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From baristas to inspectors: Singapore’s robot workforce plugs labour gaps

After struggling to find staff during the pandemic, businesses in Singapore have increasingly turned to deploying robots to help carry out a range of tasks. The city-state relies on foreign workers, but their number fell by 235,700 between December 2019 and September 2021. At a Singapore construction site, a four-legged robot called “Spot”, built by U.S. company Boston Dynamics, scans sections of mud and gravel to check on work progress.

Gammon’s general manager, Michael O’Connell, said using Spot required only one human employee instead of the two previously needed to do the job manually. O’Connell, who believes industry labour shortages made worse by the pandemic are here to stay said that replacing the need for manpower on-site with autonomous solutions is gaining real traction. Singapore’s National Library has introduced two shelf-reading robots that can scan labels on 100,000 books, or about 30 percent of its collection, per day.

Lee Yee Fuang, assistant director at the National Library Board said that staff need not read the call numbers one by one on the shelf, and this reduces the routine and labour-intensive aspects. Singapore has 605 robots installed per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry, according to a 2021 report by the International Federation of Robotics. Robots are also being used for customer-facing tasks, with more than 30 metro stations set to have robots making coffee for commuters.

Keith Tan, chief executive of Crown Digital, which created the barista robot, said that it was helping solve the biggest pain-point in food and beverage finding staff while also creating well-paid positions to help automate the sector. However, some people trying the service still yearned for human interaction. Commuter Ashish Kumar, while sipping on a robot-brewed drink said that they always want to have some kind of human touch.

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