By now, you might have spotted a coffee robot slinging lattes at an airport. Maybe you’ve ordered a fresh salad from a vending machine. Or perhaps you’ve heard people talking about seeing these mechanisms on college campuses or even in hospitals.
More and more, as consumers, we continue to notice the presence of automation, including robots, in everyday foodservice. The notion of implementing foodservice automation, though, does not come without plenty of research to better understand, test and/or source these applications.
Even if robots fall outside the traditional scope when it comes to specifying, the designer must often do some of the initial research and development and due diligence. That’s certainly been the case for Lisa Paige-Pretorius, project manager at Cini•Little International, who is working with two university clients looking into the coffee-making robots.
“It’s definitely a new era,” Paige-Pretorius says. “I see more and more robotics on the foodservice market, not unlike what started in the automotive industry and now with the advent of electric cars and automated transport trucks. We rely on our reps to bring this kind of information to trade shows, but we can also use the Internet to find more information on robots in general. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole finding these cool innovations. We’re definitely at the brink of a major technological revolution of our lifetime.”
Paige-Pretorius is quick to comment that robots can help save labor and have the capability to produce higher volumes of certain food and drink items, her clients are not looking to completely replace the cook or barista. Rather, her clients are considering automation as a way to supplement more traditional methods of delivering product. “If you need a quick cup of coffee, the bots can produce the coffee so much faster, especially for large groups of college students coming through,” she says. “These bots can push 100 orders faster than a person who would ask you all the questions in taking your order, but there’s still a need to have a person. You want to be able to unwind and have that morning conversation with your barista. So there’s definitely a balance.”
While there is more information out there on robots for foodservice, navigating this still-uncharted territory in foodservice equipment can be tricky, Paige-Pretorious says. Here, using a coffee robot as an example, she offers some tips on where and how to start with that product.
Figure out the right application for the bot. When it comes to coffee robots in particular, some larger-scale versions come with their own glassed-in box, while others feature a smaller format that makes it easier to add them to an existing countertop. Choosing which type “depends on the overall look the client is going for,” Paige-Pretorius says. Some clients might want to make the coffee bot a whole experience, while others simply might want to add a robotic arm to a small space in a hotel lobby. Another reason for choosing a smaller format robot or just an arm is that it’s easy to pull out of an operation or replace with something else should the unit break down or doesn’t work well with the operation.
Check the dimensions. This sounds silly but believe it or not, that information is not always immediately forthcoming. Some companies have the measurements posted on their websites, but in other cases, it’s up to you to call the rep listed or even just customer service.
Find out what equipment it can work with — or not. Some of the smaller scale robot arms can work with certain coffee brewers, but other larger format ones might require use of their own proprietary brewers and other coffee-making equipment. “This information is important,” Paige-Pretorius says, “especially if the client has an existing coffee contract. It might be that the bot company has only one or a few options and you have to pick through and juggle with the current coffee contract.”
Note the required utilities. “If you’re looking for a kiosk application that you can move around, you’ll need to know where you can park it next to a column with water and power and those connections will be visible,” says Paige-Pretorius, who then helps her clients figure out the logistics of how and where the bot can be moved to fit through spaces and where it can be taken to be cleaned. “If the client wants a more permanent solution, we have the opportunity to come through the floor and hide everything and make sure there is adequate utilities and drainage in that space,” she says.
Consider the digital interface for the system. Depending on the coffee bot type, there might be a mobile app and/or a touchscreen kiosk stand that comes with the product. “If there’s a free-standing podium setup, we need to account for that because it takes up a little more footprint than if it’s attached to the counter,” Paige-Pretorius says.
Note the price, warranty, service and testing. A lot of due diligence should go into getting the right bot because they can be pricey and have their own requirements for service and maintenance. Consultants can help clients balance the volume and sales capabilities of a robot or coffee bot with the price of the machines and service requirements. As far as testing the machines, luckily, Paige-Pretorius says, the companies she has looked into offer on-site and in-field testing, and they are testing the products in airports and other facilities as we speak. “It’s becoming easier to see these bots in action and see how much they stand out and draw attention,” she says. Or not, she adds, if that’s the desired effect.