Could robot window cleaners disrupt the self-cleaning glass market?

Phil Brown, technical advisory service manager at Pilkington UK, discusses whether the self-cleaning glass market could face disruption from the rise of robots, as building managers look at alternative solutions to keeping facades sparkling.

Cleaning glass-clad skyscrapers can be a mammoth task. Did you know it takes three months to clean the 24,000 windows on the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building? Once the team has finished, they have to strap back into their harnesses and start all over again – it’s the modern-day equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.

But even for buildings a fraction of the size of Dubai’s tallest tower, cleaning glass at height presents a large safety risk. UK organisations have attracted fines reaching almost £half-a-million for failing to protect worker safety in the last year alone.

In recent years, self-cleaning glass like Pilkington Activhas established itself as a solution, significantly reducing the need for cleaning crews to keep windows dirtfree.

As opportunity arises from providing solutions that enhance worker safety, developers of window cleaning robots are attracting investment too. With the self-cleaning glass market in a healthy position, should manufacturers and fabricators worry about a robotic uprising affecting advanced glass specifications?

Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics are becoming more prolific in our everyday lives; creating efficiencies, improving safety, providing entertainment.

Now, their antennas are pointed towards the job of window cleaning. Recently, two Israeli entrepreneurs raised $3 million of investment in their firm to automate this risky job on skyscrapers;so robots dangle by ropes and harness rather than humans.

Their solution is designed to clean six times faster than the human alternative, while only requiring a single operator standing in a safe position on the roof or ground. This would deliver clear cost-efficiencies for building managers by doing the job faster with fewer people, therefore decreasing the safety risk. So why would a building manager need self-cleaning glass?

While the human safety risk is reduced either way, there’s a clear cost-advantage for self-cleaning glass. After their initial investment, building managers are covered for the lifetime of the glass, with only the occasional need to send a cleaning crew in. With robotic solutions, ongoing maintenance and operating costs must be factored in after initial outlay, making the technology much more expensive during the lifetime of the building.

In the UK, regulations are on the glass and glazing industry’s side too, encouraging the specification of self-cleaning glass. The code of practice for the design of buildings incorporating safe work at height, BS 8560, was updated last year to include reference to The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations. It contains specific reference to regulations that cover the ability to clean windows safely, such as Regulation 16. Low-maintenance materials like self-cleaning glass products are cited directly by the standard as a key work-at-height control measure to improve worker safety.

Today, specifying self-cleaning glass doesn’t have to come at the expense of other properties either. It can be combined with other coatings that offer properties like low-emissivity or solar control performance to provide multifunctional solutions for a range of applications.

This month, for example, we launched Pilkington ActivSuncool Pro T, a multi-performance solution that’s well-suited to atriums, facades and glass roofs in commercial buildings. It packs in plenty of properties. Not only is it self-cleaning, but it can reduce the amount of the sun’s energy that’s transmitted through the glass. It’s also low-emissivity, helping to trap heat in during the winter, while also being toughenable. It delivers all of these features in a single pane of glass, which is then fabricated into an insulating glass unit.

Recent research predicted that the global self-cleaning glass market would be worth £96.1 million by 2023 – an impressive 24% increase over five years.

The strength of the self-cleaning glass category should offer reassurance in the face of disruption. The growth in the popularity of this specialist glass, combined with a supportive regulatory landscape, gives me reason to believe there’s nothing to fear from robotics technology.

However, window-cleaning robots are just one example of how the glass and glazing industry faces challenges in many different shapes and sizes.

It is important that our sector continues to nurture a culture of innovation in order to develop next-generation products that meet the ever-evolving requirements of modern buildings.

Our UK-based research and development team is committed to finding the solutions of tomorrow for the problems of today – supporting the creation of a world-class built environment.