‘Employee of the month’: businesses making room for robot workers

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Matsumoto restaurant owner Alice Chan with one of the robots / Credit: Petra Stock

Two tall cats are zipping back and forth between the kitchen and dining room of ‘Matsumoto’, a Japanese restaurant located in Melbourne’s inner north, as customers begin arriving for lunch. 

Owner Alice Chan says she purchased the BellaBots – robots with cat-like features – about a year ago after seeing them at a food service trade show. She says it was a way to deal with COVID-19 staff shortages, along with ferrying hundreds of food delivery orders to the pick-up counter.

Apart from their pointy ears and an animated cat’s face that blinks and smiles as the robot moves, the robots look a bit like portable shelves, laden with plates of sashimi, katsu curry and bowls of rice. 

The restaurant delivery robots don’t come cheap, costing about $25,000 each. To accommodate them, Chan swapped carpet for hard wooden floors, and made more space between the tables, reducing the number of seats from about 90 to 65. All big changes for the 20-year-old family restaurant. 

But Chan has no regrets. “It’s worth it. It’s just so easy,” she says.

Restaurant robots are still a novelty, but they are gaining popularity, along with room service robots in hotels and commercial floor-cleaning robots. It’s a trend the Australian Government is hoping to cultivate, particularly among small-to-medium sized businesses like Matsumoto.

‘Increasing adoption’ is one of four central themes highlighted in the robotics strategy discussion paper released earlier this month. Robots can improve efficiency and productivity, but businesses may be unaware of the benefits and face upfront costs and challenges in adopting the technology, the paper says.

A floor cleaning robot at ABC’s Melbourne headquarters

Professor Peter Corke from Queensland University of Technology researches robot vision and tactile perception. He describes robots as “relentless and consistent”.

Robots are particularly well suited to jobs that for humans are “dull, dirty or dangerous”, he says.

While mining companies are already realising the potential of robotics, Corke says there are many other sectors and applications where robots could be useful. For example, he suggests work like meat processing, waste sorting and fruit picking – often lower paid jobs, involving hard, manual labour.

“It’s not about losing jobs, but the quality of the work,” he emphasises. “You can have people supervising robots instead of doing the hard physical labour. People can do that work for longer.”

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Distinguished Professor Peter Corke / Queensland University of Technology

Corke believes robotics along with the energy transition will be the two major technological trends this century.

So he’s delighted Australia is having a conversation about robotics as part of developing a national robotics strategy, but regards this as only a first step. 

Other countries with robotics sectors have more complex economies. “We’re kind of starting right from scratch. And that makes it harder for us,” Corke says.

It would be good if Australia can harness the robotics strategy to not only create and adopt robots, but also build underlying technologies, he says.

“One of the big problems we have as a nation is often called ‘sovereign capability’.

“Nobody in Australia makes an electric motor. Nobody in Australia makes a ball bearing. Nobody in Australia makes [computer] chips. Maybe there are people who make circuit boards, but mostly they come from elsewhere, manufactured overseas and shipped here.”

To grow the local robotics industry and increase adoption, Corke suggests governments could harness their procuring power, like purchasing standardised robot kits for education, logistics robots in hospitals, and supporting the Antarctic Division.

Corke, who was recently on a secondment to the Antarctic Division for six months, says robots in Antarctica could be used to make life easier and safer for the humans there.

Government could also connect local companies involved in robotics with areas of need, or potential users in other parts of the country. “Many other countries do this,” he says.

When it comes to the uptake of service robots by small and medium businesses, Dr Sven Tuzovic says businesses planning to introduce robots need to think about how employees will react, and consider anxieties about job security and loss of control. 

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Dr Sven Tuzovic, Queensland University of Technology

Tuzovic researches customer experiences and employee responses to robots at QUT. A recent paper, ‘My colleague is a robot’, published in the Journal of Service Management explores workers’ willingness to collaborate with service robots.

He says employee responses generally fall into one of four categories: embracer, supporter, resistant, and saboteur.

“Some of these robots are so successful, they even become employee of the month. Which is possibly causing some distress now among the humans.”

To allay concerns, one step business can take is to enlist the help of early adopters who can act like coaches within the business helping others to work with the robots, Tuzovic says. 

Matsumoto Japanese restaurant in Melbourne’s inner north / Credit: Petra Stock

Chan says the robots initially took a bit of getting used to for her employees, particularly some of the older chefs. 

But customers and staff have mostly embraced the new technology.

One year on, Matsumoto’s robots remain a drawcard for customers. Children in particular love having the robot deliver their meal, or sing them happy birthday.

Even as Chan is speaking, one lunchtime diner walks in, sits down, and immediately asks ‘Where are the bots?’

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