In Focus
TECHNOLOGY | Staff Reporter, China

The rise of robots in China's foodservice industry

E-commerce giant Alibaba will roll out chain of diners staffed by robotic waiters.

The futuristic restaurant concept, branded “Robot.He”, is an initiative by Alibaba to revolutionise the service and retail in the country.

The initiative is designed to raise efficiency and is expected to lower costs up to a million yuan per year by replacing human staff with robots about the size of microwave ovens.

“In Shanghai, a waiter costs up to 10,000 yuan (US$1465) per month. That’s hundreds of thousands in cost every year. And two shifts of people are needed. But we don’t need two shifts for robots and they are on duty every day,” Alibaba product manager Cao Haitao, who was behind the concept, said.

Alibaba plans to attach Robot.He to another of its semi-automated business concept, Hema supermarkets, in which customers can load a virtual cart with groceries via a mobile app and have the goods brought to them at checkout via conveyor tracks on the ceiling, or delivered straight to their homes. There are currently 57 Hema supermarkets in 13 cities including Beijing and Shanghai, all of which will eventually feature diners with robotic waiters.

The e-commerce giant’s plans follow a trend in the Chinese retail and service industries adopting automation as a way to cut operating costs, another instance of robotics and artificial intelligence increasingly being integrated into commerce.

Prominently, Alibaba’s e-commerce rival has made public its intentions to open 1000 automated restaurants by 2020, in which robots prepare and serve the food in-store while airborne drones facilitate delivery.

Meanwhile, robot waiters have been populating Chinese diners since 2013 with the opening of Robot Restaurant in Harbin, Heilongjiang. In Shanghai, a KFC restaurant enlisted the help of Chinese tech company Baidu to develop largely stationary robots to help take customers’ orders.

Restaurants have been eager to adopt robot workers to draw customers with novel experiences, while also lowering their costs on labour. Not only that, but robots in the kitchen have been getting more sophisticated over the years.

In the Hunan province, there is a robot that can cook any of 40 native recipes by dispensing precise quantities of ingredients from a series of hoppers in sequence, then stirring them in a wok over a gas flame at an exact temperature for a specific time. When a meal is complete, the robot serves it into a bowl, then cleans out the cooking pot. Li Zhiming, inventor of the robots and owner of the restaurant they serve in, even plans to bring his standardized robot chefs worldwide, becoming a brand to rival McDonald’s.

And China’s robot industry is only warming up. According to figures from the International Federation of Robots, the country has already become the biggest shareholder of the robotic global market at a net worth of $30 billion. Mostly this growth could be attributed to Beijing’s Robotics Industry Development Plan, that targets the production of at least 100,000 industrial robots a year by 2020.

Part of the plan’s mission is to reinvigorate the country’s manufacturing sector. That, however, does little to prevent other industries like the foodservice sector from joining in. Very soon, robots may soon stop being novelties in restaurants and start becoming necessities.

(Photo credit: Alibaba YouTube page)

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