Bowling Green State University is a Public University for the Public Good; they are committed to improving lives both on and off campus.
Whether it’s using autonomous equipment to keep buildings clean, so students stay healthy, to focusing on cost-effective building maintenance tactics to help control costs, everything BGSU does is to support the nearly 21,000 students on campus so they can be a positive asset to the greater community.
“We want to make sure we are bringing the public good into what we’re doing,” says Eric Heilmeier, Director of Campus Services
Heilmeier oversees the custodial, maintenance, grounds, and logistics departments, plus the lock and paint shops on campus. Together, the 200-plus employees of these departments take care of just over 4.5 million square feet of space and 94 buildings. The custodial team works around the clock seven days a week to make sure the campus is student, staff, and visitor-ready.
One of the many ways BGSU works to create a campus that supports student success is by maintaining and cleaning buildings, so they reflect the pride that comes from creating an environment that students, staff, and visitors enjoy and want to spend time in.
One building that gets much attention from both students and custodial staff is the Bowen-Thompson Student Union building.
“The Student Union building is one of the busiest buildings on campus and getting into the Student Union can be a challenge; it's open almost 20 hours a day,” says Heilmeier.
Rose Fintel, Custodial Zone Supervisor, oversees what is known as the Traditional Zone; this includes the Student Union building.
For Heilmeier and Fintel, keeping the Student Union building clean is challenging because of the long hours the building is open and the number of students and staff that spend time in the building.
Fintel points out that “the entire floor needs to be cleaned daily,” and this can be hard to do effectively and efficiently because it requires working around the hundreds of people enjoying the space daily.
Making sure the floors are clean is important for many reasons. “The floors need to be cleaned because they reflect the rest of the building. If you walk in and see dirty floors you’re not going to want to eat here, you’ll just walk through,” Fintel says.
The Student Union is also one of the most visited buildings on campus by guests.
“This is typically one of the first buildings that guests come to when visiting campus. So, it's really important that this building is maintained at our highest level,” says Heilmeier.
Other challenges Heilmeier faces, while trying to keep campus clean and well-maintained, have to do with labor issues.
“Some of the challenges we have experienced over that last couple of years include staffing and making sure we have enough staff to clean spaces that are heavily used.”
Dealing with labor shortages makes it even harder for custodial staff to get to all critical areas across campus, let alone maintain the busiest buildings on campus.
“The floors need to be cleaned because they reflect the rest of the building. If you walk in and see dirty floors you’re not going to want to eat here, you’ll just walk through."
BGSU is not new to autonomous equipment. The university is committed to embracing technology and finding ways to support their existing staff and students to better the campus environment.
Heilmeier says, “When it came to adding automation to campus it really came to change management. When we started to bring on automation, we considered how it would benefit our students and how it would help give students the best experience possible, while again also trying to maintain and control costs.”
Having experience with autonomous equipment aided in their decision to bring on cobot (collaborative robot) Cobi 18, an autonomous floor scrubber by ICE Cobotics. In January 2023, Heilmeier and his team added three Cobi 18 units to the campus custodial team.
For Heilmeier though, the decision to bring on Cobi 18 was based on more than just the university’s knowledge of autonomous equipment, it was more about the relationship being fostered between ICE Cobotics and BGSU.
“Working with ICE Cobotics for me was about building relationships. I have a responsibility to our staff and to our university, so if I am going to bring in a company and put this type of investment in both time and resources into something, I want to make sure it is with a company who wants to see us be successful,” he says.
Since deploying the Cobi 18 units, Heilmeier and his team have worked closely with ICE Cobotics. From training to troubleshooting to sharing tips and best practices, the teams have continually worked together to make the Cobi units a viable solution for BGSU.
“To me the collaboration and partnership is critical,” adds Heilmeier.
For Fintel, the benefits of Cobi are many. She highlights how easy it was to implement Cobi 18, “Within the first week I had Cobi up and running and cleaning the floors. I worked alongside Cobi initially, but by the end of two weeks, Cobi was cleaning on its own and I was focusing on other things.”
Fintel says, “There are many other things I can focus on when I have Cobi running. I can get the building open and make sure rooms are clean for any events that are going to happen.”
Adding Cobi 18 to the custodial staff has helped Heilmeier augment the staffing issues he was facing. The Cobi units are seen as an addition that helps support the existing team members. They even named one of the Cobi units Fred, after the BGSU falcon mascot.
Heilmeier points out “In the month of February, we essentially added 245 hours of labor, that were not previously there, by utilizing autonomous equipment, and this has enabled staff to focus on the more critical issues we face.”
He goes on to add “This is not meant to replace a staff member. This is adding to our team, so we can allow our staff to do other tasks.”
In fact, it was a staff initiative that everyone was involved in and had their hands in. “Our staff was a part of the decision, and they could see how it would benefit them. It wasn’t a threatening thing,” he says.
Fintel agrees and notes the improvements they have been able to make since adding Cobi 18 to the team at the Student Union building.
Since adding Cobi 18, Fintel and her staff have improved their detailed cleaning processes, they are able to dust earlier in the morning, get to window cleaning sooner, and make the Student Union presentable for the people coming in first thing in the morning.
“Pre-Cobi, it used to take us until 9 or 10 a.m. to have all the entrances cleaned and the floor done. Now that we have Cobi, we have the floors done by 8 am and most of the other tasks done before the building opens at 7 a.m.,” she says. “Pre-Cobi, floors took closer to 5-6 hours to do and now they take half that time. We’re saving 50% of the time.”
In addition to supporting staff with the workload each day, Heilmeier has also been able to set goals and improve processes.
Heilmeier tracks the use of autonomous cleaning equipment daily by using the i-SYNERGY fleet tracking software that is integrated into the Cobi units. By doing this, he can measure equipment use, manage processes, and even set goals for his team.
“We’ve set up goals for how much the Cobi units should clean every night, both square footage and length and run time. And we’ve increased those goals as we’ve seen our staff become accustomed to using Cobi,” he says.
Heilmeier and his team have been able to use the technology to verify the cleanliness of the campus. This has helped them to focus on creating an environment that is healthy and conducive to learning, while also supportive to the staff that keeps the buildings clean.
“We utilize the technology to verify cleanliness. If we have a question, we pull up the report and review how long the unit ran and where. We know right away if a unit was used later than normal. We can investigate what happened in the building and adjust the hours or operation or determine if we need to add people or adjust the schedule.”
Overall, Heilmeier and Fintel have seen improved cleanliness and appearance in the buildings where Cobi 18 is used. They are improving processes and goals regularly and the custodial teams have been able to tackle projects that typically have to wait for school breaks.
“I would tell any operations manager or director that working with ICE Cobotics has really added to our portfolio and our ability to clean. Thinking about the square footage we can cover and the increase in cleaning frequency that we are able to utilize, ICE Cobotics has really added to our program and elevated us a little bit more,” says Heilmeier.
“In the month of February, we essentially added 245 hours of labor, that weren’t previously there, by utilizing autonomous equipment, and this has enabled staff to focus on the more critical issues we face.”