Automation: How Far Should We Go?
While I watched Baxter the Robot operating equipment at The Middleby Corp. booth during the National Restaurant Association Show last month, I heard a man behind me sigh, “Looks like I’m out of a job.” Middleby, Pitco and automation engineering firm Gibson Engineering out of Norwood, Mass., joined forces to create a demonstration featuring a collaborative—i.e., safe to work around humans—robot designed by Rethink Robotics, Boston. Baxter was lifting and emptying a fryer basket with one arm and loading trays into a conveyor oven with the other. (To see Baxter in action, check out bit.ly/1GkQQEF.) Although Baxter originally was developed for manufacturing applications and currently isn’t food-grade ready, the technology exists for a robot to work in your operation. He was a great draw for the Middleby booth.
But Baxter, as well as the anonymous man’s comment, got me thinking about automation. There’s no question that the more manufacturers can automate select functions, especially those associated with maintenance and safety, the more useful the equipment becomes and, frankly, the longer it will last. Fryers that automatically filter oil with the push of a button, combi ovens that learn and implement your cooking habits and warewashers that clean themselves in four minutes help you maximize labor and extend equipment life.
But are we ready for Baxter? At Equip’Hotel in Paris last November, Publisher Robin Ashton described seeing PizzAdoor, a fully automated pizza kiosk. At Hotelex 2014 in Shanghai, Editor-in-Chief Beth Lorenzini reported on a robotic kiosk that stir-fries, fries, braises or boils ingredients then dispenses the dishes to customers.
We all know more automation is coming, but a robot can’t create an original, delectable meal from scratch. A robot distills your dishes into set times and temperatures and preprogrammed motions and functions. It can’t greet you warmly to take your order or hear your particular preferences. It certainly can’t taste if there’s too much salt in your risotto or too little on your fries. And, as that nameless man pointed out, if robots replace the human element in your operation, what effect will that have on the job market? A robot will do only what you program it to do nothing less, but perhaps more importantly, nothing more.