prepared for.)


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