Many of us have already grown accustomed to seeing self-serve kiosks at fast food restaurants; placing orders on a screen with little to no human interaction. But what about buying lunch from a full-fledged robot, or seeing C-3PO in the back of your local McDonald’s flipping burgers? In restaurants like Creator in San Francisco, this is already a reality.
There is undoubtedly an appeal to the efficiency and convenience of getting your burgers from a robot—Creator sold out tickets for its first two months before opening its doors—but what does it mean for the future of fast food? Once the novelty has worn off, are Americans really ready to forego the casual small talk and friendly advice offered from human interaction for the sake of a quicker, cheaper burger? And will the role of the fast food worker be eliminated completely?
The truth is, many fast food robots will simply be used to take over menial, repetitive, and dangerous tasks, thus freeing up human employees to focus on customer experience rather than being hidden in the back getting splashed with grease from the fryers. In restaurants where kiosks are used for ordering, humans are readily on hand to help customers with potential glitches and to guide new users through the ordering process.
One such location is Shake Shack in New York City’s East Village. The fast food spot only accepts cards, and customers order and pay at kiosks or through their smartphones. However, human employees, known as “hospitality champs,” are available to help guide new customers through the process.
Technology makes some jobs obsolete but at the same time creates new opportunities. Roles may change but a need for humans will remain. Employees are still needed to clean the machines, refill ingredients, and to manage the environment. As fast food robots become more commonplace, human employees will need to be on hand for servicing, opening up new career paths for those in the fast food industry looking to make more money doing repairs and maintenance.
Whether or not it’s apparent driving through suburbia’s chain restaurant laden streets, fast food establishments are facing an existential threat. With an abundance of options to choose from, people are turning away from working at the local fast food joint, creating a labor shortage.
Not only that, wage increases are making the profit margin harder and harder to maintain. As the cost of machines and artificial intelligence continues to drop, it’s making more sense for chains to adopt fast food robots that performs basic tasks. As Bob Wright, the COO of Wendy’s, put it in a recent conference call with investors, “We think we’ve hit the point where labor-wage rates are now making automation of those tasks make a lot more sense.”
In some cases, it seems that fast food chains are facing the option of adapt or die and leaning more heavily on robot workers will allow your favorite chain to stay open without charging 15 dollars for a Big Mac.
The Benefits of Automation
Many restaurants dedicate as much as 25 percent of their budget to wages but with automation that cost can be cut to as little as 10 percent. This is one of the biggest advantages for both employees and customers.
Eateries that use robots have more money to pay their employees and, in some cases, are even able to offer full benefits to their workers, something mostly unheard of for fast food workers. Although some employees will have to adjust to new roles, their job will ultimately be safer and more financially rewarding.
Similarly, savings on wages will be passed on to the customers. A lower overhead for the company means that a delicious cheeseburger can remain affordable even as employees make more money.
Flippy, a robotic arm that flips burgers and is programmed to assist overwhelmed chefs and restaurant workers, can prepare between 150 and 300 patties per hour, depending on the restaurant staff. The Miso Robotics fast food robots have regular, 3D, and thermal vision, allowing it to notify human staff the exact moment a burger is ready to be flipped or prepared with toppings. Nationwide fast food chain CaliBurger plans to have Flippy helping prepare burgers in 50 locations by 2019.
Domino’s has been leading the way in adopting technology to get food to their customers. Not only have they employed AI technology to take orders from hungry patrons via talk or text—as other industry leaders like Taco Bell and Subway have—they also are exploring exciting delivery options.
In 2016, Domino’s broke ground by partnering with Flirtey, a drone company, and completing the first food delivery by flying drone in New Zealand. Similarly, the company has teamed up with Starship Technologies to deploy small six-wheeled robots to deliver pizzas to locations within a one mile radius of stores in the Netherlands and Germany.
Even Google has been getting in on the trend. The tech giant recently invested $550 million in JD.com, China’s second largest e-commerce company, who plans to open 1,000 restaurants that are staffed entirely by robots by 2020. JD.com is already a major player in adopting robotic technology, boasting a massive fulfillment center that can pack and ship 200,000 orders per day while only staffing four human employees whose job it is to service the robots who do the labor.
Are We Ready?
A recent study by Gartner, Inc. suggests that automation will be a major disrupter in the workforce by 2020, wiping out 1.8 million jobs but creating 2.3 million. Clearly, there will be opportunities even for those whose current positions become obsolete.
Eatsa, another San Francisco-based restaurant focused on automation, recently experienced some growing pains. The small chain allows people to place orders on a tablet and then pick their food up in a cubby with no human interaction. During peak hours the restaurant is able to fill nearly 400 orders in an hour. However, upon expanding to Washington D.C., Berkeley, and New York City, the company found it may have overreached.
Eventually, all locations outside of San Francisco were closed. On its blog, Eatsa explained that they grew too quickly, saying, “operating in four different markets has made it difficult to quickly test and iterate our food product—something that is critical in any restaurant business, but is even more important when it comes to introducing a new type of nutritious fare.”
The San Francisco spots remain open and the company is focusing on experimenting and innovating with its fewer locations before eventually expanding once again. In the meantime, Eatsa is also making its technology available to other restaurants looking to give automation a try.
While an army of fast food robots ready to serve our every need is not yet upon us, the future of automation is definitely bright, and not just in the fast food industry. Delivery services, hotels, and more are using robots and AI more every day. Botlr is a robot butler that is being used in hotels across the country to deliver room service and extra towels, and it won’t be long before drones are delivering packages, pizza, and more straight to your doorstep.