The rise of the machines – yet the role of the FM is certainly not terminated!

FM is part of a wave of digitisation that is transforming every industry but the experts at GRITIT, which is pioneering the use of technology in outdoor FM, argue that skilled people will always be at the heart of effective service delivery.

In virtually every industry, the inexorable forces of digitisation are transforming the nature of business and the nature of work. From the mobile phones in our pockets, to data centres virtualising digital assets into the cloud, to the AI systems that interpret and act faster than the speed of human thought, we are now encouraged to think of digital as the default mode of doing business. As early as 2011, years before the advent of Uber or AirBnB, a report by consultancy EY talked of the “Digitisation of Everything” arguing that “in a world where ‘everything’ is digitised businesses need to pursue innovation to disrupt their own business model before the competition does.” And while certain industries, largely based on physical, real world processes and manual labour, may have seemed immune to these forces, a second wave of change is underway. For example, as red diesel prices soared, farmers have increasingly employed combine harvesters guided with cm precision by GPS to avoid wasteful extra mileage. Meanwhile, the future of truck driving is looking increasingly bleak with Elon Musk’s Tesla announcing the start of trials of their autonomous semi in 2017.

If we follow the money, we can see that facilities management is very firmly in the midst of a second wave of digitisation. In 2016, a study by MTW Research forecast that the UK’s facilities management industry would receive a £200m boost in profitability significantly driven by the adoption of leaner operating models and the deployment of technology. That study argued that market forces in a challenging economy would drive demand for technology that enhances productivity, including Internet of Things (IoT) connected devices, automated monitoring and reporting, robotic cleaning equipment and remote servicing’ – all key areas of opportunity for FM providers.

According to research by Sheffield Hallam University commissioned by GRITIT and Servest, one of the key ongoing trends today in facilities management is the ongoing outsourcing of FM services, with 58% of FM professionals surveyed stating that much of this was being driven by a desire for companies to access better technical expertise. Over the next five years the use of technology in relation to improving the delivery services, transparency and cutting costs is expected to be a game changer: The impacts of this would be changes in working practices and the increasing use of big data or analytics to inform decision making.

From our own vantage point in gritting and grounds maintenance, these changes are already well under way and clearly are a change for the better. As a service provider we can use data technologies to reduce our management overheads and time fussing over the transactional side of doing business. At the same time, these very same technologies are a boon to clients who can have real time visibility via a smartphone app or client portal of the services we’ve delivered – whether that’s mowing lawns or gritting car parks. Indeed, the winter gritting industry has always been data-driven and reliant on the ability to service sites in response to weather data. Success in this particular industry is very much predicated on accuracy and responsiveness, with the goal to utilise ever more accurate sources of real time weather data with ever greater precision. Doing so makes a real difference: By gritting only when required by actual conditions, it is possible to ensure greater safety while also avoiding over-servicing – a leaner approach that reduces waste and cost to the client over the course of a winter.

In this context, the dawn of the “Internet of Things” is proving significant as this offers the opportunity to enrich the data that’s available to inform decisions. For example, at GRITIT our in-house technology team is rolling out a next generation offering based on inexpensive, robust temperature sensors that can deliver a real-time, live feed of actual road surface temperature and precipitation conditions on a client’s site directly into our NIMBUS reporting system. By getting a more granular, real time view of local conditions on the ground, more accurate forecasts and automatic triggers enable the delivery of ice and snow clearance on a just-in-time basis. This helps further cut both risks and waste as service can be provided according to the real world conditions on a site – even when that may differ from the weather forecast (for example ice that persists in shady areas even as the day warms up).

So far, although we’ve discussed the apparent inevitably of digitisation and looked at a few benefits, like any revolution it’s essential to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the pursuit of progress. Uber is a case in point. While the ability to call and track cheaper rides from a smartphone has been great for consumers, the master algorithm somehow forgot all about the experience of the drivers themselves, who ultimately found themselves enjoying more of the insecurities of the gig economy than the freedoms. This isn’t only a digital issue of course, but there is no denying that in moving towards a digital first world, we can risk seeing human labour as being commoditised and interchangeable.

This would be a mistake. While sensors and robotics will undoubtedly play an ever growing role in both indoor and outdoor FM, this is and will always will be a people business: There will always be some aspects that can’t be automated easily or will still need to be supervised for practical and safety reasons. While technology is a way of enhancing human effort, there’s no real substitute for retaining good skilled people – and especially in safety critical contexts. While some sectors and roles have moved towards the gig economy, for a reliable quality service you need engaged people who feel part of the team and want to deliver the same high level of service – even where flexibility of available resources are needed for seasonal work.

It is often argued that automation is capable of freeing people from more menial activities, giving them opportunities to upskill and focus more on added value, creative activities. Too often, such arguments provide cover for those wishing to downsize their workforce, but in outdoor FM this can be the case. In our own organisation, we’ve found that spending less time on record keeping and reporting is allowing us to spend more time talking to customers. Similarly placing more power into the hands of customers through smartphones can also give them a new channel to reach out directly to the familiar team members that work on their site.

