A new generation of robots that can perform multiple tasks
A small white robot on a food delivery mission at George Mason University in Virginia was blocked by a group of students when it stopped. It could let the students go first, try to walk around them, or walk through the middle of the crowd. After a few seconds, the robot decided to walk straight through the students, splitting the crowd in half.
‘These robots sometimes come right at your legs,’ said Alice Christensen, an anthropology major at the university. She lifted the top of another robot car and pulled out a Subway sandwich. Christensen, 22, often uses an app similar to Grubhub or Uber Eats, where food delivery tasks are performed by robots made by Starship Technologies, a startup. Each delivery typically costs $2.50, and Christensen doesn’t mind the cost, but she chafes at the occasional glitchy app and the dozens of Starship robot buggies that roam the campus, making hundreds of food delivery missions a day.
Robots, for all their imperfections, are on the rise, and labor shortages and rising wage costs are energizing a new generation of robots that can perform basic tasks like delivering pizzas, filling prescriptions, fixing tires or providing room service at hotels.
Such robots, known as cobots, are replacing workers lost during the pandemic, and factors such as changing demographics, Labour shortages and technology will allow robots to play a bigger role in the Labour market.
The annual installation of collaborative robots continues to grow
Sales of collaborative robots are growing steadily, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry body, with 39,000 installations in 2021, 50 per cent higher than in 2020 and up sharply from 11,000 in 2017.
The Boston Consulting Group estimates that if the definition of “robot” is broader to include automated vehicles in industry, hotels and logistics and assembly lines, total sales of robots could reach $160 billion to $260 billion by 2030, up from $40 billion in 2023. Much of that growth will come from services such as hotels, food delivery, recycling and airport maintenance. Service robots will account for $170 billion in annual sales, making them “industry leaders,” according to the Boston Consulting Group.
Roboeconomics is being driven by rising global labor costs. Factory wages in China have doubled since 2007, making it more economical to put robots to work on assembly lines. In the U.S., minimum wages are rising in many states and territories, and California’s Fast Food Industry Council projects that in Washington, D.C., restaurant servers will need to earn at least $16.10 an hour by 2027, when most labor costs will be transferred from tips to wages issued by companies.
“We can’t afford to pay $16 an hour,” said Osman Barrie, owner of Steak N Egg Diner in Washington. The restaurant uses a robot called a Servi to deliver meals from the kitchen to the table, which Barry rents for $639 a month from a startup called Bear Robotics and receives a subsidy from Pepsi, which advertises on the robot. The waiter places the food on the robot’s tray, presses a button on a keyboard, and delivers the food to the customer’s table.
A similar story is playing out in Europe, where worker shortages and soaring energy costs have led hotels and restaurants to cut back on service offerings.
“Waiters are so hard to find,” said Oliver Stahl, chief executive of Robotise, a German company. The company sells Jeeves robots that are used in hotel room service, providing services such as minibar drinks and toiletries. Hotel staff in Europe is still 50 to 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels, Starr said, and electricity is so expensive that some hotels have removed minibars to save energy. “Everywhere you go, the big trend in hospitality is service automation,” he said.
Another big driver of the rise of robots is technology. Advances in 3D vision systems, location mapping and mechanical engineering have made robots more useful and friendly. The new models come with touch screens or tablets that everyone can operate, requiring no programming skills. “swarm intelligence” helps robots share tasks and work together. In addition, the robots are connected via 5G and Wi-Fi networks, allowing the company to monitor, program and troubleshoot remotely.
Artificial intelligence is helping robots deal with more unexpected situations, allowing them to cooperate with humans without causing trouble. While robots in industrial environments are often stationary or isolated for safety, service robots must be aware of their surroundings and potential hazards. Advances in software give them situational awareness that allows them to make quick adjustments, such as when a robot built by Starship waits patiently in a crosswalk on the George Mason University campus, programmed to pass when there are no cars in sight.
In an effort to become profitable, the robotics industry has rolled out a “robot as a service” subscription model that aims to generate recurring revenue while lowering capital expenditure on machines. Bear Robotics, for example, has deployed hundreds of Servi robots to restaurants such as Denny’s and Chili’s, which set tables and serve food and drinks. Restaurants pay $700 to $800 a month, or an average of $2.50 an hour, according to co-founder Juan Higueros.
“The minimum wage for these positions is sometimes five to seven times the cost of a robot,” Igualos said. With a forward speed of about four feet per second, the Bear Robotics robot, in addition to outpacing waiters by a minute or two, also increases the opportunity to refill a customer’s cup or suggest other food, thereby increasing the restaurant’s revenue.
Whether these labor-saving robots will replace human jobs is an important question. Currently, service robots are doing some of the jobs that are hard to fill, and hotels, restaurants, health care facilities and industrial sites want more help. The U.S. unemployment rate is near record lows, with 1.7 jobs for every job seeker. Other trends supporting robot growth include an aging workforce, a decline in legal immigration and the “reshoring” of U.S. manufacturing and supply chains.
Some of the bigger robot makers expect sales to pick up. Fanuc, a Japanese company that is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of robotic arms (6954. “Technology is starting to trickle into retail services,” said Jerry Perez, executive sales manager for Japan. “This is just the beginning.” A new model capable of handling payloads of up to 55 pounds is being used in supermarket distribution centers in the United States, Perez said, while others are being used for small-batch custom production in areas where labor is scarce.
