No one economy, the air outlet finally came?

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a number of new industries have encountered new opportunities. Among them, the scenario application of “unmanned economy” is impressive. For example, unmanned coffee kiosks and supermarkets. There are also unmanned vehicles for short-distance cargo transportation, and UAVs for high-altitude observation and disinfection. No manual work, no contact service, so it is especially suitable for the needs of preventing and combating epidemic situations.

A few years ago, the unmanned economy was also talked about, but it ended up with huge losses. Will the epidemic boost the rapid development of this field? What impact will it have on employment?

Starting with the case of a robot coffee booth in a Shanghai enterprise, this paper attempts to open the curtain on the challenges and prospects of this industry.


Application of robot in unmanned coffee shop


Hundreds of people lined up for a cup of coffee

This is an unmanned coffee shop covering an area of 2.5 square meters. Through the glass, the glittering mechanical arm inside is clearly visible, surrounded by various small instruments and accessories.

It is the robot Cafe invented by Shanghai helium dolphin Robot Technology Co., Ltd. Consumers can place orders through mobile phone payment. There are more than 40 kinds of American coffee, French orei, complex rose litchi latte, Middle East mochachino, and drinks such as Matcha latte and hot chocolate.

After placing an order, the coffee beans in the transparent warehouse began to be ground and extracted. The mechanical arm is like a human hand. Change the direction, accurately find the position of raw materials for production, and then change the direction, accurately grasp the auxiliary materials, add syrup, beat milk bubbles, hold the cup and shake it in the air. After completion, change the direction, align with the clamping position and buckle the cover accurately. A cup of milk coffee with the same appearance and taste as that produced by the brand coffee shop on the market was freshly baked.

Helium dolphin technology was founded in 2018. The core team is composed of more than 30 doctors and masters who graduated from Fudan University, China University of science and technology, Tongji, Chinese Academy of Sciences and European and American universities. The average age is less than 30. Most of the backbone have worked in Huawei, Microsoft, Sany Heavy Industry and other enterprises. Some of them are the first to engage in robot coffee kiosks, robot dessert shops, service robots R & D personnel of cleaning robot. The enterprise spent 2 years developing this machine and introduced the product to the market in 2019.

Sun Li, deputy general manager, recalled that at the beginning of its establishment, the team did a detailed coffee market research. Today, Starbucks, Ruixing and other brands have cultivated a large number of Chinese coffee consumers. The coffee sales in the Chinese market reach more than 1 trillion yuan every year and grow rapidly, with great potential in the future. Among them, freshly ground coffee is becoming more and more popular. But for ordinary people, drinking a cup of freshly ground coffee for about 30 yuan a day is still expensive. Now, the freshly ground coffee made by this robot with the same quality as the brand coffee costs 9.9 yuan for American coffee and 13.9 yuan for latte, which is attractive to consumers.

So, do consumers really buy it?

In July 2019, the robot coffee booth was put into trial operation in a Class A office building in Changning District. At first, the office workers who came to watch the excitement issued all kinds of questions. “Is it really freshly ground coffee beans?” “is the taste the same as that of brand coffee shops?” “is the quality of milk foam the same as that of manual operation?”

After witnessing the fully automatic operation process in the transparent warehouse and tasting the taste of coffee, the doubts were basically eliminated. In this way, the machine began its business trip in the office building. It can sell 300 cups a day, and there are orders at 2 a.m.

After that, the company took the machine to the world Artificial Intelligence Conference and Expo. All the participants were very curious about it. At the world artificial intelligence conference, an endless stream of people came to buy coffee. At the peak, more than 100 people lined up and many enterprises came to consult and cooperate.

The exhibition audience is more professional. Their questions are: “how much is the price of the machine?” “what is the sales volume at the trial operation point?” “how many cups can be sold at most a day?” “how to deal with after-sales maintenance?” “how to replenish materials and whether they need to be customized?”

At present, the machine is priced at 396000 yuan for overseas export and 349000 yuan for domestic sales. It will be cheaper if you join in. Some customers still have doubts. After all, the price of nearly 400000 yuan is a little expensive compared with automatic fruit juice machine, coconut juice machine and mini singing machine. However, some people have calculated that the rental cost of Shanghai coffee shops is very high, coupled with the cost of water, electricity and labor, which is very expensive in a year. The robot coffee kiosk, which only needs one-time investment, can operate 24 hours, and only one person can spend one hour a day for maintenance and replenishment. It still has a considerable cost advantage.