Is the rise of the machines inevitable? Very possibly, but maybe it’s not going to be an us or them scenario, and that machines and robots will become our partners – letting us work faster, smarter and add more value. This is digitisation as it should be – cutting out the middlemen and connecting people to get things done properly.

For further information contact GRITIT on 0800 0432 911 or email


Introducing GRITIT Sensors – the next game changer in winter maintenance

Over recent years, winter gritting has been transformed by technology. At GRITIT, we’ve been proud to pioneer a scientific approach that goes beyond spreading salt, to applying leading edge research and IT to better understand how, and when, to take proactive steps to prevent ice and snow settling on a site. For us, the key to an effective service comes down to knowledge. It’s why our service has been powered by a technology platform, NIMBUS, which integrates the latest forecasting and reporting technology to drive proactive and timely action by our operatives. With accurate data as to the conditions at each client’s sites, it is possible to deliver a service exactly when ground temperature drops to the point when gritting is needed.

 Better service, through better data

Without adequate knowledge, the whole process of winter gritting is a far riskier prospect in every sense. Taking a conservative, safety-first approach and gritting whenever a frost is probable can incur higher costs and wasteful over servicing that over the course of the winter can add thousands to winter maintenance budgets. More importantly from a risk management and safety perspective, it is essential to consider the opposite scenario – where ground conditions on site are actually worse than the local weather forecast might indicate. In this case, an inability to respond to conditions as they develop on site could lead to a higher risk of accidents. In either scenario, real time weather data has proved a game changer in enabling a more agile service that can react faster to changing conditions, reducing both costs and liabilities.

By transforming from an industry based on human judgement and manual processes into a data-driven and agile business, GRITIT has lead the winter maintenance industry onto a road that virtually all other industries are now travelling. And yet, across society at large, this move towards digitisation is only just starting. Alongside our ability and readiness to place data – and Big Data – at the heart of virtually all business processes has come a wider awareness of the need to source ever more relevant and timely data to allow businesses to better anticipate and respond to the needs of their customers. This seems rather abstract, but it is exactly what is happening next in winter maintenance.

Sensor technologies bring real time insight of conditions on the ground

At GRITIT, our in-house technology team has spent the past three years developing GRITIT Sensors, an exciting new technology that will power our next generation service offering.

GRITIT Sensors are a bespoke hardware solution that can send readings of relative road surface temperatures and precipitation data in real-time straight to our NIMBUS system. These compact and highly cost-effective digital temperature sensors can be placed on any surface and are independently powered to provide live readings from client sites. In particular, they can be placed on raised structures, bridges, and elevated walkways and/or be used to offer enhanced monitoring of high-traffic or of high-risk areas.

Once again, this all comes back to knowledge: Despite the very high sophistication of forecast data, sensors will offer an additional layer of security and accuracy to improve the delivery and timing of a service to a given site. Steve Webb, Commercial Director, Gritit describes the challenge: “Although short range forecast data is reasonably accurate these days, it is still not 100 per cent and certainly doesn’t take into account individual anomalies, local weather behaviour, or changes that haven’t been forecast. It may also not adequately offer sufficient accuracy at particularly high risk sites.”

By offering a real time, live feed of actual temperature conditions it will be possible to provide greater accuracy of service and thus avoid over-servicing when it’s not necessary, and thereby reduce the potential for mistakes arising from inaccurate forecasts. And while Sensors aim to mitigate risks as much as possible, they can also provide added protection from liabilities, by providing evidence of actual temperatures on the ground should any accidents occur.

Crucially, this same ability to deliver more localised data is already in-use on most of the UK’s roads and highways, helping to save taxpayers’ money as well as giving greater protection against accidents. However, that level of service has been reliant on very expensive data or devices and therefore is relatively inaccessible. By comparison, GRITIT Sensors are a comparatively inexpensive piece of technology, the costs of which – leaving aside their added value in terms of added safety and reduction of liabilities – could be rapidly recovered through savings to winter budgets. For some sites, where a MET Office contract has been cost-prohibitive, sensor technologies will have the most impact, making proactive monitoring and responding to road surface temperatures possible for the first time.

“We have seen great promise when piloting this technology, and have already had a fantastic response from several of our clients that are interested in the added security,” explains Webb. “There’s also an important business case at sites that have already had accidents and where organisations need to demonstrate an additional duty of care.”

 Winter maintenance and the 4th Industrial Revolution

Breakthroughs in sensor technologies are set to change gritting in the way that better data did before. Similarly, it is also part of a wider technology trend that is powered by the proliferation of Internet-connected devices and sensors that are able to communicate with human operators, with each other and with online services.

This trend is commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT) and encompasses everything from Internet-enabled home security, to smart meters, to connected traffic signals – all of which are providing greater levels of data and more flexible, intuitive – and often autonomous – functionality. With increased reliability affordability and sophistication of the underlying technologies, IoT has in recent years gone from source of hype and speculation into commercial deployments across a plethora of industries. With GRITIT Sensors, we are excited to be at the vanguard of bringing the power of IoT to facilities management – and once again changing the game.

For further information call GRITIT on 0800 043 2911.