Are the Robots really coming?

Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence have been. But how much is reality and how much is scaremongering? Here’s what our think tank poll respondents say

Join the Think Tank to have your opinion reflected here —

15 September 2016 | FM World team

Rob Farman

Some robotic support is inevitable 

Between 1998 and 2000, I had a break from FM and worked as commercial manager at  BT’s R&D centre, Adastral Park, in Martlesham. Back then, articles in BT Technology Journal spoke about driverless cars. 

Today, 16 years later, we are seeing some of that technology deployed to aid parking. We’re also seeing Google trialing driverless cars and Uber embarking on driverless taxis.

Online retailer Amazon recently demonstrated how it uses both robots and people in its warehouse in Dunstable, and you may recall that Forth Valley Hospital won the BIFM Award for ‘FM Excellence in a Major Project’ in 2011, where “patients will never see trolleys of laundry, waste or food and drink being wheeled around because of the use of automatic guided vehicles”, or so-called ‘robotic porters’.

Robotics will advance steadily from warehousing into retail and I can imagine driverless trucks delivering to supermarkets overnight and robotic assistants stacking shelves during the quiet hours when people would prefer not to work. I can also imagine driverless window cleaning cradles with robotic cleaners. So why not robotic mail sorting in the post room? Robotic mail delivery? Robotic cleaning in offices? Robotic catering?

Rob Farman is principal at Abacus FMEC

Chris Kane 

Robot age calls for courage

We need to adjust to the digital age, where choice is ubiquitous and the business landscape complex. FM is on the cusp of significant change, where harnessing AI and robotics will pose a big challenge for those intent on maintaining the status quo. 

My business partner Euan Semple speaks about how “much of the routine busy-work that fills our days will be done by machines. They will get smarter and faster than we can imagine. Staying ahead of them will call for creativity, insights, and courage”.

Could it help us get to grips with supporting both the people and the place agenda? That would be something of real business value. The alternative is steady decline.

Chris Kane is principal at Chris Kane Associates

Kat Fulton

They’re coming – and retail’s leading the way

The retail sector has made extensive use of robots in warehouses to help package and ship orders, but a new generation of robots is graduating from the ‘back of house’ into the shops. For example, the OSHbot; customers type on its touchscreen menu to find a particular item they want, then follow the robot to the product location.

Other retailers, like Sephora, have recognised the potential to automate transactions by moving to digital shopping. Shops have little or no stock, acting more like a ‘try before you buy’ showroom, which requires fewer staff.

At ISS, we always look to enhance service and make working life easier for our own people by developing and adopting new technologies. We recently entered a partnership with IBM for building sensor technology that delivers data to improve workplace performance.

While process automation has brought demonstrable benefits, organisations still recognise the power of genuine human interaction, which we know excellent service experiences depend upon. For now, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief‚ but there’s no doubt that the robots are coming.

Kat Fulton-Allen is solutions director, finance & retail services, ISS Facility Services

James Spires

AI will soon Play a greater role in buildings

Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence are disruptive technologies that will play a key role in the future of our industry. Their vast scope is only just beginning to be recognised.

In our own service delivery we are pioneering applications of robotic process automation to carry out a variety of tasks without risk of error or downtime. Aside from increases in productivity and efficiency, it will release more of an FM’s time to concentrate on the people-focused and customer service elements of the role.

We see AI systems playing a greater role in disciplines such as air quality, environmental and energy management within buildings in the near future. The impact of AI or machine learning technologies will be a built environment that is more responsive to the behaviour of its occupants.

FM providers will need to think and operate differently, embracing innovative start-ups and SMEs and partnering with them to get the best from fast-moving, new technologies.

James Spires is strategy director for Engie


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