A couple from Jiangsu heard about the machine and quietly went to the office building for trial operation to “squat” for two days to observe the consumption. Two days later, they took the initiative to come to the door, bought several machines and put forward their own suggestions. It turned out that the operation and maintenance personnel went to the office building to replenish materials after 8 o’clock that day. At this time, it is the peak of white-collar workers’ going in and out. When people passed by the lobby, they wanted to buy a cup of coffee, but they found that the machine was surrounded by people for operation, thinking that there was a failure. The couple suggested that the operation and maintenance personnel must arrive at the office building before 8 o’clock every day to complete the work.

At present, robot coffee kiosks have successively settled in Qingpu outlets, Xuhui District administrative center and other places.


Application of robot in unmanned coffee shop


Like an intelligent food processing factory

As an intelligent robot, how much technical content does it have? Zhang Wei, the company’s technical director, made an analysis.

For example, intelligent pulp delivery system. Syrup is easy to stick to the machine and difficult to clean. So far, there is no syrup option in vending machines. As a result, a series of fancy flavors such as Hazelnut Latte and vanilla latte can only be tasted in artificial coffee shops.

Zhang Wei said that they had a lot of brains for the pulp delivery system. There are almost no independent automatic pulp machines in the world. Because there is little market demand, the enterprise has insufficient R & D power. When the slurry is discharged by the machine, it is not only required that the slurry flow out smoothly, but also the direction must be aligned and the quantity must be standard, and the error must be controlled within plus or minus 0.5g. In addition, the machine pipes have to be cleaned automatically every time to ensure that the pipes are clean and the food is safe when the slurry is changed next time. The team can only carry out independent research and development.

Another example is the ice discharge system. Vending machines can only use crushed ice, but robot coffee kiosks use ice. The difficulty is to ensure that the angle and weight of large ice cubes must be accurate. At present, only Japanese enterprises in the world are making automatic ice blocking machines. The purchase price is particularly expensive, and the team is forced to develop them independently.

There are also some details. Laymen look simple, but they actually add technical content. For example, the capping machine on the market uses the manufacturer’s special cup and lid. The principle is relatively simple, that is, calculate the size and thickness of the customized cup cover, and just clip the machine to a fixed position.

Behind the buckle cover of the robot coffee booth is a “flexible production system”. Whether it is a transparent plastic cold drink cup or a hot drink paper cup, it can change the strength and angle and buckle the cover accurately. The principle is that a hybrid sensor is used. The sensor provides the specific data of different cups. The background calculates the pressure and angle of each closure. After the closure, the sensor returns the data for inspection to ensure a tight fit. In this way, we can buckle and cover all kinds of cups flexibly.

In addition, mechanical arm shaking is also a complex automation technology. The manipulator that imitates the shake up action of cocktail is produced by foreign enterprises, but the price is expensive. Finally, the team independently developed the manipulator control algorithm.

“More than 100 sensors are installed in the whole robot coffee booth, with more than 40 patents, some of which are international patents,” said Zhang Wei, such as pressure sensors, photoelectric sensors, ultrasonic sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, and patent related secret sensors. Behind each subsystem, there is a set of complex intelligent algorithms.

The traditional fully automatic machines almost do not use sensors and rely on “card position”. For advanced machines, there are less than 10 internal sensors, and there is no intelligence and algorithm.

Zhang Wei said that in theory, the unmanned coffee booth can provide hundreds of beverage combinations to support the addition of extremely complex excipients. If it is expanded internally, it is equivalent to a small “intelligent food processing plant”, which belongs to the technology related to “intelligent manufacturing” and “industry 4.0”.

Only when technology comes to this step can “nobody” really replace “someone” and be called “intelligence”.

Explore the “Shanghai standard”

As a new thing, unmanned economy is also facing challenges in certificate processing and approval.

Coffee beans, tea, all kinds of powder, all kinds of pulp and liquid milk… The food and drug administration department in Shanghai has not encountered so many varieties of ready-made and ready-for-sale food machines before, and there are almost no ready-made standards to follow. Therefore, relevant departments convened experts from all parties to jointly review and adopt the method of objective report + expert review.

Some of these experts come from food safety agencies, some from microbial research institutions, some from the agricultural department, and some from the CDC. In the face of new problems, experts sometimes say “this won’t work”. When Zhang Wei asked why he couldn’t, the expert replied, “according to my experience, it just couldn’t.” at first, the enterprise was a little discouraged, but after careful consultation, it was found that the opinions put forward by the experts often made some sense.

