Automating Facility Disinfection: What are your options?

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The COVID pandemic has left no industry untouched this year, with many governments shutting down businesses for months to try to curb the spread of the disease. Now that we are seeing economies beginning to re-open, warehouses, factories, distribution centers, and other businesses worldwide are putting in place processes to protect their employees and customers so they can bring business back to near normal levels as quickly as possible.

To help ensure their facilities are safe while still keeping up with demand, companies have added more shifts to minimize the number of associates in the facility at any given time as part of their social distancing efforts (see how to keep your employees safe and productive with our social distancing paper here). Companies are also using a variety of disinfecting methods to ensure the work environments are free of the Coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, for the limited staff that are in the facility at the same time. In addition to employees, customers visiting company facilities have heightened awareness about infectious diseases like COVID-19 and will want to know that the company is employing methods to keep facilities  virus-free. Even when the current pandemic passes, the need for heightened disinfecting methods is likely to continue. COVID-19 is the most recent serious disease outbreak, but SARS and Ebola were just a few years ago, and other infectious diseases can arise at any time. Regularly disinfecting also helps protect against more common diseases like colds, seasonal flus, etc.

Different Disinfecting Options Offer Pros, Cons

There are two main types of disinfecting methods that, when deployed correctly, kill viruses at a rate of 99.9% or greater, but both have a variety of benefits and drawbacks. Fogged (chemical) disinfectants can  cover all the front, back, top, and bottom surfaces of any object in addition to penetrating fabrics and carpets. However, fogged disinfectants must be used when humans aren’t present and staff needs to wait two to 24 hours before being able to safely re-enter the facility. 

There is no such delay for re-entry into disinfected spaces when using UV lights, but they need to be maneuvered properly to cover areas normally in the shadows, like the underside of shelves or the backsides of doorknobs, and have limited effectiveness the farther the object is from the lamp.

Manual or automated solutions can be used with either of these two effective options for disinfection. , Here are some details on each and recommendations for how to deploy them: 

Fogged Disinfectants

BreezyOne AMR

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a list of more than 400 types of disinfectants that are highly effective against viruses like those that cause COVID-19. Each needs to have contact with surfaces anywhere from two to 10 minutes. Since the disinfectant is spread using a fog, this type of disinfection can reach behind and under objects and in between shelving. But since these disinfectants leave a chemical residue after application, humans can’t safely re-enter an area where a disinfecting mist has been used for at least 2 and up to 24 hours unless wearing full protective gear. After this time, some disinfectants will break down into harmless byproducts like water and a soap residue. Some disinfectants will continue working even after employees have returned to the area (with limited effectiveness) for several days, allowing for less frequent deep cleaning. Researching the disinfectant that works most effectively and safely for your environment should be a high priority when looking at fogging.

UV Lights

Germicidal Ultraviolet light has been used to help disinfect areas in hospitals for several years. It is believed to be not just effective against COVID-19, but also highly at getting rid of other types of viruses as well as bacteria. 

There are four basic types of UV lights, the most common of which are UV-A and UV-B, which are used in some medical applications. However, the only type of UV lights that with germicidal properties are:

sample of UV-C light killing virus
  1. UV-C: Light in the 200-280 nm spectrum. Dangerous to humans, so it should not be used when people are in the same area. 
  2. Far-UVC: Light in the 207-222 nm spectrum. Better for busy areas, because it can be used while people are present. However, it is still relatively new, so there are only limited studies supporting its effectiveness in killing viruses and bacteria as well as how long humans can be present

The higher the intensity of the UV light, the quicker it can kill any pathogens. According to American Ultraviolet®, a UV-C light can kill bacteria in ten seconds at a distance of six inches from the lamp. The company further says that a 15-watt lamp will cover about 100 square feet. Upgrading to a 30-watt lamp will cover about 200 square feet. When choosing UV disinfection, you will have to choose from several types of UV lights, everything from low pressure lamps that require the least power but contain mercury up to pulsed UV where a high output pulse is flashed intermittently resulting in high germicidal rates and a much lower power draw.

