When Pepper, the semi-humanoid robot created by Japan’s telecom company SoftBank, was first introduced to the world in the summer of 2014, it was called revolutionary. The robots were quickly snapped up.
However, after the initial three-year contract expired, only 15 percent of the users were willing to extend their contracts.
Lee Sun-woo, co-founder and CEO of Alien Robots, said that people probably lost interest in Pepper because the robot did not solve any real problems.
“How to solve real problems with robots was the biggest question for me when I was making robots during my doctoral program,” Lee said.
And his answer to this was unveiled last summer with Cafe Man, a robotic barista arm that makes drip coffee like a real person.
After customers make an order on a kiosk touchscreen, the barista arm -- a white robotic arm placed over a 3-meter steel workstation -- starts making drip coffee, producing three cups in about eight minutes. Currently, two of the barista arms make drip coffee and one creates matcha tea in Seoul but more advanced robots -- such as a robot that can make various types of coffee using espresso machines, will be introduced this year.
Alien Robots’ robotic barista arm (Alien Robot)
Lee sees a great potential for robot-led revolution in the food and beverages industry and believes Korea is an optimal test bed.
“Korea is a great place to gauge whether robots could bring about real changes in the food and beverage sector because of the number of small and medium-sized businesses and high population density,” Lee said.
In Korea, many retirees start their own business in the F&B industry, with cafes and fried chicken franchises being the most popular options. The number of cafes accounts for almost 10 percent of the total F&B industry with more than 77,000 stores as of December 2017, according to government-run Small Enterprise and Market Service.
Besides, the drastic increase in minimum wage has become a burden on SMEs who often have to downsize their workforce.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy has raised the minimum wage by 10 percent in 2019 to 8,350 won ($7.22) while limiting working hours to 52 hours as the country pushes for more work-life balance.
“China might have money and technology but it makes no sense to use robots from a business point of view because the labor costs are low there,” Lee noted.
Now an increasing number of business owners are showing interests in the robotic barista and the 4-year-old firm aims to operate 100 Cafe Man in South Korea in a few years and ultimately become a platform that can help food and beverage business owners.
Until the company introduced Cafe Man, however, it wasn’t without any difficulties. Lee founded the company in November 2016 with three co-founders who are also robot engineers. At the beginning, investors had little enthusiasm for hardware companies. “When I first started this company, I went to meet a prominent investor who said he only invests in software firm,” Lee said.
That is partly because investing in a hardware startup usually takes longer time and costs more than what software companies would need for business development.
Alien Robot co-founder and CEO Lee Sun-woo poses with a cup of coffee made by Cafe Man, a robotic barista arm. (Kim Young-won/The Korea Herald)
It was thanks to the government’s support program for hardware startups -- particularly Tech Incubator Program for Startup that Alien Robots was able to focus on developing robots, Lee added.
Going forward, as robotic technologies improve efficiency, Lee expects some people might oppose robots due to fears that robots might replace human.
But he argues that robots should take over simple and repetitive works so that people can focus on more creative and fun jobs.
“I don’t think people necessarily want to do simple, repetitive work. They will be able to do more,” Lee said. “The population is decreasing and when there is not enough workforce, the society would have to rely on robots.”
“But yes, if robots become more common, it would change the job market. For the coffee industry, it would be either very expensive coffee created by human masters vs. robot-created inexpensive coffee.”
By Park Ga-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)