There’s a new worker at the CaliBurger in downtown Pasadena, California. His name is Flippy. He doesn’t talk much or interact with his colleagues. But he’s really good at what he does. He can cook up to 300 burgers an hour, and each one is consistently prepared.
Flippy is the world’s first autonomous kitchen assistant, according to the startup that built him. And he’s an upgrade on a human line cook. He won’t leave for another job because he doesn’t like the work, and he allows workers to do tasks they actually enjoy–presumably that doesn’t include flipping burgers.
“[CaliBurger] was having major turnover issues in its kitchens and consistency issues. They’d bring in employees to train them on the grill, but they just didn’t want to do that particular part of the work,” says David Zito, CEO of Miso Robotics, the company behind Flippy. “This will help them retain hires in areas they feel more passionate about, like hospitality.”
Flippy costs $60,000 plus a 20% annual service fee. Zito reckons a Flippy-equipped restaurant can save enough money to pay back that price tag within 18 months.
To some, Flippy is an example of the sort of automation that could take away millions of jobs in the future. He shows how automation, having already worked its way through manufacturing, is now creeping into the service sector.
Zito, of course, prefers to accentuate the positives. “For me, this isn’t about replacing jobs. It’s about improving the productivity of overworked chefs and line cooks. Working in a kitchen is hard, and you can always use an extra hand that’s repeatable and predictable,” he says.
“If you walk into a factory or a warehouse these days, you’ll see workers working alongside assistants of different types,” he adds. “Commercial kitchens have largely remained unchanged. We’re inspired to bring these productivity enhancements to an industry that’s often overlooked.”
Miso’s innovation is to bring sensors and machine learning to the robotic arm. Thermal 3D scanners and regular computer vision sensors inspect each patty, looking at its color, shape, and size. By exposing the robot to thousands and thousands of cooking burgers, it gradually “learns” the difference between a leathery meat-puck and a succulently cooked mouth-explosion.
CaliBurger has put Flippy in the front of its Pasadena restaurant because it thinks the machine is a selling point. Similarly, a second customer, a food services company called Levy, plans to video-link Flippy when it installs a machine later this year. Levy does catering at dozens of sports venues and also has a stake in Miso, presumably because it plans to roll out Flippy widely.
It’s safe to assume that burger flipping will become a fully automated activity over time. Zito, in fact, expects quite a few tasks in the kitchen to be automated, including vegetable prep and deep-frying. The food will remain broadly the same, but the work may be very different.