Will there soon be a fully digital canteen?

Instead of human cooks, robots will soon be taking over kitchen work in restaurants and commercial kitchens. What sounds like pure fiction is already celebrating its first successes in test kitchens. Whether the concept will soon revolutionize the market remains to be seen.

High-tech has already arrived on the food market, and robotics is no exception. In Japan, the first hotels are being run almost autonomously with robots as staff. Even if Germany has not yet gone that far. Nevertheless, the technical helpers are soon to take over the work of humans, or more precisely of cooks in restaurants and large kitchens. A pioneer here is the company Aitme. The startup is currently using the test kitchen of the Kitchentown business incubator to test which dishes its robot will later prepare. It’s not just about technical skills, but also about designing creative dishes that are manageable. After all, they should not only be prepared for one guest, but later be able to feed an entire team in canteens. A major task for the “Robotic Chef”. However, it looks different from the robots in the movies. The digital companion consists of little more than two arms, which can then handle pots and pans and perform preprogrammed tasks in a matter of minutes. All the ingredients are ready to hand and cut to size. The robotic arms then only have to mix everything together, swirl it around and finish the cooking process. This is said to be possible in just five minutes. Extrapolated, the robot chef can thus create around 100 dishes in just one hour.

A feat that would make humans stumble. At least, that’s what the major investors Aitme has already convinced of its idea. These include Atlantic Foods, Rocket Internet, Vorwerk Ventures (Thermomix producer) and La Famiglia. All of them well-known companies in the food market. Technical know-how is also needed for the project, of course. And that comes from Till Reuter, the former CEO of robot builder Kuka.

Will the robotic chef make human staff superfluous?

With all its supporters, the “Robotic Chef” naturally also has to put up with criticism. First and foremost, the criticism that its capabilities are taking jobs away from humans. The founders counter this criticism with a plausible argument. There has been a shortage of skilled workers in the food industry for years. The pandemic is unlikely to have made this problem any smaller. The robot takes over where real people are lacking. And in a business that is constantly expanding. In 2019 alone, catering companies that supplied large institutions such as homes, school kitchens, companies and clinics enjoyed sales of 3.55 billion euros. And the trend is upward. On the other hand, there is a lack of trainees who consciously choose the profession of chef. The reasons for this are the confusing working hours, overtime and poor pay. Even the efforts of many companies with attractive wage models, other benefits and fixed employment after training could do little to shake the shortage. This is a point where the robot boss should start. He can work 24/7, expects no break times, wages or surcharges for his work on weekends and holidays. In addition, the robot requires little space to cook efficiently. For those with small kitchens, this creates more seating for guests and can increase sales just by doing so.

It won’t work without monitoring

It is important, however, that the cook always finds his workplace well organized and tidy. This is an interface where people are important. He must ensure that supplies are always available and ready for preparation. Of course, the creative minds behind the project also have to come up with the dishes, plan them and store them accordingly. The complete monitoring of the robot workstation is done via a cloud. This allows the human employees to see where something is missing and where problems are brewing. If the robo-chef has technical difficulties, it also needs an emergency service in addition to regular maintenance. Because if it fails, in the worst case there will be no hot food for hundreds of people.

Incidentally, this should be relatively inexpensive with an average price of 6.50 euros. The large number of customers in large canteens makes this possible. Anyone who is hungry can order via smartphone or tablet. There is also the option of saving personal profiles in which intolerances, allergies and preferences for certain dishes can be stored. Initial tests with the robot chef are already underway. It remains to be seen when it will be ready for the market and actually go into production.

Image copyright: Tara Winstead


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