The future imagined by early 20th century minds included lots of skin-tight metallic fashion, flying cars, and hard-working robots—lots and lots of robots. While gleaming metal bodysuits have yet to take off at Fashion Week, and flying cars are still a few decades away, the whole robot thing is coming to pass at a faster rate than ever before.
On the domestic side, robots are making our lives much easier. If you hate vacuuming, a Roomba will do it for you. A robotic litter box senses when your cat has paid a visit, and it scoops the poop into a waste receptacle. Robots make our coffee, clean the pool, mow the lawn, and control the mechanical aspects of our home, from lighting and HVAC to security and safety.
The robot revolution has been making its move on the restaurant industry for several years, and it’s now landing in the lap of Fast Food, largely driven by the demand for higher wages for fast food workers. So it’s not surprising that many of the 3.65 million people employed by Fast Food in the U.S. are wondering what automation means for their jobs.
Robotic Advances in Fast Food
Robots are becoming more and more common in the fast food sector. Andy Pudzer, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, envisions a utopian fast food future with robots at the helm. According to Pudzer, robots are more polite than humans, and they never take vacations. Their low risk of on-the-job injuries and the distinct unlikelihood of sex, age, and race discrimination cases makes them even more desirable, according to Pudzer.
Robots are fast taking over some of the tasks once dominated by the human workforce. Domino’s has rolled out a delivery robot that ambles along the sidewalk to deliver hot pizzas in New Zealand, and restaurants like KFC and Wendy’s are installing self-ordering kiosks to replace counter workers.
Robots are also making their way into the kitchen. There’s a robot that rolls rice for sushi, one that makes pizza, and one that concocts a delicious bowl of ramen.
Miso Robotics has developed a portable, adaptable A.I. kitchen assistant named Flippy, who flips burgers and does other grilling, helps with frying, does some prep work, and dabbles in plating. Flippy uses a variety of tools and has cameras and sensors built in to help guide his (its?) tasks. He’s so good at his job that CaliBurger, a California burger chain, is hiring Flippy in 50 restaurants over the next couple of years.
Momentum Machines, a Silicon Valley startup, designed a robot that can serve up 400 ready-to-serve burgers in an hour. The robot slices and dices toppings, grills the patties, assembles the burger, and bags it up for the customer. Now, Momentum Machines is opening a burger joint in the Bay Area with the robot as head chef.
How Soon Will Robots Replace Fast Food Workers?
If you work in the fast food industry, there’s no need to rush out and find another job just yet. While robotic chefs and self-ordering kiosks are a growing trend, it’s unlikely that robots will take over all fast food operations. Momentum Machines points out that front-of-house and custodial staff will still be essential, and while robots may eventually replace some human workers, automation itself will create new jobs related to managing the technology.
The money saved by hiring robots in the kitchen may also translate to higher wages and better benefits for human employees who remain. Zume Pizza in California has cut its labor costs in half by replacing human chefs with robots, enabling the pizza chain to offer full benefits, including education subsidies, to their human workers. They can also afford to put more money into quality ingredients and menu development.
In an industry where profit margins are small and labor accounts for a third of expenses, robotic fast food chefs can help increase a restaurant’s bottom line. And while job loss will likely be a reality for some fast food workers, automation will open up new jobs in the industry as well as in other fields, as it has done in the past when other industries, like manufacturing and steel, replaced humans with robots.
Like it or not, robots are the future of fast food, but more than likely, it won’t be the dystopian future of science fiction. Rather, this new era will be marked by faster food, better ingredients, and higher wages for the humans that stay on the payroll.