Lee Schafer
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It couldn’t be any easier to program a self-driving floor scrubber from Tennant Co. You just punch a button and then drive it yourself on your preferred route.

At the controls, it’s a little like operating a riding lawn mower. After looping around a few shelves in a little store set up in Tennant’s R&D center and doing a tight 360-degree turn around a column, I stepped off the Tennant T7 scrubber and let the product manager punch another button. Then we all stood back and watched.

It was this second trip around the little store that was amazing. All by itself, it traced precisely the same loopy route. It only deviated when Tennant CEO Chris Killingstad placed an oversized Goldfish cracker box in its path, allowing him to show off the machine’s ability to see and drive around obstacles.

Even if you knew nothing about the global market for cleaning machines, you had to assume somebody was working on a gadget like this, what with news every day about self-driving cars and other robotic innovations. The appeal here is pretty clear, too, because the biggest part of the cost to keep a hospital complex or shopping mall clean is paying people to do the work.

This Tennant project is also a reminder of what’s often true about the adoption of these kinds of technologies. The machines embraced by mainstream customers rarely seem to be cool, ground-up inventions.

Entrepreneurs in robotics could try getting into the cleaning machine market, of course. But while they have cool software or other technology, they also would need to be as good at building reliable floor-cleaning machines as Tennant. It’s had nearly a 90-year head start at that.

Just like Ford Motor and BMW need to be the Ford and BMW of the self-driving car market, the Tennant Co. of the autonomous floor scrubber market had better be Tennant, or else it will have blown what appears to be a big opportunity.

Killingstad led the way earlier this month from his office on Tennant’s Golden Valley campus over to the R&D center, with plans for the autonomous machine to be the last stop. It was clear, though, that Killingstad wanted to put the new machine into the context of a much longer story.

Tennant was once known primarily for its efforts to improve quality, the culmination of an initiative begun nearly 40 years ago to make the company more competitive as the business of making floor-cleaning equipment globalized. More recently Tennant’s been leaning more on technical innovation as a strategy.

One big step was its introduction of a machine a decade ago that electrically converted tap water into a cleaning solution, eliminating the need for chemical detergents. By adding a little salt, this kind of water can become both a disinfectant as well as a cleaning agent.

The team in the R&D center also showed its more recently released asset management system, based on wireless data connections, that lets customers easily keep track of things they really care about, like battery use and battery charging.

Cleaning managers also need help just knowing where their cleaning machines are, as it’s apparently far from rare for big property managers or maintenance companies to simply lose a scrubber or two over the course of a year.

“The good news is we are winning with the customers” with this system, Killingstad said. “They don’t care that they have Tennant equipment, they care that they have the best asset management system.”

Tennant announced its autonomous T7 scrubber in April, but it’s been about three years in the works. “This was something in response to a lot of conversations with our customers, and a growing understanding of their labor challenges,” said Sung Lee, the product manager for this program.

The cleaning manager of a shopping center, in a customer telephone call arranged by Tennant, described how he’s been paying close attention to developments with autonomous scrubbers for at least the past two years.

At his mall, the overnight cleaning crew scrubs every square inch of floor every night. Filling these jobs is hard, and having a couple machines scrubbing away by themselves would free up two workers for other cleaning and maintenance tasks.

If getting into the autonomous scrubber business seems like an easy choice for Tennant, deciding how to do it wasn’t. Tennant decided to collaborate with Brain Corp., a San Diego-based company that’s created a software platform to help turn industrial equipment into robotic industrial equipment.

Tenant claims to have about a fifth of the global market for the kind of products it sells, and its competitors have obviously been hearing much the same story about autonomous machines from customers that Tennant has.

A version of the Brain system has been adopted by at least one Tennant competitor, part of what looks like a robotics arms race that’s broken out in this niche. A startup company in Canada has been selling cleaning machines for a while, and traditional Tennant competitors like Nilfisk of Denmark and another based in Germany have announced autonomous products of their own.

The Tennant strategy isn’t to have the most gee-whiz machines in the market, but to sell a capable product that’s backed by the service and support organization of the global market leader. It also intends to follow up with additional autonomous products.

“We try to remind our customers that the technology is important, but if you don’t have the people to support and train people how to use the machine, it is going to be an expensive toy that sits in the corner,” Lee said.

Tennant expects to have its first self-driving scrubbers in service with North American customers in the fourth quarter of this year. The company doesn’t appear late to the market with its first autonomous machine, but it clearly isn’t too early, either.

“We don’t want to be the first ones to show,” Killingstad said. “We want to be the first to perform.”

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302