Spot on duty in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Picture:

Robots help address Singapore’s skill shortage

Image credit: GovTech Singapore

After struggling to find staff during the pandemic, businesses in Singapore have increasingly turned to robots to help carry out a range of tasks, from serving coffee to surveying construction sites.

Singapore is heavily reliant on an immigrant workforce. However, after the number of foreign workers in the country fell by 235,700 between December 2019 and September 2021, the city-state turned to technology, in particular robotics, to address the shortage of workers, according to a Reuters report.

Singapore is a good example of how Covid-19 curbs have sped up "the pace of technology adoption and automation" by companies, said the city-state’s manpower ministry.

During the pandemic, Singapore trialled Boston Dynamics’ four-legged robot, 'Spot', to help promote safe distancing in parks, gardens and nature reserves to lower the risk of exposure to coronavirus. The robot broadcast a message reminding park visitors to observe social distancing guidelines. It was also fitted with cameras that enabled park officials to estimate the number of visitors in parks.

Spot robot in a Singapore park

Boston Dynamics' Spot robot in a Singapore park / GovTech

Image credit: GovTech Singapore

Two years later, Spot has had a promotion. The robot can now be spotted scanning sections of mud and gravel to check on work progress.

In its new line of work, Spot is part of a trial regarding the use of several 5G applications in Sentosa, by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and construction firm Gammon. The robot does laser scans of structures built at worksites and then sends the results over 5G to Gammon’s control room for checks. The '5G @ Sentosa' project was launched by the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), which aims to roll out the successful Sentosa 5G trials to the mainland in the next five years.

"Replacing the need for manpower on-site with autonomous solutions is gaining real traction," said Michael O'Connell, Gammon's general manager, who believes industry labour shortages made worse by the pandemic are here to stay. Spot can help address this shortage, as it only requires oversight from one human employee.

Meanwhile, Singapore's National Library has introduced two shelf-reading robots that can act as library assistants. The devices can scan labels on 100,000 books - around 30 per cent of its collection - per day and the day-to-day tasks include identifying books that have been moved to the wrong shelf and helping visitors to find the specific book they are looking for.

"Staff need not read the call numbers one by one on the shelf and this reduces the routine and labour-intensive aspects," said Lee Yee Fuang, assistant director at the National Library Board.

Library robot in Singapore

Robots sorting books in a Singapore library / Singapore National Library Board

Image credit: National Library Board Singapore

Without robots, the process of identifying and then moving these incorrectly placed books takes staff three to four hours every morning. The technology has reportedly saved each library 3,500 manpower hours per year.

Overall, Singapore has 605 robots installed per 10,000 employees in the manufacturing industry - the second-highest number globally, after South Korea's 932, according to a 2021 report by the International Federation of Robotics. 

In addition to routine tasks such as painting buildings, robots are also being used for customer-facing roles, with more than 30 Singapore metro stations set to have robots making coffee for commuters in the near future.

Keith Tan, chief executive of Crown Digital, which created the barista robot, said 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.

Created in 2018, the baristabot - named 'Ella' - features an autonomous arm, produced by robotics company Techman Robot, which sits inside a 5m² transparent kiosk. The machine operates around the clock and can serve up to 200 cups of coffee per hour - four times as many as a typical human barista.

Barista robot serves coffee

Barista robot serves coffee / Crown Digital

Image credit: Crown Digital

Tan said the technology is designed specifically for high density, grab-and-go environments like airports, transport hubs and offices, where speed is paramount. However, some people trying the service still yearned for human interaction.

"We always want to have some kind of human touch," commuter Ashish Kumar told Reuters, while sipping on a robot-brewed drink.

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, automation will displace some 85 million jobs. However, the robot revolution is also expected to create a further 97 million jobs over the same period.

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