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By NAOMI KLOUDA
Alaska Journal of Commerce
ANCHORAGE (AP) — The janitorial contract for the old Palmer Hospital, now medical offices, involves thousands of square feet of floor space to clean using above average sanitary measures.
Noting an irksome shortage in qualified applicants answering the call “for hire,” Curtis Lucas figured maybe a robot could do the job.
The accountant who launched Alaska Professional Janitorial 13 years ago in Wasilla had steadily built a clientele of large medical facilities, retail stores and commercial buildings. It took a staff of 22 seven days a week to handle the work.
“Two years ago, I had one position open and I got 50 applicants. Right off the top, 40 didn’t qualify,” Lucas said. “I had 10 left and was down to three choices — then none of them took the job. Over the last several years, I have had a very difficult time finding people to work.”
Some applicants were eliminated for their criminal record or for not being able to pass a drug test. Other times, the applicant didn’t really want the job after Lucas invested time and training. HIPPA confidentiality requirements added an extra layer of security employees need to pass.
Then Lucas spotted the glimmer of a solution in a 2009 news article on the Sumitomo Corp in Osaka, Japan. A robot system that interfaced with elevators “came awake” at 11 p.m., and went to work cleaning floors at the Sumitomo Building. The autonomous robot moved without human assistance between building floors using the elevator system to clean common spaces such as corridors. “It was like they had read my mind,” Lucas said.
For several years, Lucas’ wife and two sons watched as he experimented with creating his own robot meant to vacuum, mop and sweep via remote or onsite automation.
“My family nicknamed him Mal, short for malfunction, because that’s all he did at first,” Lucas said.
Building his robot entailed inventing a coordinated system of tasks that turned the robot on in a location, set perimeters for its job: mopping, squeegee sucking water, spraying out clean water for rinsing and repeating, or a different floor cleaning task.
After working 12-hour days in his janitorial business, he’d come home and head for the garage. Getting Mal and his circuit of sensors and hardware to operate at the click of a phone app took a while.
Once he had the basic functions, Lucas hired a Wasilla tech to invent the app that tied it all together.
“It’s a lot of fun. I liked the challenge, but it would be frustrating, too. I’m entirely self-taught. A lot of times I felt like giving up,” Lucas recalled. “Then, finally, I was going from a pipedream to actual reality.”
First one in 2015, and now two robots in 2016 gave Lucas the competitive edge in bidding on jobs.
“We use the robots seven nights a week, so the labor savings are significant,” he said.
At 35 clients and a work force of 21 employees, Lucas determined the robots free up his staff to do more detail oriented tasks and save them from the monotony of floor cleaning. Each robot works six hours at a time, and the app signals the operator when finished.
Robots similar to “Mal” that Lucas is in the process of patenting can go for a price tag of $30,000 to $40,000. For him, the cost was a faction of that. He figures he can build them for $1,000 to $3,000 each. He is now in the process of building two more, and by next year, he would like to have eight operating in his cleaning service.
Inevitably, practical discussions turn to philosophical about the ramifications of robots replacing humans.
Lucas said this is the wave of the future and there are a lot more robots already replacing humans than people may realize. Many jobs of the future will require the technological know-how to program, repair and build new equipment, he said.
“I know there are a lot of Luddites and they won’t like this,” Lucas said, referring to a leader of a Victorian revolt on machinery in the cotton and wool mills that threatened workers jobs in 1811-1816. “Workers really need to think about this. People need to show up. They have hindered the productivity in the country,” Lucas said. “It is getting harder and harder to get people to work in certain industries. The prime age group 25-45 will have a tough road if they can’t adapt.”
Amazon now has 45,000 robots in its warehouses, according to Business Insider, and sells robotic arms for building your own robot. But they are also seeking to hire 50,000 people.
An article in Bloomberg Businessweek in May focused on “China’s Robot Revolution.” There, scarce labor and rising wages are claimed as reasons why factories incorporated 90,000 more robotics in 2016 alone. Wired Magazine recently featured an article on a truck, outfitted with $30,000 hardware and software from San Francisco startup Otto, that made the world’s first autonomous truck delivery of 50,000 cans of Budweiser.
An Alaska manufacturing niche now using robotics is the tank fabrication industry. Steel tanks that hold water, sewage, and natural gas, among other substances are getting a high-quality weld with the help of a robotic welder at Greer Tank and Welding in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
A recent article by fisheries columnist Laine Welch described robots now used to process crab and debone and fillet cod in the fishing industries. Robot-makers predict that in the future highly skilled humans will work on sophisticated machines and computers, not on the slime lines.
It’s not so much rejecting human capital, Lucas said, but rather a way to protect his business. He considers lacking good workers a “national epidemic.” One Wasilla grocery advertised “hiring workers for all shifts,” Lucas noticed while shopping recently. People don’t seem to want to work certain jobs, he said.
“The difficulty is mostly finding people when someone leaves. I haven’t laid any people off. I just haven’t had to fill certain positions,” he said.
He figures he can pay a better wage to the employees he has, because he’s saving money from the work of his two robots.
“I can put my people to work on tasks that take more thought, more detail and then we’re providing a superior service,” he said.
For now and into the foreseeable future, when he puts out job ads, there’s one for which he won’t need to advertise.
“This position is no longer available,” he said. “I have the floor cleaning jobs filled.”
Information from: (Anchorage) Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com