Are Cooking Robots and Kitchen Automation going to be the “New Normal” for post Covid -19 F&B world?

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The world’s just reshaped in terms of thoughts around food safety. Robots that can cook – from flipping burgers to baking bread – are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers.
Robot food service was a trend even before the coronavirus pandemic, as hospitals, campus cafeterias and others tried to meet demand for fresh, customised options 24 hours a day while keeping labour costs in check. Robot chefs appeared at places like Creator, a burger restaurant in San Francisco, and Dal.komm Coffee outlets in South Korea.

Now, some say, robots may shift from being a novelty to a necessity. The U.S. Center for Disease Control says the risk of getting COVID-19 from handling or consuming food outside the home is low. Still, there have been numerous outbreaks among restaurant employees and patrons. What used to be forward-thinking – last year, pre-COVID – has become current thinking.

Does the Cooking Robots and Kitchen Automation really exist?
Let’s make robots unsexy. It’s weird to say this, but when something becomes unsexy, it means that it works so well that you don’t have to think about it. You don’t stare at your dishwasher/washing machine as it washes your dishes/cloths in fascination, because you know it’s gonna work every time… Let’s get robots to that stage of reliability.

It’s time to rectify: let’s be honest, the kitchen automation does not exist as such –for now, but it will undoubtedly take place–. We have seen evolution and progress, but not a revolution or disruption. Let us be clear that it will not be arriving until, sometime in the next 5 years, 5G takes center stage and ushers in automation and robotics, hand in hand with other technologies like AI and predominant Robot-as-a-Service models. Above all, robotics must leave behind imitation and move towards evolution, in addition to establishing an ecosystem of over 300 companies working in this direction, a critical mass to become a lever for transformation.

AI and robotics have been described as a futuristic technology that will soon transform every industry under the Sun, including food. Despite massive progress in artificial intelligence technology and increased adoption of industrial robots, consumer-facing robotic products are not nearly as ubiquitous as popular culture predicted decades ago.

The global demand for robots has accelerated because of Covid-19.

The demand for robots is not growing. What growing is the interest shown by organizations in knowing more about them and studying the massive potential for automation, but this is not necessarily translating into a significant increase in sales or investment in automation by businesses. In my view, these are two very different aspects.

However, it is also true that, in parallel, the demand for certain products have also increased. Prior to this year, Chowbotics had sold around 125 of its $35,000 robots, primarily to hospitals and colleges. But since the coronavirus hit, sales have jumped more than 60%.

Blendid sells a robot kiosk that makes a variety of fresh smoothies. Customers can order from a smartphone app and tweak the recipe if they want more kale or less ginger, for example. Once or twice a day, a Blendid employee refills the ingredients.

Only a handful are now operating around San Francisco, but since the pandemic began, Blendid has started contract discussions with hospitals, corporations, shopping malls and groceries.

Wilkinson Baking Co., whose BreadBot mixes, forms and bakes loaves of bread, has also been getting more inquiries. Randall Wilkinson, the CEO of the Walla Walla, Washington-based company, said the BreadBot serves shifting needs. Grocery shoppers no longer want self-serve options like olive bars, but they still want fresh and local food. Seeing how that food is made also gives them more confidence, he said.

We at Mukunda Foods would have closed more deals in the last quarter than we did in the whole fiscal.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought several massive economic impact throughout the world and one of the problems faced by many companies has been keeping the business running without putting their employees at risk of infection. As expected, one of the ways in which many organizations are seeking to remain operational in the short term is by automating tasks that would otherwise be carried out by humans. After all, robots are not at risk of contracting Covid-19.

According to Digital Trends, since the start of the pandemic we have seen a significant increase in automation efforts in manufacturing, meat packing, grocery stores and more. Partly due to the pandemic, some economists have estimated that 2 million manufacturing jobs will disappear forever by 2025. We were already headed towards an era in which more jobs than ever could be automated, but Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the rate at which we are likely to see that change.

I fully agree with MIT Economist David Autor, when he describes the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic as “an event that forces automation.” But Autor explains that Covid-19 creates a kind of disruption that has forced automation in sectors and activities with a shortage of workers, while at the same time there has been no reduction in demand. This aspect hasn’t taken place in hospitality, where demand has practically disappeared, whereas it is still present in agriculture and distribution. The latter is being altered by the massive growth of e-commerce, with more efficient and automated warehouses that can provide better service.

Foodservice and hospitality businesses are starting to asses which processes could be automated, and possibly looking at them with more favorable eyes than a few months ago, but let’s not forget that they are still immersed in aggressive contingency plans focused on survival, rather than resilience.

I very much doubt that, as mentioned, Covid-19 has brought the progress of 5 years in just 5 months in terms of Industry 4.O. It is possible that during the pandemic some trends were accelerated, but that’s it. There still remains a long road ahead. Reports like the one published by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) refute my predictions, particularly in the retail sector, which has witnessed a steep increase in online sales.

The recovery will be fast.

If robotics arrived to the hospitality sector mainly to cover for a lack of workers, now this equation will change completely with the disappearance of over 2.2 million restaurants throughout the world, so all robots and prototypes will have to clearly justify their performance versus humans, in and out of the kitchen, despite the increased emphasis on safety, contactless work and the current Low Touch Economy. Universal Basic Income may prove to be the only way to enable the progress of automation. Yes, you have read correctly. Think about it.

Asia will lead the entry of robotics into foodservice?

Particularly in China, South Korea, Japan, India and Singapore. In fact, if we look at first, China is currently in a unique position to lead the world’s automation economy. Although the country boasts a huge workforce, labor costs have multiplied by ten over the past 20 years. As the world’s factory, China has a strong incentive to automate its manufacturing sector, which enjoys a solid leadership in high quality products. China is currently the largest and fastest-growing market in the world for industrial robotics, with a 21% increase up to $5.4 billion in 2018. This represents one third of global sales. As a result, Chinese companies are developing a significant advantage in terms of learning to work with metallic colleagues.

The reason behind the Asian dominance is evident: the population has a greater capacity for technology adoption, while its progressive ageing is becoming more pronounced, leading to a pressing need to adopt automation in the short term. One example: China is well ahead of other countries in restaurant automation. In early 2020, UBS Group AG conducted a survey among more than 13,000 consumers around the world and found that 64% of Chinese respondents had ordered meals via their mobile devices at least once a week, versus only 17% in the US. With digital ordering becoming ubiquitous, robot waiters and chefs are the next logical step. The West harbors mistrust towards non-humans that the East does not.

Is robotics the next hot sector for food tech investment? TRUE.

None of the previous arguments have or will hinder a continuous and massive growth in investment because, at the end of the day, we are talking about the future, while taking up positions on the starting line for such a time when the pandemic is over. The year 2020 will likely close with an investment in food robotics around €3.5 billion.

The disruption will continue to invest in apocalyptic technology linked to the way in which we eat and drink, gradually removing humans from the equation. If 80% of restaurant jobs could be carried out by robots, what will prevent this from happening?

If we wish to advance with giant leaps towards a theoretical short-term mass adoption of robotics in hospitality and foodservice –the sector comprising the Kitchen Automation– then it is indispensable to determine the real starting point, as opposed to an imagined or desired one, in order to manage expectations and avoid possible unfulfilled promises. This will allow us to progress faster in the right direction, which will surely have numerous obstacles, mainly linked to humans rather than machine capacity.
Without a doubt, the Kitchen Automation will reach exponential growth in the coming years.