We may complain about cooking over a hot stove all day, but for fast-food workers, it's not hyperbole. Standing at a hot grill is part of the daily routine. That can mean burns, smelling like food for most of the day and other ills associated with the food-prep world.
There's a solution — but it comes with a catch.
Enter Micro Robotic's Flippy, a collaborative robot, or "co-bot," that can handle the routine of cooking on the grill without some of those pesky downsides.
Basically a small cart on wheels with circular patty-shaped hands (sorry, Wendy's!) and various cameras and sensors, Flippy can pick up raw burgers, cook them perfectly and then place them on a waiting bun. The video above gives you a sense of how Flippy sees its work area, complete with the ability to identify types of meat, their temperatures and if a human hand gets in the way. Flippy is connected to the restaurant point-of-sale system, so it knows how many raw burgers it needs on the grill at any one time.
As the video depicts, Flippy can't do everything, hence the "co-bot" designation. It can't place cheese on the burgers, for example, but it can alert a human when it's time for cheese. Flippy also can't add the finishing touches like toppings and sauces or place the burger in a wrapper or container. Yet.
"We have built Flippy to work with kitchen staff, not displace them," David Zito, CEO of Miso Robotics, explained to TechRepublic back in April. "Restaurant managers and chefs often discuss key pain points in the kitchen, including a consistently high turnover rate and tough environment of working in the kitchen. These are just some of the problem areas that Flippy is designed to fix."
Of course, what Zito means by "fix" is ambiguous. While Flippy ostensibly frees up an employee from working the grill to do other tasks, i.e., finish preparing the food or interacting with customers, the robot's presence may also simply reduce the number of people needed to work a shift, thus depriving an employee of a day's wages.
There are almost 2.3 million cooks employed in the U.S., and those who work in fast food are often underpaid. As the World Economic Forum pointed out in its 2016 Future of Jobs report, robotics and other automated technologies are poised to eliminate around 7 million jobs over the next five years. While these technologies are expected to add 2 million, that's still 5 million jobs that may not be replaced. So, where do those other jobs go?
"Humans will always play a very critical role in the hospitality side of the business given the social aspects of food," Zito told TechCrunch. "We just don't know what the new roles will be yet in the industry."
Perhaps it'll simply be on the other side of the counter, ordering the food that a robot now prepares.