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Businesses turn to robots to cut labor costs


04-10-2017 09:39 BJT

(Source: CGTN)

Businesses in Singapore have long complained about a shortage of labor which they say has pushed up wages. Now they're seeking to push back against labor costs, replacing people, with robots. 

Meet e-bot, a food delivery robot that can accept payment… go down ramps… and take lifts with other staring passengers.

E-bot is employed by e2i, a government agency that assists workers and employers through career guidance and job matching services. Against the backdrop of rising labor cost and a shortage of manpower, e2i wants to showcase e-bot as a possible solution for future employment in Singapore.

"I think the issue out there is that we need something to be showcased, piloted, tested, test-bedded, so when we first did it, we had to overcome some of these challenges: how the robot communicates with the home base, how do we get the safety of the robot in place, because this is a crowded campus," said Gilbert Tan, CEO, Singapore Employment & Employability Institute.

Safe interaction between human and machine is key for a project like this. E-bot is smart enough to avoid obstacles, but sometimes human error could stop it from doing its job. And then, it needs a helping hand.

"The robot has two emergency locks on the side. Perhaps someone was curious and touched the buttons. E-bot was locked in the lift for a long time. So I went to look for it and unlocked it. It walked back slowly," said Aisha Wong, Cafe Worker.

Singapore has allocated more than 320 million dollars to support the national robotics program since last year. The finance minister says robotics technology can enable Singapore to work more efficiently in a tight labor market. It can also create more high value-added jobs.

One company that’s convinced that automation and robotics is the way forward is SATS. The airport service and in-flight catering company controls 80 percent of Changi Airport’s ground handling and catering business.

In the past few years, SATS has managed to grow its business but maintain labor cost, thanks to productivity measures such as robots and automated guided vehicles.

The company CEO says although technologies make the organization a lot more efficient, it’s the people who are leading the changes.

"Because the technology on its own without the support of the people won’t work," said Alexander Hungate, CEO, SATS.

"The draw back of a lot of these new technologies is that they are fundamentally less flexible than human beings and so you need the human element to work out how they can be best used because it’s about complimenting the passion and the creativity of people with technology to make them more productive."

So will robots take over human jobs in the future? The answer is a definite yes and it’s happening now. But the good news is that they are only there to make humans more productive and more creative. After all, technology can’t replace the human touch.

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