For example, the residual microorganisms in the machine must be qualified. One big problem is liquid milk. Automatic vending machines generally use milk powder or processed and packaged milk, and almost no machine directly uses fresh liquid milk. The regulatory authorities require that liquid milk must always be kept at 4 ℃ – 6 ℃, which poses a challenge to the running machine parts. The contact surface between liquid milk and air should also meet certain standards. After listening to the opinions of experts, the enterprise has developed the bacteriostatic technology of liquid milk in the machine and some patented technologies. The microorganism needs to be verified through the culture medium, and the cycle is relatively long. Only liquid milk takes a long time from asking questions to reaching the final standard.

For example, the machine provides ice drinks. When making heated things, bacteria are not easy to survive, but the cold environment will allow bacteria to reproduce further. How to ensure the food safety of ice drink in the automatic operation of the machine also took a lot of energy. Finally, after running in and research and development, the food safety level of the robot coffee shop has exceeded that of the manned coffee shop.

In fact, Shanghai has issued local standards for vending machines, but this robot coffee booth is much more complex than vending machines, and finally formed a series of new standards. For example, the first liquid milk standard for on-site machines, the first slurry standard that can be maintained at weekly level, and the first ice drink standard for automatic sterilization and disinfection of machines. This new set of “Shanghai standards” is expected to become a blueprint in the future and provide a reference for the later intelligent unmanned economic industry.


Application of robot in unmanned coffee shop


No one can hold the pain point for a long time

As early as 2017, the emergence of no shelf and no convenience store made traditional retailers feel crisis. Alibaba, Jingdong, Suning, etc. poured in one after another, which once made the unmanned economy a popular outlet. Public data show that in 2017, there were 138 unmanned retail enterprises in China, of which 57 obtained financing, with a total financing amount of more than 4.8 billion yuan.

However, the good times are not long, and several head players generally face huge losses. For example, the experience of unmanned supermarket is general. Modern supermarkets have been more automated. Unmanned supermarkets only use intelligent devices to replace the cashier’s function, and the price is not cheaper. It’s not as convenient as someone’s supermarket. Unmanned shelves face moral hazard and rely on customers to pay consciously. As a result, more than 30% of the goods are taken away free of charge, resulting in huge losses. Unmanned cars are far from really driving on the road, and there are an endless stream of bad voices in the market.

Although in this special period of the epidemic, the unmanned economy has a more favorable application environment, Qin Zhiyong, a senior venture capitalist, believes that in the long run, the key to the development of the unmanned economy still needs to be accounted for.

He said that for the production side, is the cost of “nobody” really lower than that of “someone”? In particular, are the operation and maintenance personnel, programmers and replenishment personnel in the background of unmanned machines cheaper than the traditional attendants in the front desk? For the consumer side, do consumers have a greater incentive to choose unmanned machines? If the experience of “no one” does not exceed that of someone’s shop, and the product price is not cheaper, why should consumers choose “no one”?

Sun Li said that enterprises have also investigated other categories, such as whether unmanned milk tea is feasible? However, the average selling price of milk tea is about 12 yuan, which is already very low. The unmanned milk tea machine must press the price to 5 yuan to have business opportunities. This price is difficult to recover the cost. Therefore, at present, the unmanned milk tea shop is not feasible, which is not a technical problem.

Robot cooking, the same is true. Simple salad and steak may be OK, but Chinese food is broad and profound, and the precise matching of machines can not meet various complex tastes. For consumers, sweet and sour tenderloin, kung pao chicken, etc., there is little difference between “nobody” and “someone”, and the food also has a steaming social function. Why do consumers have to choose cold machines?

In the category of “unmanned retail”, coffee, tea, fruit juice, pancakes, chestnuts, etc. may produce various unmanned machines in the future, but Qin Zhiyong stressed that whether their applications are mature depends more on the business model between cost and profit, and whether they have more advantages than manned stores.

However, for the “unmanned vehicle”, the greater difficulty may indeed be technology. During the epidemic, unmanned vehicles were only small scene applications. For example, in a corridor in the isolation area, the unmanned car drives automatically and stops at the door of the room to call the people inside to pick up the goods. In fact, this fixed route unmanned car has been widely used in some modern chemical plants and logistics storage many years ago. This time it belongs to the “upgraded” application to adapt to the special environment.

