Cobots—are they your new friends at work?

Written by Shih Han Wong Published on 

Cobots have been gaining popularity as full automation is not always desirable, and they have been transforming industries such as hospitality, medicine, and law.

For years, humans have been worried about job loss due to automation. According to Oxford Economics, automation could displace 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030.

Traditionally, automation has been associated with big chunky metal pieces performing dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks in an isolated environment. However, in recent years we have seen a new breed of robots being introduced into workspaces to work alongside and collaborate with humans, changing the way we work.

Collaborative robots, also known as cobots are designed to interact with humans and take over repetitive, menial tasks instead of displacing workers. Cobots have been gaining popularity as full automation is not always desirable. While industrial robots might be more efficient, cobots allow for flexibility and alteration in processes which are lacking in industrial robots.

You might think that cobots are only being introduced to support low-skilled roles but they have been transforming industries such as hospitality, medicine and law as well. A study by McKinsey has demonstrated that with technologies available today, 60% of all occupations could see at least one third of their constituent activities automated. Of course, the potential for automation differs across industries and roles. Besides technical feasibility, other factors such as the cost it takes to develop and implement the automation, cost of workers that are currently performing the tasks, and probability of better performance would affect the chances and degree of automation occurring.

Nevertheless, it is clear that automation at work can’t be avoided. So, let’s take a look at how we can set ourselves up for the future of work.

Our roles will change

AUSCA — the robot chef deployed at Copthorne King’s Hotel Singapore.
AUSCA — the robot chef deployed at Copthorne King’s Hotel Singapore. (Photo courtesy of Millennium)

While going for a holiday seems quite far away from us now, the Millennium Hotels in Singapore have previously introduced AUSCA, the cobot that helps to prepare eggs for the morning breakfast crowd.

It’s no secret that Singapore has been constantly facing a shortage of F&B staff. An interview with Mr Pjey Mayandi, M Social Singapore’s general manager revealed that the key objective of AUSCA is to relieve staff from simple but high volume and repetitive tasks so that resources can be deployed to more complicated tasks needing human attention to ensure consistent food and service quality. AUSCA is fully automated with minimal human intervention needed other than topping up of eggs. With AUSCA in-charge of the egg station at breakfast, cooking time per order reduced by 30% and the service staff had the opportunity to acquire new skills in handling equipment setup and simple troubleshooting.

As we expect to see more cobots like AUSCA around, the roles of employees would change drastically. Instead of being caught up with menial tasks, people at the job would now be managing the robotics systems, evaluating and adjusting the processes and working alongside with cobots to handle tasks that cannot be automated.

Companies would need to work with employees to help them understand that cobots are there to support them in their roles, make them more productive and share their workload on less meaningful tasks. M Social constantly reviews their HR policies to improve talent management capabilities to ensure that employees are taken care of in the process of automation.

Besides transforming how predictable physical tasks are carried out, we are also expecting automation to be introduced in industries that were deemed as less susceptible in the past.

High-skill industries will be disrupted

In the next decade, the healthcare sector is expected to undergo significant transformations with data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics.

Looking at examples closer to home, a team of doctors at Tock Seng Hospital’s interventional cardiology brought cobots into the surgical theatre in December 2018. Till date, they have completed more than 70 robotic-assisted angioplasty with positive outcomes. As surgeons control the robotic arm remotely, it allows for more accurate positioning of the stent as compared to manual movements guided by X-ray visualizations and lower chances of human errors as they view the arteries at higher magnification while performing the heart surgery.

In the long run, the main goal of introducing technology is to improve performance and reduce the workload of employees by changing the way we approach traditional procedures.

Complicated processes will be simplified

In 2020, we have seen the world coming to a stop with COVID-19. Realizing our vulnerability in over-reliance and dependence on foreign imports, Singapore has implemented initiatives to increase food supply onshore. Traditionally growing strawberries has been a complicated and cumbersome process which requires the right climate and coordination in multiple steps from pollination to harvesting. Growing strawberries in Singapore where we have limited land and a completely different climate is no mean feat!

An integrated AI model to enhance Singrow’s agricultural system
An integrated AI model to enhance Singrow’s agricultural system. (Photo courtesy of Augmentus)

Augmentus, a robotics automation platform, designed an integrated AI model to enhance Singrow’s agricultural system, removing the need for separate pollination and harvesting systems. With the camera attached on the robotics arm, flowers in full bloom would be identified and the fan would be activated to promote pollination. Once the strawberries are ripe, the infrared scanner and camera on the robotic arms would be able to match them to its database and the cobot can be programmed to pick them out.

Not only does this allow us to be less dependent on food imports, automation has helped to increase the chances of successful pollination, prevent overripe fruits and wastage.

What’s next

While automation helps to increase efficiency at workplaces, introducing cobots is not all rosy. The management needs to recognize that cobots are amplifiers helping to augment the abilities of their staff and not a replacement. To make collaboration between humans and cobots possible and beneficial, companies would need to constantly review their policies to make work meaningful and upskilling of their staff accessible.

Without proper training and upskilling, it would be difficult for the paths of cobots and humans to truly merge. Instead of merely introducing the cobots into the workplace, companies need to educate employees to help them transit into the new working environment and emphasize that the team is the one driving the value for the organisation and not the cobots. The role of the management is to outline the plans and bring in necessary resources to support their staff in keeping the skillset relevant. We should embrace new technologies as an organization and equip everyone with the right skillset and mentality.

Will we be able to become best friends with cobots at work?

Shih Han Wong is the Programme Manager at StartupX. She’s passionate about startups and have always wondered what could be done to make current processes better. Always happy to connect over a good cup of coffee!  

Disclaimer: This article was written by a contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here


Shih Han Wong


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