June 26, 2020

Docking stations: Are they worth the investment?

As innovators in facilities around the world look to new technologies to improve the efficiency, performance and transparency of their cleaning operations, they're faced with a challenging dilemma: What's the correct balance between the adoption of bleeding-edge technologies and doing things the old fashioned way?

With autonomous floor scrubbing robots now becoming increasingly accepted as normal tools for the facilities manager, “docking stations” are the latest trend. But are these accessories worth the hefty price tag, and do they live up to their manufacturers’ claims?

Before we answer that, let us outline the two types of docking stations typically used with autonomous floor scrubbing robots:

  • Electrical only: These docking stations will charge the floor scrubber, but an operator must fill the machine with a cleaning solution and drain the recovery tank (in addition to other maintenance tasks).

  • Electrical and water: These docking stations will charge the floor scrubber, fill it with cleaning solution and dispose of dirty water (note: an operator is required to complete additional maintenance tasks for optimal cleaning).

Now with that in mind, truth be told, an automated floor scrubber robot docking station (either type) makes little sense in the majority of applications. Let us tell you why.

Check your ROI

Advocates will highlight that a key benefit of a docking station is the cost savings realized when a robot “pit stops” without the operator’s help — but keep in mind that the costs of essential supporting infrastructure and building renovations add up fast.

Consider the construction work required in a typical commercial installation:

  • A plumbing contractor digs a channel through concrete floors and installs a sewer line from the docking station.

  • A flooring contractor repairs the tile floor that was removed.

  • The plumbing contractor tears open a wall to install a water supply line to the docking station.

  • An electrician runs a new circuit to the docking station to supply power for battery charging. The electrical panel will also need to be modified to add circuit breakers.

  • A drywall contractor repairs the wall.

  • A painter repaints once the drywall contractor is complete.

  • You purchase a building permit for all of the above renovations.

The cost of renovations as outlined above will, of course, vary depending on the existing infrastructure in the facility, but it’s easy to see the total bill will reach into the thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dollars before the docking station itself is even purchased.

Assuming a loaded labor rate* of $25 per hour and one 10-minute “pit stop” per day to exchange the water and charge the batteries (after up to 6 hours of scrubbing time from Neo), the total annual turnaround labor cost is approximately $1,500. At this rate, you may not break even for a decade!

*Loaded Labour Rate: The employee hourly rate plus employee benefits, capital expenses and other overhead.

Impact on robot uptime

In many cases, both types of docking stations can limit robot uptime rather than maximizing it.

For facilities large enough to support relatively long periods of continuous scrubbing, models of daily operation reveal that, as time spent replenishing consumables like water and energy (i.e. batteries) increases, Return on Investment (ROI) is impacted significantly. And while changing water takes only minutes, charging batteries takes hours, during which time robots are idle. State-of-the-art battery technologies can shorten downtime via “fast charging”, but increased battery costs and increased infrastructure costs associated with the extra-large power supply lines required often offset any ROI benefits.

The most efficient way to maximize uptime (and thereby ROI) is to exchange the robot’s batteries — decreasing downtime to virtually zero. While docking stations charge batteries, they cannot swap them. For facilities with high uptime requirements and the desire to maximize ROI, a docking station isn't an effective tool.

Limited placement options

Where do you store your floor scrubber? Likely out of sight and out of mind.

This makes docking stations problematic in most facilities. Between a typical maintenance closet and the service areas lie a maze of narrow passageways, doors and elevators through which a robot must be driven before scrubbing can start. Can this step in the process be automated? Sure. But at what cost? We've been quoted in excess of $70,000 by elevator manufacturers to integrate with a single lift.

In order to allow your floor scrubbing robot to access the areas you want to scrub without incurring excessive additional costs, you need to locate your docking station within arm's reach of them. This is particularly problematic in retail applications where it means sacrificing valuable floor space for an item that generates no revenue and placing an expensive piece of tech where it may be prone tampering. Additionally, despite the best intentions of designers to meet customers’ aesthetic requirements, docking stations typically look industrial to some degree, and floor scrubbers that see extensive use often end up scuffed and dirty.

No docking station offers complete automation

No docking station can fully replace a human operator.

In order to ensure high quality, consistent cleaning, the following maintenance tasks should be performed daily on any floor scrubbing machine:

  • Fill with fresh cleaning solution

  • Drain and rinse recovery tank

  • Empty solid debris from debris bins (if applicable)

  • Rinse out brushes or replace floor pads (to avoid smudges or dark spots)

  • Clean squeegees (to eliminate streaks or water trails)

Even the most sophisticated docking stations can only perform some of these tasks. At best: fill, drain, rinse and charge. At worst: nothing but charging! Whether you have a docking station or not, you still need a human in the loop.

Without performing all of these tasks consistently, cleaning quality can be seriously impacted — debris can be left on the floor, marks or streaks might be present and water trails may remain after the machine has passed. Not only is this inconvenient, but most often a human operator is left responsible for fixing the mess, negating any savings you might have collected as a result of taking them out of the maintenance loop in the first place.

The future of floor care robots & docking stations

At the end of the day, you almost certainly want a human operator to help maximize the benefit of your autonomous floor care robot. Your operator can perform basic maintenance tasks affordably, swap batteries to maximize robot uptime, move your robot to and from a suitable storage location, conduct detailed maintenance tasks to ensure top-tier cleaning performance and longevity, or all of the above. For these specific tasks, human operators provide great bang for the buck.

At Avidbots, we focus on automating the dull, dirty, monotonous and potentially dangerous task of riding a floor scrubber for hours on end. But just as Neo robots work alongside human cleaning crews, helping short-staffed teams shift their members to high-value tasks, floor scrubbers should work alongside human operators, who can help them perform optimally and cost-efficiently.

As technology advances, IoT devices become more prevalent and more affordable, and the labor market continues to change, it may eventually become sensible to adopt floor care robot docking stations. When that day arrives, Avidbots will continue to lead the way and help our customers run their cleaning businesses more and more effectively.

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