For the best effectiveness, a company can use a fogged chemical disinfectant when no one will be present for several hours, then can perform quick sweeps with mobile UV lights during shift changes.

Options for Deployment:

Companies can use manual labor or automated solutions to deploy fogged chemical disinfectants or UV lights.

Manual Labor: People can go through a facility, thoroughly scrubbing with bleach or similar disinfectant solution, or carrying foggers or portable UV lights to disinfect all surfaces. However, this is a labor-intensive process and with cleaners like bleach, there is always the chance that a person misses an area. Some studies have shown that manual cleaning results in 68% of high touch surfaces missed. To use a fogger, the person needs to first get into full-body personal protective equipment (PPE), a time-consuming process that also requires the investment in the PPE itself. There are also UV lights that are mounted on rolling carts that require manual movement between spaces and manual repositioning in each space.  This manual movement can consume the time of one person per device.  

Automated Solutions: Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are used for dull, dirty, and dangerous work in general, so disinfection fits right into their wheelhouse regardless of the type of disinfection. AMRs can automatically dispense fogged chemical disinfectant as they move throughout a facility or autonomously position UV lamps throughout different spaces in a facility.   

Manual fogging requires numerous numbers of staff to be in hazmat suits for long periods of time with disinfecting fog all around them.  It is not only uncomfortable, but also not the most pleasant psychological experience to walk through chemical fog even though they are protected by a suit.  Oftentimes, more disinfecting chemical is used than needed for a particular space. This leads to unnecessary disinfectant costs in addition to the cost of the staff manually fogging the facility.  AMRs can fog chemical disinfectant while autonomously navigating through a facility with one AMR capable of disinfecting a 100,000 square feet in only 1.5 hours.  AMRs can also adjust the amount of disinfectant that is fogged based on the speed or the AMR and stop fogging if the AMR stops.  AMRs are not only cheaper to operate than using staff for a task that the staff does not want to do anyway, but will also save in the amount of disinfectant used for that facility.  

Manual UV carts often require a ratio of one staff member per UV cart as the cart has to be moved between spaces and repositioned in a space multiple times to make sure all areas in the space have been illuminated with the UV light.   As with fogging, this is not the best use of a staff member’s time, especially since the staff member spends a great deal of time waiting instead of being, and feeling, productive. AMRs can autonomously navigate throughout a facility, enter a space, activate the UV light, rotate in place, activate the UV light, reposition in the space and start the process again before moving to the next space.  UV lamps can either be integrated as part of the AMR itself or on a detachable cart so that one AMR can move multiple UV carts around asynchronously.  AMRs are a less expensive alternative to staff members moving UV carts around and also enables staff members to focus on tasks that provide better job satisfaction.  

UV AMR Prototype

AMR Options

Some Disinfecting AMRs provide options that should be considered as part of an evaluation process, including: 

  • Analytics that show when an area was disinfected with proof points like photographic evidence and disinfecting time
  • Disinfection as a Service or Robots as a Service options that enables a subscription option instead of a high upfront cost
  • Zero-touch deployment option where an AMR is shipped to a facility and can be deployed remotely without anyone from the AMR company having to come onsite 
  • Remotely changing navigation paths and disinfecting schedules
  • Remotely creating “keep out zones” so that AMRs will navigate around areas such as water spills, construction areas, etc

Conclusion

The need for periodic, automated disinfecting capabilities for warehouses, factories, distribution centers and other facilities is a need that companies need to address quickly, efficiently, and as cost effectively as possible. The two main options of UV lamps and disinfecting foggers are both highly effective at sanitizing spaces to help enable businesses to weather the storms ahead. Deploying either of these types of disinfection with autonomous mobile robots is less expensive than having staff members manually disinfect while also enabling staff members to focus on tasks that are more productive and provide better job satisfaction.  In most cases, these two types of disinfection will be used in conjunction with each other with a fogged chemical disinfectant being used at night when staff members are not present and UV disinfection used in between shift changes or other times when humans have temporarily vacated a space. 

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