Future Tense

A Bubble Tea–Making Robot Is a Portent of Things to Come

It means more than consistent boba.

A person wearing blue latex gloves prepares several cups of iced milk tea.
Could this human service soon be a thing of the past? Photo by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

In the airy lobby of Taipei’s new technology hub, customers are waiting on their boba fix at Crane Cha, a beverage store. Behind a plexiglass partition, a robot is assembling their drinks.

The Bubble Tea Shaker Robot, or BTSR, launched in 2018 and is the brainchild of Taiwan Intelligent Robotics Co. After the machine receives a customer’s order, its thick white robotic arm moves along a wall of nozzles to fill up on ingredients—tea, milk, ice, sugar, toppings—in its stainless steel shaker. The BTSR shakes it to mix and pours the contents into a paper cup, which is sealed and handed to the customer. Over and over, exactly the same every time.

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In Taiwan, there are more than 20,000 drinks stores that do it the old-fashioned way. Young part-time workers assemble a drink in a series of standardized steps; at some stores they might rely on a motorized shaker, but the operation is primarily manual and susceptible to human inconsistencies. With more than 100 million drinks sold a year, some companies are betting on these beverages—more commonly called hand-shaken drinks in Taiwan—to be made by robotic hands instead.

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A boba robot is a particularly Taiwanese instance of the global trend of automation in the restaurant industry. According to Research Nester, the cooking robotics market will be worth $322 million by 2028. That’s more than 70 percent growth projected in nine years. In an industry that’s typically low-margin and heavily dependent on human labor, automated technology promises to make operations cheaper and more effective.

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Cafés are an obvious site for disruption—ubiquitous and dependent on baristas. San Francisco’s VC-backed Cafe X is an automated café system also featuring a robotic arm; other robo-baristas from smaller upstarts include Belarus’s Rozum Robotics and Colorado’s Robo Esso. There are also companies taking on the harder task of assembling full meals. Boston’s Spyce is a conveyor belt kitchen making salads and warm bowls. Bangalore’s Mukunda Foods makes automated cooking equipment for restaurants to make local dishes like biryani.

In Taiwan, boba is the quintessential national drink, and one of the country’s main cultural exports.

BTSR isn’t even the first boba robot, nor is Cran Cha the first shop to adopt such technology. In recent years, other upstarts have opened and shuttered. Babo Arms, which self-proclaimed as the world’s first robot beverage store, opened in Taipei’s popular Dongmen District in 2018 before closing one year later. Jhu Dong Auto Tea, a beverage store in Taichung’s popular Fengjia Night Market, opened in 2019 and quickly suffered a similar fate.

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The fact that numerous stores have experimented with automation—despite failing—is a clear response to growing international and local pressures. Taiwan’s beverage retail market is competitive, robot or no robot. According to a survey from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the biggest challenges facing beverage store owners are high staff turnover, intense competition, and rising operating costs.  The number of stores has almost doubled in the past decade and the market is beginning to saturate. Businesses are looking for other ways to grow and overseas expansion is one attractive option, with Taiwanese beverage stores now in business on five continents. But even abroad, difficulties persist.

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“The biggest challenge that Taiwanese beverage companies face overseas is standardizing the Standard Operating Procedure and training,” said K.T. Huang, the CEO of Taiwan Intelligent Robotics Co. Most inquiries he has received for the BTSR have come internationally, and the robot is an attempt to solve those problems.

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It’s expensive to set up overseas operations, according to Huang, for it takes 20 to 30 managers about one to three months of training. Ongoing operations costs are also high, especially overseas where wages are higher than in Taiwan. But a store outfitted with the BTSR needs just one worker, rather than the average four to six, to help with stocking and customer delivery. By Huang’s calculations, if stores with BTSR are centralized in an urban area, 30 to 40 percent of the corporate costs in training and regional management can be cut. An investment in the BTSR doesn’t take long to break even: a year in the U.S., and two to three years in Taiwan. The pandemic interrupted many of Taiwan Intelligent Robotics Co.’s overseas conversations, but also underscored the need for automated solutions.

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Like Taiwan Intelligent Robotics Co., NOOONE, a company designing robotics solutions for beverages and pastries, says that most of its inquiries are coming from overseas, especially from Taiwanese business people in the U.S. Those in countries with higher wages are showing the most interest. For the trend to take off in Taiwan, CEO Chang Shu-hao said, the cost of the equipment has to come down from today’s industry starting price of roughly $20,000. More collaboration and resources in the industry in the next few years could make that a reality.

Back in Taiwan, however, interest and demand have been minimal. The average beverage store doesn’t survive longer than three to five years. The cost of labor isn’t prohibitively high enough—due to stagnating wages in the last two decades—to compel the small businesses to adopt an automated solution yet.

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Experiments in automation in the restaurant and beverage industry in Taiwan have been precisely that—experiments. The giants are nowhere to be seen yet. Qingxin Fuquan, the biggest beverage franchise in Taiwan with more than 900 stores, said that it has“no plans at the moment” for automation. Kebuke, a hipper upstart that is popular among younger customers, responded likewise.

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Other experiments from larger corporations in Taiwan have yet to lead to widespread adoption. Convenience stores that depend on part-time workers doing manual work are an example. 7-Eleven piloted an unstaffed convenience store in 2018, to initial excitement but lackluster demand, and it closed in a year. In the same year, Fujitsu partnered with FamilyMart to pilot the RoboPin, a desktop-sized robot, to interact with customers and show off new products. Others are exploring smart vending machines and coffee makers.

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Outside of Taiwan, there are promising signs of larger-scale implementation. After White Castle’s successful pilot in 2020 of Flippy the robot burger flipper, the plan is to roll it out to 10 new stores. The goal is for Flippy to improve customer service and kitchen operations—and to increase safety during a global pandemic.

Consumers need time to adapt to and adopt automation. NOOONE’s Chang opened an unstaffed concept store in Taichung, Taiwan, to see how customers responded. He said they liked that the store was clean and sanitary, and found it novel and interesting. But visitors from central and southern Taiwan—and especially those above the age of 40—had trouble using the digital interface to order. While these interfaces are prevalent in Taipei, they have yet to penetrate widely to the rest of the country.

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Automation may reduce, but not fully eliminate, the need for human staff. While the BTSR can run entirely solo in Huang’s design—save for when ingredients need stocking—having one person on staff adds a human element. “Service needs warmth,” Huang said, and staff can assist with ordering and hand-delivering the beverage from the service window to the customer.

“Automation will inevitably become a trend,” Chang said. He predicts prices will be competitive in Taiwan in the next five years, and the technology will be more prevalent in 10. “It needs some time to ferment.”

Soon, it won’t be a novelty to sip on your robo-made boba while eating a robo-flipped burger or convey-belt assembled salad—or maybe even a beef noodle soup.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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