'Warehouses are a perfect location for cleaning robots' - Erik Switsers of BOMA Robotics
BOMA became an Innovation Partner of Log!Ville last year, which might have initially seemed an odd choice for a company that distributes cleaning products and machines, but the firm does have a clear connection to innovation and logistics. That is because BOMA Robotics focuses on cleaning robots for warehouses and other locations. 'Logistics buildings are perfect locations for this form of robotisation,' says Erik Switsers, BOMA divisional manager for Machines & Robotics .
BOMA is a family company that started off 49 years ago as a supplier of brushes and mats (which is where the name BOMA comes from), and today it distributes a very wide range of cleaning products and materials, ranging from detergents to cleaning machines and robots and from janitorial trolleys to chemicals and disinfectants. Its primary target markets are cleaning companies, the healthcare sector, public bodies (municipalities, sports centres, etc), industry and logistics. Aside from Belgium, BOMA also operates in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.
'Our machinery portfolio has grown steadily and today it is extraordinarily wide, covering domestic and industrial vacuums, high-pressure cleaners, rotary polishers, brushing machines, scrubbers and anything else you can think of,' says Erik Switsers. 'Five years ago we also launched the very first cleaning robots on the market.'
'We have been a member of VIL for many years, which is how we discovered Log!Ville. BOMA handles its own logistics for the products and materials we distribute, and we have an excellent logistics setup that is managed out of our principal warehouse on Noorderlaan in Antwerp. We also have a separate division there for our machines and robots – BOMA Robotics.'
A difficult environment
When BOMA first looked at distributing cleaning robots, some five years ago, the quality of the available machines left much to be desired. 'They were simply already-existing machines that had been robotised or robots that could do a little polishing,' says Erik. 'In both cases the results were okay at best, and were actually disappointing when it came to complex environments like hospitals or even in warehouses. Finally, we approached Lionsbot in Singapore.'
The fact that there is growing interest in cleaning robots, particularly in healthcare and logistics, is not surprising, Erik believes. 'Both these sectors are experiencing severe staff shortages, and there is also a lack of qualified cleaning personnel. Boring, repetitive and physically demanding tasks can now be assigned to robots, allowing staff to focus on those areas where more thorough and better-quality cleaning must be performed, such as offices, meeting rooms and so on, as well as hospital wards.'
Moreover, the layout of a warehouse makes it the perfect location for robotising cleaning work. 'Mapping out the building itself and the fixed objects so that robots can efficiently navigate them is a relatively simple task,' says Erik. 'Where necessary, we can also designate zones as "prohibited", such as loading and offloading bays and zones where forklifts are frequently operational and where there is a risk of accidents.'
But challenges remain – wherever humans are active, matters such as advanced safety protocols are required. However, the most significant issue is that much small debris can be found in these locations, such as packaging, fasteners or pallet splinters. 'One must almost always sweep an area out before performing water-based cleaning, just as is the case with traditional scrubbers.'
Autonomous but not fully automated
While logistics buildings are perfect locations for cleaning robots, the devices are not yet truly assimilated into the environment. 'Demand has exploded in the healthcare sector over the past two years, with an emphasis on the quality of cleaning and disinfecting thanks to the Covid crisis, which upped the need,' says Erik. 'But we have also noted a growing demand from logistics companies, due to staff shortages. A cleaning company can be set to work in the offices, but it is a company's own staff that generally does the cleaning in a warehouse, and it pays to put those people to work elsewhere doing something more essential.'
It must however be remembered that a robot is still not a perfect substitute for a human with a polisher. A robot might be completely autonomous, but it cannot perform all the required tasks. While replenishing water tanks, draining dirty water and recharging batteries using a docking station can all be done autonomously, staff must still maintain the machine itself on a daily basis, including cleaning the brushes and pads. In some cases, cleaning schedules must also be adjusted (so that, for example, cleaning can be performed outside of working hours) in order to maximise the potential of the robot. 'That means greater efficiency on the part of the robot and improved cleaning,' Erik adds.
Log!Ville: three objectives
'What it boils down to is that a lot of things must be taken into consideration before replacing a machine with a robot. That is why we visit companies in order to discuss their needs and expectations. In fact, that's one of the three objectives we had in mind when becoming a partner of Log!Ville, which is an attractive and meaningful location for demonstrating the potential of our cleaning robots. Secondly, the innovative character of Log!Ville helps to better express the technology on offer.'
The third objective involves cross-pollination with operational managers as well as the other partners. 'Interaction with them means we will understand the needs of the logistics industry sooner and be able to discuss the challenges. As I said, we do not manufacture our own robots, but this input can aid our supplier to improve its products. We consider our partnership with Lionsbot to be a long-term one, and because the technology is developing at a very rapid pace, by exchanging knowhow and experiences with its engineers we can ensure they grow in the right direction,' Erik concludes.