How robots are reinventing food service

Will robots take over kitchens in the future? Not likely. But one company is making food service easier, faster, and safer.

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Flippy the burger-flipping robot works the grill in a test kitchen. 

Image: Miso Robotocs

As COVID-19 assails the country, one of the industries immediately affected is restaurants. Initially, food service establishments closed their doors, offering service reduced to drive-thru, curbside, and delivery. Keeping foods and surfaces free from the virus was imperative. At the same time, restaurants were and are struggling with staying open and retaining employees.

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"What COVID-19 did was highlight two pressing problems that restaurants already had before the virus struck," said Dr. Ryan Sinnet, CTO of Miso Robotics, which provides robotic kitchen solutions to restaurants. "The first challenge was obtaining and retaining labor, since the food service workforce, even before COVID-19, was not growing. The second challenge was very narrow profit margins. There already were downward pressures on food prices at the same time that restaurant real estate, labor, and food costs were all going up."

Internet of Things (IoT) robots were providing labor and efficiency to manufacturing plants, so a logical approach to labor and cost challenges in restaurants was to see where robotics could be applied in everyday operations.

"We partnered with a fast food chain and initially focused on the cooking of hamburgers," Sinnet said. "We then developed a robotic process based upon the feedback from employees." The company created Flippy, a robotic arm to automate running the grill. Flippy can also be used to run a fryer. 

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Flippy cooks burgers perfectly every time.

Image: Miso Robotocs

Although automating burger frying was an initial project, Miso's ultimate goal is to develop a line of products that can address a series of restaurant applications, and that could work alongside employees on cooking lines.

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"With COVID-19, restaurants have to meet social distancing requirements in the kitchen, as well as reduced capacity in restaurant seating," Sinnet said. "Robotics can be applied to improve operations for both employees and customers. For instance, by using a robot to cook food, you can assure that the food is uniformly cooked each time, and avoid situations where food gets burned. Robots also don't spread disease."

Restaurant hygiene is another area that Miso is tackling in a partnership with PathSpot, which provides hand scanners that assist with hand hygiene.

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A hand scanner by PathSpot and Miso Robotics scans restaurant workers' hands to check for thorough cleanliness.

Image: PathSpot

"When restaurant workers wash hands thoroughly, they reduce the chance of spreading harmful pathogens," Sinnet said. "What we did was integrate hand washing detection with our robotics on the cooking line. By doing this, workers got on-the-spot feedback on how well they were washing their hands, and also on how they could improve their hand washing skills."

In the future, Sinnet sees more products that will IoT-enable areas of restaurant operations.

"We can take the 'eyes' and 'brain' out of a physical robot and use them in new ways," Sinnet said. "A kiosk mounted on a wall near the checkout in a restaurant can look at a customer's face and use this as an identifier in order to facilitate a contactless payment. Or, we could use thermal imagery to detect whether a customer or workers had a fever—or to determine whether proper social distancing was being observed."

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Many of these technology innovations relate directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as robotics, IoT, and the analytics they produce are further leveraged in restaurants, they can help with uniform food quality, efficient operations, and managing the tempo of the cooking line.

"We piloted our robotic kitchen assistant at hamburger stands at Dodger Stadium and at Chase Field," Stinnet said. "It's a challenge to maintain even food quality when you must deal with times of peak demand and rush orders and slower times when food can sit. A robotic process for frying and flipping burgers was able to regulate these variables, and also do the cooling. This took a lot of the pressure off of workers, who appreciated not having to get splashed with grease since the robot was able to flip and fry the burgers."

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