Amazon and Wobble are actively promoting the adoption of robotics
Few companies have benefited more from robotics than Amazon (AMZN). The e-commerce giant, which has more than 1 million warehouse workers, is facing worker shortages, union issues and rising labor costs across its distribution network. Amazon’s foray into drones and driverless cars stems from these pressures.
New robots take Amazon even further. In June 2022, the company began rolling out Proteus, its first fully autonomous robot for warehouses, a device that looks like a Roomba vacuum cleaner and has a platform that can carry very heavy items, deliver goods and operate alongside employees.
Robots probably won’t have much of an impact on Amazon’s operating costs or stock price. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush, estimates that Amazon spends a total of $36 billion an hour to pay workers at its fulfillment centers, or about 16 percent of its $228 billion in operating expenses in 2022. Pachter said that even if Amazon saved $5 billion a year in hourly wages because of robotics, it would still be a “drop in the bucket.” He noted that Amazon spent $78 billion on technology and content, $49 billion on sales and marketing, and $13 billion on general and administrative expenses. “Amazon has gotten pretty bloated,” Pachter said, “and there are a lot of other places where costs need to be cut in addition to productivity in fulfillment centers.”
Helping the sick and making nachos
Robotic arms have long been used in surgery, notably the Da Vinci system introduced by Intuitive Surgical (ISRG). A new generation of mobile robots is handling basic tasks normally performed by nurses and carers, Robotic buggies like Moxi and Relay deliver lab tests, Medical supplies and other items at hospitals like Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
“Hospitals are facing a shortage of nurses,” said Michael O ‘Donnell, chief executive of Relay Robotics. “Having robots like the one we build frees up people to do more valuable things.”
Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) recently began testing a tortilla chipmaking robot called Chippy at a Los Angeles-area restaurant. The robot, built by a startup called Miso Robotics, can dip corn chips in hot oil, stir a basket in a skillet of oil, and season it with salt and lime, said Curt Garner, Chipotle’s chief technology officer. While humans are still needed to pack and serve food, robots are essential during the lunch rush when orders surge, Garner said.
Are robots for all restaurants? It depends on a variety of factors, including how long the robots run per shift, maintenance and downtime, sales and the cost of saving food waste due to human error. Miso Robotics says each robot in the restaurant costs $3,500 a month, compared with $5,000 to $6,000 for a regular employee, including benefits, making it seem cheaper to use robots, but Miso Robotics’ numbers have not yet been tested on a large scale. Chipotle and other fast food chains are still testing bots in only a handful of locations.
Most of the jobs robots do are repetitive tasks, which is why companies still spend more money on their employees.
Mr. Barry, the restaurant owner, says he hasn’t seen any savings in labor costs, but the robots help attract customers and help him avoid extra help at busy times. Barry said that as hourly wages rise – in Washington, the minimum wage per worker will reach $2,500 a month – it will become more economical to use robots, especially as rising food prices will also put pressure on profits. “The robot doesn’t get sick, it’s very reliable, and it helps us a lot when we’re really busy,” he said.
Wall Street has already started to factor in potential cost savings from robots into some models that forecast earnings.
Investment bank Cowen recently said kitchen robots are “approaching a tipping point” and expects wider adoption in the food and beverage industry in the next 12 to 18 months. Cowen estimates that Miso’s robotic arm could eliminate 2,400 man-hours per restaurant per year. Salad chain Sweetgreen (SG) acquired a kitchen robot company called Spyce, which Cowen estimates could reduce hourly labor costs by 50 percent and increase cash flow by 6 percentage points for restaurants using the system.
Where robots come in handy and where they don’t
Most robotic technologies are still not widely used except in industry. For example, while millions of homes have robot vacuum cleaners, these devices have not replaced them. Some humanoid robots have appeared in supermarkets to clean and disinfect stores and help stock up, and they are still seen as something new. Despite huge demand for machines to automate agricultural labor, robotic apple pickers haven’t made much headway beyond testing. In the auto industry, you’re more likely to see robots spot-welding or spray painting in a factory than changing tires in a repair shop, but a startup called RoboTire is hoping to change that.
While there are concerns that robots will eventually replace human jobs, there is little evidence of this at the moment. Countries such as Japan and South Korea have high levels of robotics but some of the lowest unemployment rates. Automation often increases productivity, increases social wealth and has “economies of scale” that promote growth in adjacent industries. New jobs are emerging to install, program, operate and repair machines. The number of welding jobs in the auto industry, a pioneer in industrial robotics, has fallen sharply as automation has swept through factories, but has been flat for a decade, and today there are about 1 million more auto manufacturing jobs in the United States than there were in 2012, 200,000 more.
According to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs are expected to grow between now and 2030 in many industries vulnerable to robots, with fast-food employment projected to grow by 11.4 percent, e-commerce warehouse jobs to grow by 0.7 percent, Robots are most widely used in this field.
For all their benefits, robots are not nearly as flexible as humans. While the robot can fry fries, it can’t spin, clean up spills, operate cash registers or deal with grumpy customers. Most of the jobs robots do are repetitive tasks, which is why companies still spend more money on their employees.
Robots are also far from replacing knowledge workers who rely on human creativity and thinking. New AI software such as ChatGPT is on the rise, but even if it is incorporated into the mind and body of a robot, it may be years before it can write an analytical essay.