Are you being serviced by a robot?

“They’re like walkways.” That description best matches the people who put the sushi dishes on the table in front of me and my partner at a deadly pace. A few minutes before that we ordered the miso soup and the rice rolls via a tablet. There is almost no interaction between us and the staff. We look at so-called ‘runners’, people who in (often large) restaurants have the exclusive task of bringing food from the kitchen to the tables. This restaurant abounds with it, but how long will these people want a job?

During the corona pandemic, Dutch restaurants began experimenting with robots, such as the Oishi Fusion restaurant in Sliedrecht, which in 2020 got two robots to run with dishes to tables, where guests took the food themselves. With a ‘pat on the head’ from the guest, the robot drove back to the kitchen. The technology has been around for some time, and occasional delivery robots were found in restaurants, often as a gimmick, but the pandemic proved to be a reason for some restaurants to give robot technology a serious chance in service. The idea was that it is easier to keep distance between staff and guests, and even though a robot is expensive (prices start at around ten thousand euros), you do not have to pay them when the restaurant closes due to a lockdown. .

After corona, another problem arises: paralyzing staff shortages. According to Statistics Netherlands, there were about 45,000 vacancies in the first quarter of this year, which is a record. Does moving slopes provide relief? Operating robots now roll out of factories, but the real world often turns out to be more complex than the engineers’ drawing board reality. And how does a robot offer hospitality and personal service? Are the delivery robots a hype, or can you soon expect a mechanical waiter at your desk?

Red stop button

To see how it goes, I visit RoboHouse, a workshop in Delft, where students, entrepreneurs and researchers not only tinker with robots, but also look at how robots work well with humans. In a large room, about a hundred people stare with drinks in hand at the ‘blind’ waiter moving through the room.

Rober is a mobile platform that, according to the builders, can carry 100 kg of things, more than enough for the six plates that fit on it. The robot must move independently through a room and avoid objects, but it turns out to be difficult without a camera on board, which is not yet installed for this demonstration. Rober must rely on his so-called lidar, a system that scans the environment with a laser. Finally, the trip ends against a standing poster by pressing the companion’s red stop button.

A short demonstration by Rober. The robot is made of metal and wood, which the builders deliberately break with the style of many robots from Asia, which are often made of plastic.

According to Tom Dalhuisen, one of the creators of Rober, the robot may soon serve as a ‘runner’ in restaurants. “Waiters go a third to a half of their time. This can be largely overcome if, for example, you use a robot to move between the kitchen and the restaurant,” he says. In many cases, one person remains necessary: ​​Rober brings dishes to the tables, where people then serve them. “You can also let the guests take it off themselves, but it’s not that smart,” he says.

Although Rober is still in the development phase (it should be finished by the end of this year), Dalhuisen says that the technology under the bonnet has been around for some time. In other words, if someone had put it together earlier, there might have been more robots around. Why did it not happen? Dalhuisen believes that the hotel industry is quite conservative in terms of technologies. “Now almost everyone does, but the introduction of digital transfer of orders to the kitchen took quite a long time.”

Mixed reactions

Klaas Koerten studies how hotels and restaurants use robots. He works for the Research Center at the Hotel School The Hague and hovers as a trained mechanical engineer between the robot and hotel world. There are big differences between them. “Robot people often come up with a solution: We make a robot that can perform a certain task very well or efficiently! But what they miss is that the robot also has to work with employees and guests,” he says. a delivery robot that stopped so close to a table that guests did not have enough time to take the dishes from it. “A hotel or restaurant is primarily concerned with creating a good experience for guests, and if a robot affects it, it will do not work. “According to Koerten, many prototype service robots are emerging, but a small part is being further developed into a usable product.

Interaction with a service robot that some hotels use. The hotel school is researching in Amsterdam with a service robot that welcomes people and can show them the way.

The reactions of people who come in contact with robots during their dinner vary. “Suppose a restaurant owner sends the robot with dishes to a place in the restaurant where people serve them, then the guests appreciate that someone helps them. Sometimes you also hear a reaction like ‘Come on, the robot could have done the last part’. One thinks the robot is a funny thing, the other does not like it and sees it as a sign that there will soon be only robots. “

Robots have more potential than just being a ‘runner’ in a restaurant. Koerten thinks of heavy and ‘repetitive’ tasks behind the scenes in hotels, such as driving around automatically with bedding, doing household chores and maintaining. “Half of all hotel rooms in the Netherlands are part of a large chain. This means that the rooms look more or less the same with the same decor, flooring and bathroom. This makes it suitable for bedding robots or bathroom cleaning robots that are good for repeating tasks, ”he says. “These are also the places where people usually find the job boring and stressful. Robots will not completely take over these jobs, but they can make the work less cumbersome and repetitive. “

Guests generally have less trouble inserting robots in the background, Koerten believes. Still, robot technology in the foreground can be inevitable. “Luxury hotel chains have no problem attracting staff, people want to work there. But I can imagine that in other chains you simply can not avoid dealing with robots if there is still a shortage of staff, “he says.

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Sing a song

The Oisho restaurant in Sliedrecht still uses the operating robots, even though, according to an employee, one has failed due to battery problems. “The kids especially like it,” she says. The robots that ran into the sushi restaurant Shabu Shabu in Zoetermeer were not a success. “Earn? He can not,” said one employee on the phone. “The thing actually got in the way most of the time, and it sometimes knocked things over during an emergency stop.” , that the idea came from the head office.One robot has since been returned, the other is at the entrance to the show.Sometimes he is reportedly still used to singing a song for a birthday guest.

“This does not work everywhere, but it is painful to find out in this way,” says Koerten. “It’s the risk if you impose it from above, perhaps by someone who does not exactly know how things work in the restaurant. That way, you only get frustrated employees and guests, and a bad image. By the way, I think it’s bad if you use robots purely as a gimmick, because what’s left if it’s no longer special? If you implement robots correctly, it can actually help your employees. The employees are thus more aware of the customer, and personal contact is usually the most important reason why people want to work in the restaurant industry. ”

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