Advanced Robots Are Slowly Taking Over Fast Food Restaurants

As fast-food restaurants look to cut costs, they turn to robots for help.
robots arm

Prior to the covid-19 outbreak, there was widespread concern about automation in different work industries. The primary cause is that robots are gradually replacing workers in various fields or “stealing our jobs,” as some people call it. While these worries have not subsided two years later, they’re being countered by severe and largely unexpected labor shortages across various sectors of the economy. The restaurant industry is struggling the most.

While better wages and benefits are the usual approach to recruiting and retaining employees, we may still face unemployment issues due to automation in the future. At the moment, it appears robots are providing an invaluable hand in the food-service industry. A good example of these robots is Flippy.

What is Flippy?

Flippy initially debuted in 2017 to flip burgers at a California fast-food chain. And ever since, Flippy’s creator, Miso Robotics, has improved the bot’s functionality, releasing a newer version earlier this year to address a significant obstacle for those seeking to automate existing kitchens.

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“We’re ecstatic to announce Flippy ROAR’s global commercial availability,” stated Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics. The demand has surged since we released a sneak glimpse of the prototype in January, especially regarding COVID-19. At Miso Robotics, we are convinced that this demand will propel us forward to provide the automation that the industry needs to not only recover but also to accelerate growth.”

Flippy has been tested at several restaurants

White Castle was the first restaurant brand to engage significantly in Flippy, launching a pilot program in 2020. Flippy’s footprint has also grown significantly this week, with White Castle announcing plans to install the robot in over 100 restaurants this year. Miso robotics received feedback on the robot from the restaurant, and in November, the company released the second iteration of the robot called Flippy ROAR.

Flippy 2 Complete System
Flippy 2 by Miso Robotics

“Robot and human interaction must be safe,” Miso Robotics explains. With this in mind, Miso Robotics has installed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-compliant laser sensors on Flippy so that employees can safely collaborate with the robot. Flippy ROAR uses machine learning to improve cooking tactics for 19 meals. This is in addition to depth perception and enhanced image processing from Intel RealSense technology.

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The robot has NSF International (NSF) certification, ensuring that health and hygiene standards are incorporated into new product designs during the epidemic. The NSF label demonstrates Miso Robotics’ dedication to health and safety, ensuring that the device can be easily cleaned to avoid food-borne illness and not leach toxic chemicals into food.

According to Sara Risley, Associate Managing Director of Food Equipment at NSF International, “certification to NSF/ANSI food equipment standards means Flippy ROAR passes rigorous requirements for material safety, hygienic design, and performance.”

How does Flippy work?

Flippy resembles an industrial robotics cell or a humanoid science-fiction burger droid in appearance than standard kitchen equipment. It’s a six-axis robotic arm positioned in front of a grill surface.

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To perform its job, Flippy has 3D and thermal scanners for robotic vision and cloud-connected Miso artificial intelligence (AI) as its thinker. Miso’s engineers understood the need for enough space around the grill or stove. They devised a space-saving solution that involved installing an upside-down rail beneath a regular kitchen hood. The unique design of Flippy allows it to move laterally across a workspace while keeping all of the equipment out of the way of human coworkers. This design offers safe and efficient operations within an existing commercial kitchen layout with a kitchen staff that fulfills various cooking tasks.

This innovative robot can independently perform the work of a complete fry station. Its AI-assisted vision can identify foods, pick them up, and cook them in fry baskets designed specifically for that food. After that,  it moves the cooked items to a hot-holding area.

The performance of Flippy 2 is 30% better than its predecessor, equating to about 60 baskets of fried food each hour. “Flippy 2 has over 120 configurations incorporated into its technology,” according to Bell, “and is the only robotic fry station now being developed on a large scale.” 

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Are robots taking over our jobs?

Working at a frying station appears to be one of the tasks that we should be willing to leave over to robots. Miso Robotics CEO Mike Bell remarked, “It was a fantastic chance for automation robotics to step in and help.”

The pandemic has spurred many workers from the baby boomer generation to retire early. Birth rates are declining, and millennials have less need to work probably due to money left to them by their grandparents or parents. These and other factors have already resulted in many job openings.

As the economy recovers from the covid-19 pandemic and continues to improve, there will be even greater demand for labor. 

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According to The Demographic Drought, research released in April 2021 by labor market data company Emsi, it was predicted that we’d be trapped with “too few people and too much work” for a long time. 

Is Flippy affordable compared to humans?

The first commercial version of Flippy went on the market for $30,000 in 2020, but Miso aims to get the price down to $20,000. A $1,500 monthly payment is also required for the robot’s software. While the robotic kitchen assistant is not inexpensive, it will quickly pay for itself compared to the cost of maintaining a human workforce. These kinds of comparisons are precisely what fuel fears around technological unemployment. However, there are indications that the current labor shortages may not be temporary. So we shouldn’t be too harsh on Flippy or be at all surprised if the robot becomes a permanent employee of several fast-food restaurants soon.

Any issue with the use of Flippy?

The main issue with this robot is that it was initially so popular that it couldn’t keep up with demand and had to be discontinued briefly to boost production.

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While Flippy’s future is promising, one issue that could impede its overall effectiveness is that, while humans can adjust to one another in a kitchen, Flippy works around its own schedule, but it still can’t work independently without the help of fellow human workers.

The Trend Continues  

Fast-food workers will continue to exist for the time being, but they will increasingly be aided by robots and technological systems that operate alongside them. The employment of non-human systems has been ongoing in one form or another since most restaurants no longer depend on a paper-ticketing system, and microwaves—for better or worse—heat food at a tap of the finger.

Feature image credit: Flippy 2 by Miso Robotics

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