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Are robot waiters the answer to China’s labor shortage?

Written by South China Morning Post Published on   5 mins read

An increasing proportion of young people no longer willing to wait tables in China as restaurant owners look to new technology for answers.

Two years ago, Bao Xiangyi quit school and worked as a waiter in a restaurant for half a year to support himself, and the 19-year-old remembers the time vividly.

“It was crazy working in some Chinese restaurants. My WeChat steps number sometimes hit 20,000 in a day [just by delivering meals in the restaurant],” said Bao.

The WeChat steps fitness tracking function gauges how many steps you literally take and 20,000 steps per day can be compared with a whole day of outdoor activity, ranking you very high in a typical friends circle.

Bao, now a university student in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, quit the waiter job and went back to school.

“I couldn’t accept that for 365 days a year every day would be the same,” said Bao. “Those days were filled with complete darkness and I felt like my whole life would be spent as an inferior and insignificant waiter.”

Olivia Niu, a 23-year-old Hong Kong resident, quit her waiter job on the first day. “It was too busy during peak meal times. I was so hungry myself but I needed to pack meals for customers,” said Niu.

Being a waiter has never been a top career choice but it remains a big source of employment in China. Yang Chunyan, a waitress at the Lanlifang Hotel in Wenzhou in southeastern China, has two children and says she chose the job because she needs to make a living.

Catering robots developed by Pudu Tech, the three-year-old Shenzhen start-up. Photo: Handout via SCMP.

Catering robots developed by Pudu Tech, the three-year-old Shenzhen start-up. Photo: Handout

Today’s young generation have their sights on other areas though. Of those born after 2000, 24.5% want careers related to literature and art. This is followed by education and the IT industry in second and third place, according to a recent report by Tencent QQ and China Youth Daily.

Help may now be at hand though for restaurants struggling to find qualified table staff who are able to withstand the daily stress of juggling hundreds of orders of food. The answer comes in the form of robots.

Shenzhen Pudu Technology, a three-year-old Shenzhen start-up, is among the tech companies offering catering robots to thousands of restaurant owners who are scrambling to try to plug a labor shortfall with new tech such as machines, artificial intelligence, and online ordering systems. It has deployed robots in China, Singapore, Korea, and Germany.

With Pudu’s robot, kitchen staff can put meals on the robot, enter the table number, and the robot will deliver it to the consumer. While an average human waiter can deliver 200 meals per day – the robots can manage 300 to 400 orders.

“Nearly every restaurant owner [in China] says it’s hard to recruit people to [work as a waiter],” Zhang Tao, the founder and CEO of Pudu tech said in an interview this week. “China’s food market is huge and delivering meals is a process with high demand and frequency.”

Pudu’s robots can be used for ten years and cost between 40,000 yuan (US$5,650) and 50,000 yuan. That’s less than the average yearly salary of restaurant and hotel workers in China’s southern Guangdong province, which is roughly 60,000 yuan, according to a report co-authored by the South China Market of Human Resources and other organizations.

As such, it is no surprise that more restaurants want to use catering robots.

According to research firm Verified Market Research, the global robotics services market was valued at US$11.62 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach US$35.67 billion by 2026. Haidilao, China’s top hotpot restaurant, has not only adopted service robots but also introduced a smart restaurant with a mechanized kitchen in Beijing last year. And in China’s tech hub of Shenzhen, it is hard to pay without an app as most of the restaurants have deployed an online order service.

China’s labor force advantage has also shrunk in recent years. The working-age population, people between 16 and 59 years’ old, has reduced by 40 million since 2012 to 897 million, accounting for 64% of China’s roughly 1.4 billion people in 2018, according to the national bureau of statistics.

By comparison, those of working age accounted for 69% of the total population in 2012.

Other Chinese robotic companies are also entering the market. SIASUN Robot & Automation Co, a hi-tech listed enterprise belonging to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, introduced their catering robots to China’s restaurants in 2017. Delivery robots developed by Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics Co., founded in 2010, are serving people in China and overseas markets such as the US, Italy, and Spain.

Pudu projects it will turn a profit this year and it is in talks with venture capital firms to raise a new round of funding, which will be announced as early as October, according to Zhang. Last year it raised 50 million yuan in a round led by Shenzhen-based QC capital.

To be sure, the service industry is still the biggest employer in China, with 359 million workers and accounting for 46.3% of a working population of 776 million people in 2018, according to the national bureau of statistics.

And new technology sometimes offers up new problems – in this case, service with a smile.

“When we go out for dinner, what we want is service. It is not as simple as just delivering meals,” said Wong Kam-Fai, a professor in engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a national expert appointed by the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence. “If they [robot makers] can add an emotional side in future, it might work better.”

Technology companies also face some practical issues like unusual restaurant layouts.

“Having a [catering robot] traffic jam on the way to the kitchen is normal. Some passageways are very narrow with many zigzags,” Zhang said. “But this can be improved in future with more standardised layouts.”

Multi-floor restaurants can also be a problem.

Dai Qi, a sales manager at the Lanlifang Hotel, said it is impossible for her restaurant to adopt the robot. “Our kitchen is on the third floor, and we have boxes on the second, third, and fourth floor. So the robots can’t work [to deliver meals to downstairs/upstairs],” Dai said.

But Bao says he has no plans to return to being a waiter, so the robots may have the edge.

“Why are human beings doing something robots can do? Let’s do something they [robots] can’t,” Bao said.

This article first appeared on the South China Morning Post.


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