Game Changers: How robots boost efficiency at Michigan State University
When it comes to grounds management, robotics and technology present the prospect of revolutionizing maintenance. Michigan State University (MSU) has closely been watching these opportunities. In fact, Adam Lawver, director of campus services, has implemented a number of technological advances that have dramatically improved performance and efficiency. His department employs approximately 780 employees including transportation services, recycling and waste management, custodial services, as well as all of grounds maintenance for the 2,000-acre campus arboretum.
Enhancing or even automating some of these services puts employees’ time to optimal use. We recently caught up with Lawver — who’ll be speaking at this year’s GIE+EXPO — to find out more about the technology his team is implementing and how it has been a game changer.
equip: How have you implemented mobile technology to benefit the workforce?
Adam Lawver: In 2016, we began implementing mobile platforms, deploying employer-provided iPhones and iPads to the entire landscape workforce. It was so successful that we scaled it across the rest of our facilities workforce, deploying over 1,100 devices. The employees choose what device works best for the work they perform. For instance, irrigation technicians received iPads with waterproof cases to pull up utility and irrigation pipe layouts from the GIS system. As a result, we have not only improved our workplace culture, but also remained competitive in the industry.
equip: How are you using robotic equipment? What prompted that shift?
AL: We are in our third season of deploying mobile robotics to augment our workforce capacity in custodial and landscape services. We are testing several brands and we’re in our second season with the Snowbot Pro from Left Hand Robotics, a self-driving robot that clears snow and mows grass. We envision robotics augmenting workforce capacity. For instance, a robotic mower could mow for an hour while the previous mower operator simultaneously performs bed maintenance. That’s a better use of time. In that way, I can see robotics helping small business owners to upscale. Robotic mowers are also quieter and can be deployed at night, while everyone is sleeping. This reduces interference with daytime teaching and research.
equip: What additional technologies are you employing?
AL: We are using operational dashboards, which visually display the progress crews are making toward monthly and yearly goals. We can display metrics in a way that gives everyone a big picture view of how their work contributes towards the company’s overall performance. The public display of performance metrics helps build trust among teams, increases morale, and fosters mutual respect. It’s a matter of transparency. We’re also using geospatial analytics with GPS data to improve efficiency. For instance, we mapped exterior trash receptacles (450+) and documented the service intervals with an ArcGIS Collector app are an opportunity for leaders and their teams to focus on the value-added steps advancing forward. and learned we could reduce the number of receptacles across campus saving approximately 50 percent operating expenses for litter management.
equip: What have you learned so far that other landscapers or ground managers can also learn from?
AL: One way or another, new technologies — automation, robotics, sensors, mobile devices, etc. — will shape how we do what we do. Businesses have routines and habits built into their everyday work that need continual evaluation with a focus on value-added versus non-value-added steps. In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis and disruption
To my knowledge, this technology does not exist yet, but it will and needs to. In addition, exoskeleton technology can improve the safety and productivity of work crews in the field. For example, landscape professionals who are installing retaining walls or moving pallets of materials into tight, confined spaces no longer need to strain with heavy objects or request back- up workers for assistance. Instead of dispatching a trailer, a fork-lift vehicle, or a skid steer loader to a jobsite to move heavy objects, a worker can put on an exoskeleton suit that will literally do the heavy lifting for them. The possibility of dramatically reducing landscape-related injuries is unprecedented.
equip: What is some of the technology that you are excited about for the future?
AL: One day, I hope to control a fleet of robotic lawn mowers, snow machines, and floor cleaning equipment from a control center to monitor progress and utilize human intervention as needed.
Equip Exposition, co-located with Hardscape North America, is the premiere tradeshow for landscape contractors, outdoor power equipment dealers, distributors, and manufacturers. In 2022, Equip Exposition will offer expanded education opportunities and features to enhance the exhibitor and attendee experience.
Equip Exposition is our industry's family reunion. Don't miss your chance to reconnect this October.
Louisville has always served as the place to showcase new products, services, and ideas to lawn and landscape professionals. Equip Exposition is committed to continuing that tradition this October. Take a look and see what's new in 2022.
Subscribe to equip Magazine
To receive a digital version of equip magazine, please provide your email address.