Rise of the robots

You won’t have to grease their palms, shorter hours longer arms, rise just watch them rise, the rise of the robots,” sang The Stranglers back in 1978, when robots looked like metallic-covered humans in films, and the prospect of them impacting our everyday lives was very much the world of sci-fi fantasy.

Fast forward to today and things look very different for The Stranglers, with only one original band member remaining as they embark on a European tour, and also for robots. Covid-19 and Brexit have combined to bring about seismic change in the labour market and supply chains, which are putting great pressure on operational efficiency and margins.

It is widely recognised that automation makes its greatest strides under just such conditions when organisations are forced to be more productive with fewer resources. It is the repetitive, impersonal tasks that are most likely to be addressed first and be replaced by robots – although they don’t typically have humanoid faces a la Hollywood – so let’s call them automated solutions.

In London’s Chinatown, a new tech-led restaurant has just opened featuring an automated robot in the restaurant’s window that makes freshly prepared noodles. Meanwhile, Ocado has introduced the foodservice robotics solution from Karakuri into its employee dining room to prepare and serve bespoke fresh meals – it can handle as many as 110 per hour.

Ocado are working with Karakuri

This follows a plethora of recent activity in the US including Thai restaurant Sawatdee in Minnesota, which has introduced robots to make the run between the kitchen and dining room in order to ease the pressure on employees. Over at 800 Degrees Pizza they are employing the services of robotics company Piestro, whose fully automated standalone machines can make a pizza in three minutes and require no human intervention.

Recognising the value in automating processes is tech-forward US chain Sweetgreen, which bought robotic restaurant chain Spyce, whose proposition replaced chefs with robots. It will look to incorporate aspects of the technology into its own growing chain. This highlights how it is not all about replacing the whole shebang with robots, but more about automating the repetitive pressure points within a business.

This has been taken up by the retail sector which, among other things, regards the checkout and payment element as both labour intensive and a painful part of the customer journey. We are therefore seeing Amazon roll out its cashier-free stores in the UK and licensing its IP to other operators. Such a move is not simply the actions of a cash-rich tech firm playing around, because even the likes of Aldi are getting in on the action. It has developed its own checkout-free store model, with the first recently opening in Greenwich.

There are also myriad developments taking place, with robots undertaking stock-taking tasks in-store and within retail warehousing – where the need for speed, shortage of workers and repetitive tasks makes them prime territory for robots and automation. It is predicted that the market for retail robots will reach $55.8bn by 2028 compared with a level of $7.1bn in 2020, according to Coherent Market Insights.

Although much of this automaton and robotics in sectors like retail can still seem very much removed from the average foodservice business, it is all arguably part of the ongoing digital transformation that is impacting all sectors. Worryingly hospitality might not be taking it as seriously as it should be, according to research from Vita Mojo and Hospitality Mavericks with KAM Media. They found 63% of operators don’t believe they have invested enough in digitalization, and that 73% think hospitality is behind other industries in digital transformation.

The pressure on labour within the hospitality industry looks increasingly like it could go beyond being a mere short-term issue and translate into more of a fundamental structural change. When this is combined with the growing acceptance for technology to replace human touchpoints in an increasing number of scenarios, then foodservice companies have to do more than just watch the rise of the robots – they have to grease the palms of their makers.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.