Fast Food Robotics – An Update

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.

(The full post is here)

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


25 thoughts on “Fast Food Robotics – An Update

    This whole post from xconomy about Lemnos Labs is worth a read. Here is an excerpt…
    “At Lemnos Labs, the rapid-iteration, rapid-growth, conquer-the-world mindset typical of Silicon Valley software startups is meeting the world of hardware. You might not think that the startup accelerator model that’s been so successful for Web and mobile startups like Airbnb, Dropbox, or Heroku is applicable to the world of actual machines, which are, after all, a little harder to revise than products made from pure code. But you’d be wrong. After a 14-week course of business training and product development, the four inaugural Lemnos Labs startups shared pitches worthy of any startup at Y Combinator, TechStars, or 500 Startups.”

  2. Here’s one of the McDonald’s touch-screens in action:

    Not only is the order speed on par with ordering from a human cashier, it’s immensely cheaper.

    An American minimum wage worker costs McDonald’s $15 dollars an hour, $30K a year, or $120 a day.

    Whereas a kiosk like this costs less than $2 a day in electrical costs.

    After a machine like this pays for itself its annual operational cost is then about 2% to 3% of what a human worker costs, ie, an accounting rounding error.

    Multiply $29.5K dollars by 100,000 cashiers and that is just under $3 billion dollars a year in annual labor cost savings.

    Labor cost savings which get read on the McDonald’s bottom line as profit.

    It is the economics that is going to be the driving force of this transition away from costly human labor, and as this process begins to accelerate from this point on, which it most certainly will, it will also lead to the greatest single concentration of wealth in modern human history.

    Were Walmart to switch-over its warehouse system, (which they can do **today** by licensing Amazon’s Kiva System bots), they could easily replace 500K of their American warehouse workers, which will lead to labor cost savings in the $15 billion dollar a year range.

    With that kind of money on the table we can expect Walmart to make this transition within the next 3 to 5 years.

  3. The thing that gets me about this clip is that dude just *knows* that he’s lying through his teeth about workers advancing up the pay/skill scale:

    Those human line-workers we see at the start of the clip have gone about as far as they’re going to go in life, that job is their peak, it is highly improbable and unlikely that they will be able to train up from their current position.

    But that’s not the robot manufacturers problem, now is it?

    1. Increasing unemployment isn’t specifically the robot manufacturer’s problem. It is everyone’s problem, especially those of our elected officials. As I see it, there are four main types of healthy economic transactions including gift, exchange, subsistence, and planned. We can improve in all those sectors of the economy, like with more free software and free content, a “basic income” (search on it), home 3D printing & cheap solar panels & gardening robots, and better internet-mediated participatory planning. Each country will have to find a culturally appropriate mix as automation increases. Now if we could just get most economists to get their heads out of the sand and to read Martin’s book and other works in the area by Marshall Brain, Ray Kurzweil, and others.

    2. I just have to say, I find Alexandros Vardakostas’s honesty about the intent of his robot extremely refreshing. I get so tired of the clap trap about moving workers to “value added tasks”, like Rodney Brooks says about his new humanoid bot and others like the guy in Nyc Labrets post.

      Governments, economists and regular people need to start having serious conversations on what should happen when the majority of people have nowhere to sell their labor to earn an income without the kneejerk reaction of calling anyone who brings up this reality a NeoLuddite who wants to bust up the robots.

      We can have a world of leisure and a minimum amount of drudgery, but it isn’t going to just happen, it needs people paying attention and making plans.

  4. Now we need robots that buy and eat hambergers.

    With productivity on the attack, we will have to substitute a guaranteed annual wage for wage labor, as the way we live. In the meantime, we need the government to be the employer of last resort. During the Great Depression, FDR passed jobs programs that created 11 million jobs. Adjusting for population growth, that 11 million jobs would put the 20 million, who are unemployed now (U6 definition of UE) back to work.

  5. Welcome to the new era a world of technology 🙂

    Yet, a robot cant prepare foods that would satisfy peoples taste. I mean its impossible for now. Still I salute to humans power preparing delicious foods.

    Human is Still Human 🙂

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  7. I spent several years working in fast food kitchens. The average worker makes slightly above minimum wage of 7.25/hour. If this machine replaces 2-3 workers, assuming the restaurant is open 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, that is $127K per year in saved wages.

    Also, you are still going to need a human worker (for now at least) to refil the robot assembler with ingredients. And what happens when the machine malfunctions, breaks down, or jams in the middle of a busy lunch rush? You will still need a human worker as a backup.

    Also, most fast food restaurants are franchines, so each owner of each store will have to pay for the robots up front. The corporate parent isn’t going to says billions of dollars, each owner will save a few thousand, making adoption much slower.

  8. Thanks for the article, I love robots. That’s why I like krispy kreme donuts. If there’s anything I love more than robots, it’s robots making food. And robots having sex. But that’s sad that all the jobs will disappear. Where are high school kids gonna work? Disneyland? I don’t think so.

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