Back in June, I wrote a post suggesting that fast food automation could potentially have a dramatic impact on low-wage jobs:
Millions of people hold low-wage, often part-time jobs in the fast food industry. Historically, low wages, few benefits and a high turnover rate have helped to make fast food openings relatively abundant. These jobs, together with other low-skill positions in retail, provide a kind of safety net for workers with few other options.
In the current economic environment, these jobs are, of course, much harder to get. McDonald’s recent high-profile initiative to hire 50,000 new workers resulted in over a million applications — numbers that give McDonald’s a lower acceptance rate than Harvard.
What about the future? Most forecasts assume that the fast food industry will continue to be a significant job creator. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks food preparation as one of the top four fastest-growing occupations, and that trend is expected to continue at least through 2018. Is it possible that these projections miss the impact of technology? Could these jobs begin to disappear?
Increased automation in fast food and beverage providers is likely to someday offer increased convenience, speed, and ordering accuracy. Robotic food preparation could also be viewed as more hygienic as fewer workers come into contact with food. And of course, price will ultimately be the determining factor … If jobs in the fast food industry start to disappear, or even if the rate of job growth slows significantly, the implications for the workers that depend on these jobs of last resort will be dire. There may be few other alternatives for workers at that skill level, especially since other low-wage retail jobs may be similarly threatened.
Momentum Machines is a new San Francisco-based start-up that is planning to automate the burger production process. The company’s website claims its robot will save the average restaurant $135K/year in wages and overhead and that the machine will pay for itself in one year.
One news story notes that the company
… has developed a robot designed to take the place of humans in burger restaurants. Its creators believe their patty-flipping Alpha robot could save the fast-food industry in the United States about US$9 billion (Dh33.05bn) a year. Designed to entirely replace two to three full-time kitchen staff, it can grill a beef patty, layer it with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions, put it in a bun, and wrap it up to go – no less than 360 times an hour. Momentum believes kitchen robots are not only more cost-effective than human staff, they are also more hygienic.
Momentum Machines is a tiny company that has just emerged from start-up incubator Lemos Labs. However, I think it is very likely that we’ll see soon see a lot more interest in this area from both start-ups and larger companies. If one of the major fast food chains gains a competitive advantage with technology like this, the entire industry will have to follow suit — and it could happen quite rapidly.
Here’s another good article at Xconomy (thanks to commentor “wjtgpf”). Includes a great quote from a company co-founder:
“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” said co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
Alexandros might want to take some lessons in how to spin things from Jeff Burnstein of the Robotic Industries Association…