The tasks best suited for automation are predictable and repeatable ones. The food industry could be considered the easiest entry point for an automated revolution, as so much of a food worker’s tasks are the same throughout the day.
Some automation features at restaurants are so familiar that we might forget. The gas station company Sheetz debuted a touchscreen kiosk for made-to-order subs in 1996. McDonald’s has digital ordering and payment kiosks at 3,000 US locations. Innovations keep rolling out, and we’re beginning to see full-on robotic hands and graceful machines that increase consistency in quality. Machines work efficiently and are more hygienic than human workers, which means safer food for diners.
Fast food employees are harder to find and hard to retain these days. Automated machines are freeing humans from boring and hazardous work (grease burns, carpal tunnel, etc.) to allow them to focus on tasks that need a more human touch, like developing recipes.
Critics worry that the rise of machines in restaurants will lead to fewer human employees per establishment, but so far, those fears haven’t come true. In the US, employment is up at individual quick-service restaurants. Automation is creating environments where quality is top notch and the experience is Instagram-worthy.
The star of this San Francisco burger joint doesn’t look at all like a robot. The counter-shaped machine is white, woodgrain, and rose gold, looking more like an iPhone accessory than an android.
The machine cooks the beef to order, freshly slices veggies, and grates cheese—and assembles it all before your eyes. Humans are still crucial to the restaurant. They take orders, prep sauces, and develop recipes. The founders of Creator want to balance people and machines to improve how food is made and how it tastes. The machine keeps the costs low so that the restaurant can use higher-quality ingredients: The $6 burger will get you pasture-fed beef on a perfectly toasted bun with sophisticated finishes like oyster aioli.
This casual Boston restaurant was created by four MIT graduates and delivers gourmet grain bowls in three minutes. Order from a kiosk, then watch as ingredients are combined and cooked in a tilted induction pot. The machine serves up the bowl; the only human employee in the kitchen gives it fresh toppings and garnishes.
Home-Based Robotic Chefs
Moley Robotics debuted their Automated Kitchen, a home-based robot that uses a pair of fully articulated robotic hands to learn recipes, cook them, and clean up after itself. (Those hands, by the way, use 20 motors, 24 joints, and 129 sensors to mimic a chef’s hands while churning out pots of cherries jubilee or shrimp bisque.)
Areas of the food industry that are primed for more automation include large-scale food preparation and service, like university dining halls and nursing homes. Facilities where little variation and customization aren’t as important as volume is where the robots could shine.
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