Cuisine Machines: Robot Cooks

One of the earliest posts on this blog was about the automation of fast-food cooking, specifically burgers. The focus of that blog piece has evolved into Creator.

The Economist recently had an article on the continuing innovation in the cooking space:

Creator, a new hamburger joint in San Francisco, claims to deliver a burger worth $18 for $6—in other words, to provide the quality associated with posh restaurants at a fast-food price. The substance behind this claim is that its chef-de-cuisine is a robot.

Creator’s burger bot is a trolley-sized unit that has a footprint of two square metres. Customers send it their orders via a tablet. They are able to customise everything from how well-done the burger will be to the type of cheese and toppings they want. The robot grinds the meat, forms the patties, griddles them (a process tracked by 11 thermal sensors), chops tomatoes and grates cheese for those who want such accoutrements, slices, toasts and butters the bun, and dispenses seasoning and sauces. It then assembles and bags the finished product, so that it is ready to go.

Listed like that, the process sounds rather quotidian. In fact, it took eight years to perfect. As far back as 2012, a mere two years into the project, the machine was described as “95% reliable”, but that is not enough for a busy kitchen. Chopping tomatoes was a particularly tough challenge, but even details like the paddle which packs the burger into a bag without squashing it were tricky to master. Only now, with a machine they claim can turn out, reliably, 120 burgers an hour, do Alex Vardakostas, the engineer behind the project, and his co-founders, a mixture of technologists and caterers, feel confident enough to open their first restaurant.

Another restaurant, Zume Pizza, uses “dough bots” that can stretch-out pizza dough in 9 seconds vs 45 seconds, a big time savings for the quick service-format.

Spyce, in Boston, has a robot that cooks dishes to order using woks and a conveyor that delivers the raw ingredients to its station.

In Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in China, an entrepreneur Li Zhiming has developed a robot that can cook 40 Hunan recipes. Mr Li opened his first robot restaurant in May. Its kitchen is staffed by three bots and two human beings. Normally, he says, a restaurant of this size, offering that sort of variety, would have a kitchen staff of eight.

Then there is Moley, a general-purpose chef-bot under development that will mimic a trained chef’s delicate motions using two human-like hands. Motion-capture will record the motions of a human chef to help the robot replicate techniques. Perhaps some form of sensor will replicate the taste buds of human chefs to adjust seasoning.

The way kitchens operate hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades. With the rise of robot cooks, human chefs will have an opportunity to innovate on how people can work with robots in both fast-food and fine-dining situations.

Once the novelty is passed, the real work and opportunity lies in how to re-think the kitchen, to remove people from tasks that are, literally, robotic in nature, and free them to do higher value-added tasks that are better paying and less of a drudge.