Published on 12 Sep 2022

Cleaners of the future

NBS alumnus and co-founder of LionsBot Dylan Ng explains how his robots are empowering cleaning professionals to be the future of cleaning.

By Sadia Roohi

In recent decades, the global robotics industry has been advancing rapidly, boosting the research and development, manufacturing and application of robots. Today, industrial robot cleaners are becoming a common sight in commercial buildings and spaces around the world.  

Birth of LionsBot

LionsBot, which prides itself as a forward-thinking cleaning company, was founded in 2018 by Nanyang Business School (NBS) alumnus Dylan Ng (Class of 2001) and School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (EEE) alumnus Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara (Class of 2005). 

However, Dylan’s foray into the cleaning business did not start with LionsBot.

“I met my wife Michelle while we were studying in NTU and shortly after graduating in 2001, we decided to follow our dreams and start a business together,” he said.

Their first business was Modern Health which sold steam cleaners door-to-door and then evolved into SuperSteam which is now a leading distributor of cleaning equipment in Singapore. 

Although the pair started SuperSteam from scratch without much experience in running a business, they “made up for their inexperience with a lot of hard work and hard knocks.”

 


(From left) LionsBot co-founder Dylan Ng and his wife Michelle Seow, and fellow co-founder Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara, with one of the cleaning robots.

After 16 years in the business, Dylan was confident that they understood the market well. Due to a labour crunch and an ageing workforce, there was a push for automation in the industry. Customers began enquiring about cleaning robots, so he started to look for a suitable cleaning robot to distribute.

“However, despite the rising demand, there was no suitable cleaning robot in the market that could perform up to the standards that we desired. They were either too big, too expensive or too difficult to use,” explained Dylan. “We were very fortunate that at that time, Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara was also looking for a business partner,” he added.

Dr Mohan is an Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, in the Engineering Product Development pillar, specialising in reconfigurable robotics. He received his PhD and Master degrees in Electrical & Electronic Engineering from NTU. 

His lab was experimenting with autonomous cleaning robots and they purchased one of SuperSteam’s cleaning machines to retrofit it with autonomous capabilities. Dr Mohan then asked Dylan if he wanted to have a look at the prototype. 

The duo combined their knowledge in robotic engineering and business together and built their first cleaning robot.  

“The experience in starting SuperSteam from ground-up prepared us to embark on the adventure with LionsBot,” said Dylan. Today, the company has a full line-up of cleaning robots that are present in 28 countries globally, and is continually expanding. 

Some of the places they can be found at are the National Gallery and Esplanade in Singapore, and various National Health Service-run hospitals in the United Kingdom and RMIT University in Australia. In June this year, LionsBot completed the single largest deployment of 200 cleaning robots across schools in Singapore. 

Superpowers for cleaners

LionsBot believes in developing innovative solutions that improve the working lives of cleaners everywhere by “giving cleaners superpowers”. When running SuperSteam, Dylan and his team saw how physically challenging it was for ageing cleaners to clean manually. 

“Cleaning robots serve to empower the cleaners and not replace them. With the current labour crisis compounded by the average age of cleaners increasing, we needed solutions that allowed the cleaners to handle their complex cleaning routines more efficiently,” he said.

He says that the future of cleaning will be to upskill cleaning professionals to operate robots that are high performance, reliable and easy to use. 

“I believe in creating technology for a better future, and cleaning robots are the future of cleaning,” added Dylan.

In the future, Dylan believes cleaners will become facility professionals. These professionals will be managing a fleet of cleaning robots performing the repetitive and strenuous task of cleaning while the professionals themselves focus on more value-added work such as customer service. 

Lessons from the pandemic

In an interview with The Business Times, Dylan described the challenges LionsBot faced during the pandemic and the lessons learnt. The company faced problems “navigating the various lockdown measures without affecting productivity.” There was also a shortage of semiconductor chips which led to longer waiting times and freight durations for product development. 

As the pandemic has boosted the demand for automation on the cleaning industry due to the need for increased levels of hygiene but with lesser staff, Dylan believes in being adaptive and innovative. For example, cleaning professionals use the LionsBot app to receive live updates, check and set up cleaning schedules, receive analytics of cleaning done and control their robot.

“Innovation is about solving real-world problems because only real-world problems have real-world customers who might buy your innovation. A great litmus test for any innovation’s viability is market acceptance. Real-world customers also allow us to know how large the potential marketplace is and to invest and price our innovation accordingly,” he elaborated.

Words of wisdom

Dylan is grateful for the fond memories and firm friendships forged during his student days at NTU. Knowledge shared by the professors and the project work experience provided Dylan and his wife a firm foundation to build their cleaning equipment empire.

For fellow alumni keen to embark on an entrepreneurial journey, Dylan encourages them to develop a product that is trending and to focus on the user experience. “Keep thinking of how you can scale up in terms of development, production, deployment and support. And never give up. There is hardly any successful business that succeeded without having to overcome multiple challenges and setbacks,” he said.

Dylan was one of the alumni speakers at the Campus Dialogue Live! “Powering the Innovation Economy” event on 10 June 2022, organised by the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) and the University Advancement Office. 

Two separate panel sessions moderated by MAE Assistant Chair for Alumni and Development Dr John Heng and Class of 2013 MAE alumna and co-founder of GEN and TEDxNTU Ms Vivian Lim also included these speakers: Assoc Prof Teo Tang Wee, Co-Head for Multi-centric Education, Research and Industry STEM Centre, NIE; Ms Peiru Teo (MAE/2007), CEO of KeyReply; and Asst Prof Hou Han Wei, MAE.

Network with fellow alumni at events specially organised for NTU alumni. View upcoming events here.