Demand for service robots set to 'explode' in China in aftermath of Covid-19 pandemic

With the push of a button, the big white robot lights up, and its spindly arms spring to life, grinding coffee beans and boiling a flask of hot water.

October 2020 , Featured:

- With the push of a button, the big white robot lights up, and its spindly arms spring to life, grinding coffee beans and boiling a flask of hot water.

It takes 261 individual movements and three minutes for the Robotic Coffee Master - which resembles a Michelin man but with unusually long arms - to brew a cup of pour-over coffee.

The robot barista was launched last Friday (Sept 25) by Chinese robotics maker OrionStar in Beijing.

The Chinese firm and other industry experts are expecting demand for service robots like the coffee maker to rise in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic as businesses look to automation to both reduce risk of transmission of the virus as well as manpower costs.

OrionStar vice-president Su Liang said the company was keen to help small businesses like cafes reduce running costs.

"A robot like this only consumes electricity, once you pull the plug you don't have to pay to keep it running," said Mr Su.

"With human staff, your ability to handle the disruption from a pandemic is very poor."

The company has a previous iteration of a robot barista, which is also equipped with two robotic arms to brew coffee. Called Cheetah Cafe, it was launched in 2018 and resembles a karaoke booth.

But Cheetah Cafe's bulky and boxy nature meant it was more suited to exhibitions or industrial settings, said Mr Su who disclosed that the company wanted a robot that would be more appealing to consumers.

OrionStar has a range of different service robots, including those that can greet and serve customers in malls and others that can deliver meals in hotels.

The company, which has deployed some 11,000 robots across China as at May this year, expects demand for service robots to "explode" in the next three to five years as a result of the pandemic and rising labour costs in the country.

Before the pandemic, in August last year, the Chinese Institute of Electronics had already projected that Chinese sales of service robots would rise 33 per cent in 2019 to US$2.2 billion (S$3 billion) with growth outstripping markets elsewhere.

In a white paper last month, strategic advisory firm YCP Solidiance said the pandemic has caused explosive short-term demand for service robots for medical and logistics purposes.

It pointed out that China had rolled out robots to conduct mass disinfection, and deployed them to monitor temperatures and aid in food deliveries.

"The demand for service robots will likely persist in the long-term and see not only growing penetration rate but widening applications," said the paper.

Until quite recently most of China's robots have been deployed mostly in industrial areas - in factories and warehouses - but this is set to change as other businesses also seek to automate, say experts.

The trend is also being driven by rising labour costs - average annual wages in China rose 60 per cent over five years to reach 82,413 yuan (S$16,564) in 2018, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics showed.

Dr Luo Jun, secretary-general of the International Robotics and Intelligent Equipment Industry Alliance, said market prospects of service robots are broad, pointing out that they are now used for medical rehabilitation, home care, shopping malls and restaurants.

"As AI technology continues to improve and mature, they will become more ubiquitous," said Dr Luo.


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