Pan tsunami, a professor at Tongji University and executive director of the world transportation research society, believes that unmanned driving in specific environments can be applied. For example, special engineering vehicles can be driverless in dangerous environments. Driverless cargo transportation can be used in port terminals. In this regard, Shanghai Yangshan Port has tried, but it has not been popularized.

It is worth mentioning that with a little “brain hole”, driverless can really get on the road. For example, long-distance truck drivers, this type of work is boring, time-consuming and tiring. European and American truck drivers often go on collective strikes and are unwilling to pay for it. The logistics cost of enterprises is high, and the long-term contradiction is prominent. In recent years, the European Association of automobile manufacturers, the International Federation of transport workers and the international road transport union have jointly prepared a report calling for the transformation of long-distance transportation to driverless trucks.

The model is like this: Several expressways are specially set aside a lane for driverless trucks. In this way, there are few roadblock problems, and the current technology can ensure safety. At both ends of the expressway, transfer centers are set up. After the truck gets off the expressway, the driver carries out short-distance complex road distribution.

Pan tsunami said that at present, this appeal has been widely welcomed by all parties, and Europe has a relatively strong impetus to implement it. From this point of view, there is great potential to make full use of existing technologies, cooperate with appropriate “special scenes” and seize the pain point of unmanned economy.

In the new economy, Shanghai has comprehensive advantages

Some people worry that the increasing number of unmanned applications will have an impact on social employment?

Chen Xian, a professor at Antai School of economics and management at Shanghai Jiaotong University, believes that the short-term impact is inevitable, but not necessarily in the long run. The jobs lost due to unmanned may generate new employment opportunities elsewhere.

In the early stage of the industrial revolution, the wide application of technology also impacted the original manual labor population, but then, because of the need to operate machines, a new group of industrial workers was born. According to research, the post replacement rate during the industrial revolution reached more than 70%. That is, more than 70% of the manual labor population has been converted to industrial workers.

The same is true of the unmanned economy. Behind it, it is still inseparable from the people who need to maintain data. Then there is also a replacement between traditional service jobs and new jobs.

Further, the development of technology is to liberate people from boring labor. The original output of a person working for 6 hours can now be completed in only 3 hours with the help of intelligent machines. With less working time, human leisure time will increase and welfare will increase in the future. This is a good thing. The increased leisure time will also generate new demands, such as beauty, fitness, tourism, social networking, culture, etc. these demands will greatly exceed the period of industrial society, and relevant industries can increase new employment opportunities.

“Therefore, from the long-term analysis of economics, I am not pessimistic about the future of the unmanned economy,” Chen said. Especially at present, China’s quantitative demographic dividend has declined, but the qualitative demographic dividend still has great growth potential. The original simple labor force can become an educated and trained higher labor force. This quality demographic dividend is one of the elements of China’s next round of economic growth. Instead of worrying about the loss of simple jobs, it is better to take the initiative to adapt to the transformation. Shanghai can be more active and make a difference in education and training and improving the quality of labor force.

Behind the unmanned economy, it is inseparable from the new factor of production of “data”. Chen Xian said that in the past, in the era of no big data, people mainly made resource allocation and decision-making judgment according to the price formed by the market. “Price is the main source of market signals”. However, with data and algorithms, data may become a new signal source.

For Shanghai, five years ago, many people worried that the city could not keep up with the new technological revolution, “but now, I feel more and more that Shanghai has more comprehensive advantages compared with other cities.” Chen Xian analyzed that Shanghai has seven advantages. Location advantages, one side is adjacent to the river and sea, and the other side is the fan hinterland terrain, which can well connect with the world and radiate the Yangtze River Delta; Economic advantages, financial advantages, scientific and technological advantages, cultural advantages, talent advantages, as well as the urban governance advantages shown in the epidemic. This is why Huawei plans to set up an R & D base in Shanghai. Shanghai’s talent advantage and location advantage are one of the factors. The entertainment headquarters, game headquarters and financial headquarters of several Internet giants are also in Shanghai.

At present, Shanghai’s benchmark enterprises in the fields of unmanned economy, big data and artificial intelligence may not be very prominent, but once Shanghai’s comprehensive advantages are brought into play, the growth rate of new industries will be faster and more stable, and the advantages of constituting the industrial chain will be stronger.

As some professionals expect, after the epidemic, new business forms such as unmanned economy may usher in another round of opportunities for development. However, whether we can really step on the track and win-win technological innovation and business model will test the comprehensive competitiveness behind a city.

Responsible editor; zl

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