Foodservice by Design

Team members from PROFITALITY discuss how industrial engineering can be applied to the foodservice industry.


Battle of the Bots: Automation, Robotics and More

The National Restaurant Association Show is set to open its doors May 20-23 in Chicago. I don’t know about you, but I am excited to see what new equipment and technologies will be on display.

From the headlines that I have seen, including the 2023 Kitchen Innovations Award recipients, plenty of new and innovative solutions seem poised to hit the market. I can’t wait to get there!

One recent news item that caught my attention was sweetgreen opening an automated kitchen in the outskirts of Chicago. I plan to visit the new restaurant once I arrive in Chicago. I am somewhat familiar with the “Spyce” technology sweetgreen uses in this location. I have followed it since it came out in a location at Harvard Square several years ago. Back then this struck me as being not only very innovative but as a technology that had great opportunity to drive impact for a business and make it less reliant on labor. Yes, automation can help concepts reallocate labor, allowing crew to do other tasks that can drive better customer hospitality. While this may be both true and the politically correct thing to say at the moment, I am sure that restaurants using automation will do so to leverage the profit impact it often brings. The two together is what I call “profitality.”

As our industry continues down the path of figuring out how to help restaurants deal with the labor challenges, I assure you that progress in the area of automation in general, and robotics specifically, will only accelerate. Without question, the industry has seen lots the pace of change in this area accelerate in recent years.

It is important to realize and understand the difference between automation and robotics. Robotics is automation, but automation does not have to be robotics. So, what is the difference between these two functional concepts?

Well, robotics is an application of a machine where a robot-like device performs tasks a human might normally handle. One shortfall of this technology, though, is that typically a robot can only perform one task at a time. One of the most widely discussed and written about robotics applications is the burger flipping unit that White Castle is using at some of its locations.

In comparison, non-robotic automation represents an application where a machine completes a task normally handled by a human, but can handle multiple tasks simultaneously. This application typically has more throughput capacity, since several tasks would be done at the same time. A few examples of such an application include automated drink dispensers. These systems will dispense a cup and then a conveyor or some other conveyance will transport it to locations where the unit adds ice, the drink and, in some cases, the lid. The drink then sits there until a staff person hands it the guest. The Spyce application mentioned earlier is an example of an automated application line since many tasks can happen at the same time, including the dispensing of ingredients and even cooking some.

The biggest difference between robotics and an automated line is throughput capacity. Because an automated line completes many tasks simultaneously, it has the potential to have a greater impact on throughput compared to a solution that does only one thing. Further, with robotics throughput is constrained by the speed of the one robot to get each task done. And let’s not forget the somewhat newer category of artificial intelligence and voice recognition, which together can drive sales and help with the labor challenges.

As you continue to consider these more sophisticated solutions, don’t lose sight of the fact that while robotics is an emerging form of automation, there’s a lot more to automation than just robotics. In other words, when looking for opportunities to reduce an operation’s reliance on labor, consider casting a wider net to include other technologies like artificial intelligence, as many chains are these days, as well as automated lines. Start by understanding the problem you wish to solve and them quantify the potential impact to determine whether the solution can properly help the operation deliver profitable hospitality. I would be remiss if I did not also suggest continuing to look for ways to drive higher efficiency in the operations, including the application of industrial engineering techniques in the foodservice operation.

I recommend that concepts look for solutions that have been tested somewhat. When it comes to implementing new technologies, you want to be leading edge and not bleeding edge. Leading edge includes quick adaptors of the technology.

Let’s see what we see at the NRA.

See you all there!