American fast food chain CaliBurger is set to roll out ‘Flippy’ robots in 50 of its restaurants. The move will help to “cook burgers perfectly, every time” but also put low-skilled jobs at risk.
Automation is a two-sided coin. For low-skilled workers, it’s a genuine threat. Even a monotonous task such as flipping burgers requires accuracy and concentration, especially in the heat of a commercial kitchen. For restaurant chains looking for product consistency and cost-cutting measures, investing in a robot that can fulfill the same role but work for free is a recipe for commercial success.
Automating the labor force is one option restaurant chains have in the face of plans to raise the minimum wage in several American states and countries around the world – although it may not turn out to be totally cost-effective, given plans to tax robot workers to replace lost income tax.
Flippy: Coming to a burger joint near you
The robot being rolled out is called Flippy from Miso Robotics, a company that specializes in culinary ‘bots, partly funded by Caliburger.
Flippy looks more like a piece of high-end hospital equipment than a grill chef replacement. It can be wheeled to its station on a cart that holds its most important tool, a 6-axis robotic arm. Flippy also has a range of thermal sensors and cameras to gather information on what’s cooking. It can be connected directly to a restaurant’s ordering system.
Flippy has all the tools and dexterity to be a valuable member of the kitchen. A pneumatic pump helps it switch its tools as necessary, from detachable grippers to tongs and scrapers. It can pick up patties, place them on the grill and track each burger’s cooking time and temperature. When the burger is done, Flippy will notify nearby humans that it’s time to add toppings and finish it off.
With all of these capabilities, it would appear that burgers are just the beginning.
Read more: Robot tax could ease drawbacks of automation
High pain points in food prep
Speaking to Tech Crunch, Miso Robotics CEO and co-founder David Zito said that the company’s focus was to build tools that could transform commercial kitchen operations without requiring a rebuild.
“We focus on using AI and automation to solve the high pain points in restaurants and food prep,” he said. “That’s the dull, dirty and dangerous work around the grill, the fryer, and other prep work like chopping onions. The idea is to help restaurants improve food quality and safety without requiring a major kitchen redesign.”
With developments in AI, machine learning and robotic dexterity, it would appear to be a matter of time before even skilled chefs are left fearing for their futures. Automation will hit low-skilled workers first, but Zito thinks that humans will always have a place in the food and hospitality business.
“Tasting food and creating recipes will always be the purview of a chef. And restaurants are gathering places where we go to interact with each other. Humans will always play a very critical role in the hospitality side of the business given the social aspects of food. We just don’t know what the new roles will be yet in the industry.”
Within two years, CaliBurger will be installing 50 Flippy robots in its restaurants around the world. One branch in Pasadena, California, is the first to receive its new member of the grill team.