Singaporean

COVID-19 Accelerates Automation - Will It Ever Replace Service Jobs In S'pore?

We already have automated cash machines in Singapore, though you still need cashiers to man them. Stores however, may no longer need to employ workers to service customers.

Universities tend to be used as testing beds for new technological innovations — think QR code payments and “cashless campus initiatives” before it was rolled out islandwide.

So when automated stores started popping up across Singapore, it spelt the beginning of a trend that could become the norm for retail. When it comes to the service industry, we already have robot chefs and robot cleaners in Singapore.

The Covid-19 pandemic is only catalysing this automation, which is set to accelerate. It is becoming widely adopted by businesses across the board, according to an APEC report released in June.

Industrial robots have increased from one million to over three million units from 2015 to 2020. Low-skilled workers will be the most adversely affected, according to VoxEU research, as robots are better at raising productivity in these sectors.

Sectors like service and F&B are particularly at risk as automation replicates and streamline tasks. In fact, the redundancy of lower-skilled jobs are already becoming a reality in Singapore.

Automated Convenience

Three Singaporean brands, Octobox, OMO Store and Pick & Go launched automated convenience stores in the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in late 2019.

Image Credit: NUS UCI

These stores leverage on biometric identification, radio-frequency identification and artificial intelligence systems to regulate and track shopper and item movements.

At the Octobox shop in NUS’s University Town, you can link your DBS Paylah account at the store entrance as a one-off setup, then scan your palm print to enter the store.

After selecting an item and bringing it to the checkout, Octobox detects and registers the items you purchase, then automatically deducts from your Paylah before you’re allowed to leave.

It’s a watertight and seamless system. It also curtails the need for any sort of human intervention, apart from the recurrent need to restock shelves.

Robot Baristas

Convenience stores aren’t the only businesses getting automated. Coffee shops are also joining in on the trend.

By now, you might’ve heard of how the KopiMatic, an automatic kopi brewing machine, could potentially take over hawker’s jobs.

Even baristas are being replaced by robots.

At Crown Coffee, the process of coffee brewing has been replaced by automation — it has a robotic arm called “Ella” that brews your coffee for you.

Crown Coffee Robot
Image Credit: Nation Thailand

The entire process of ordering a freshly-made Americano takes place digitally: from ordering a cup on their mobile-app or in-store, to waiting for Ella to make and serve the cup to you.

According to Keith Tan, the founder of Crown Coffee, Ella is able to make over 100 combinations of coffee, tea and even cocktails. It can even predict and make your usual order by tracking your preferences via facial recognition.

Its coffee is also sold at competitive prices, costing as low as S$3.50 for an espresso.

Why Pay A Salary When You Can Automate?

Automated retail services aren’t a widespread phenomenon yet. Currently, it’s confined to niche stores and seems to be confined to a testbed phase.

However, it’s much cheaper and more reliable to invest into technology that can work 24/7 for you, without the hassle of dealing with sick leave and off days.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a service job like a cashier, or a higher-skilled one like a barista, costs around S$1,500 to S$2,000 per month.

That’s upward of S$20,000 per year for an eight to nine hour full-timer’s shift, not discounting top-ups for overtime or days of leave.

In contrast, automated technology is able to mimic the same functions humans perform at a one-off investment around the clock, discounting machine breakdowns and scheduled upgrades.

Keith estimated that Ella could sell for S$150,000 to S$200,000 in an interview.

The “Robot Revolution” Is Well Underway

From AI chat bots to drone waiters, the tech revolution has been chipping away at the need for human industry bit by bit.

cashier job cleaning
Image Credit: Gov.SG

The advent of the “robot revolution” becomes a lot more real when you see your coffee being brewed by a mechanical arm and shop for instant noodles at an unmanned store.

In countries like Singapore, automation is accelerating at a much faster rate due to the high cost of labour, and labour shortages. Experts warn that over 20 million manufacturing jobs will be lost to robots by 2030.

Since the invention of the assembly line by Henry Ford, the second era of industrialisation seems to be rapidly spreading across the globe in the form of automated systems.

Coupled with the catalytic effects of Covid-19, it’s also much safer to automate interactions that typically require human-to-human contact to prevent the spread of the virus.

Singapore’s Smart Nation policy is actively integrating technology into our daily lives, but what’s going to happen to the people left behind?

Featured Image Credit: Enterprise SG / The Spoon Tech

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