When you hear the words ‘food’ and ‘robot’ in the same sentence, chances are something like Softbank’s Pepper pops to mind, a modern Rosie-the-robot like humanoid with the hands and feet required to move around a kitchen and flip a pancake or two.
But when it comes to the kitchen, reality hasn’t quite caught up with the world envisioned by Hanna-Barbera, at least not yet. While there are companies who seem pretty serious about creating human-like creatures to take over our kitchen, the kitchen robot invasion, at least for the foreseeable future, will most likely consist of many more single-function machines that can automate tasks like drink mixing or stirring food in a pot rather than machines that act as a humanoid master chef (with one or two exceptions).
There’s also a big difference between what’s happening in the consumer kitchen compared to the pro kitchen. While consumers will witness a slow and subtle invasion of single-purpose devices into our homes, in the pro kitchen we’re likely to see a variety of robotic systems put into use in restaurant environments over the next few years.
Below we take a look at what happened in food robots in 2016 and what to expect in 2017:
Consumer Cooking Robots in 2016: Failure To Boot
When it comes to consumer multifunction cooking robots, 2016 was mostly a non-starter. Despite showing at this year’s CES, Sereneti never shipped their product. OneCook, coming off a high-profile Kickstarter campaign in 2015 in which they raised over $100 thousand, missed its August ship date and has paused production without an update in months.
If you really want the closest thing to an all-in-one cooking robot today, your best bet is something like the Thermomix, a multi-cooker that I’ve been trying out and have discovered it does a whole lot of things and does them well. Sure, it may not have robotic arms to peel garlic or slice potatoes, but did you think you could automate everything in the kitchen?
If after a crazy year you feel you could use a drink, here’s some good news: the bartenderbots are coming.
Two startups, Bartesian and Somabar, are both in the process of bringing drink mixers to market that automate the process of making a cocktail. Both use chambers to hold spirits, while the Bartesian uses a pod-based system to add flavors a la Keurig, while the Somabar has an infuser chamber to hold flavors that are added to the drink in the mixing process.
Both have told The Spoon they are planning to ship in first half of 2017.
If drinking isn’t your thing, perhaps you’d like a breadbot.
The Rotimatic, a robot that makes roti (Indian flatbread) and wraps began shipping in August. The wrap-robot is made by Zimplistic, a Singapore based startup that first showed off the product in January 2015 at CES. The company is working towards shipping the product to the US in 2017.
Another automated breadmaker, the Flatev, launched their Kickstarter campaign for a pod-based tortilla maker in May and indicated this month they are on track for an August 2017 ship date.
Ok, So Maybe We Do Have A Chefbot: Moley
If you’ve seen a story about a full kitchen robot in 2016, chances are it was about Moley. The startup, which touts itself as makers of the first robotic kitchen, has created a prototype of robotic chef that uses two fully robotic arms to mimic the movements of BBC master chef Tim Anderson. While Moley appears to be the kind of robot that would work well in a pro kitchen, particularly if it was surrounded by a supporting cast of sous chefs to prepare ingredients (the Moley robot only prepares the final meal, but doesn’t do prep work or cleanup), the company envisions a consumer version of the Moley robot complete with two robotic arms, a built-in oven, a cooktop and a touchscreen to control the system.
While the idea of a fully robotic cooking robot is intriguing, I have my doubts about the readiness of the concept for consumer kitchens in 2017. Partly for practical considerations, as the Moley robot will require a large footprint, will require professional installation and, at this point, only performs part of the cooking process. My biggest concern, however, is cost: while the company has yet to release pricing, I suspect it will cost somewhere north of five thousand (maybe much more) given it has a built in cooktop, stove and, oh yeah, robotic arms. All of this built-in tech means only those willing to spends lots of money on a futuristic concept will buy a Moley, provided it works well (and that’s a big if).
Despite these concerns, I am excited for the work Moley is doing, even though I’m not convinced the consumer market is ready for the product just yet.
You can see the Moley prototype at work below:
Here Come The Probots
While the consumer cooking robotics market has surprisingly bare shelves in late 2016, the pro kitchen saw significant progress in 2016. There are a number of different ‘probots’ being developed for the restaurant and professional kitchen. Below are a few of the food (p)robot innovators we watched closely in 2016:
Casabots is a salad assembly robot company that began in 2014 after founder and CEO Deepak Sekar had experimented with creating a food robot for his home. He soon realized that a more practical application of robotics was in professional environments and, before long, Sally was born. Sally, the company’s salad-assembly robot, looks a little (or a lot) like a refrigerator and allows the user to pick their ingredients using a touchscreen. Sekar told me that they are working with corporations like Aramark that run cafeterias to have Sally installed in high-volume work environments and expects to have Sally ready for market in early 2017.
Back in 2012, a new company emerged from food tech startup incubator Lemnos Labs with the goal of not helping humans in the world of fast food, but replacing them all together.
A couple of years later, the company unveiled a prototype of a machine that could make up to 400 hamburgers per hour. The device, the tech details of which the company has kept largely under wraps, is described in the diagram below:
What’s fascinating about Momentum Machines technology is that while it works at industrial speed, it’s not mass producing the same burger over and over. It’s creating up to 400 custom burgers per hour. That’s right: up to 400 uniquely crafted, cooked, assembled and bagged hamburgers per hour.
And now, after going silent since 2014, the company created a buzz in June when it was discovered they’d applied for a building permit to create its first restaurant in San Francisco. While the roboburger joint has yet to open, we’re excited to head there in 2017 to try out a fully robot-produced hamburger.
The craziest -- and perhaps most brilliant -- of all the pro food robots is from Zume Pizza. Founded by former Zynga President Alex Garden, Zume utilizes robotics in two points in the process (production and distribution) to get fresh machine-assisted artisan-style pizzas to consumers.
The pizza production process utilizes three robots and a conveyor belt system to produce pizzas at a fast rate for consumption in-restaurant or delivered to the home. The process includes three robots for production (Pepe for sauce dispensing, Marta for sauce spreading, and Bruno for loading and unloading pizza into the oven). Humans work side-by-side in the Zume pizza kitchen, adding ingredients to the pizza, correcting any errors by the robots.
If you think the robot’s job done at Zume once it comes out of the kitchen, you’d be wrong. The company is working on creating large pizza trucks that utilize what it calls “Baking on the way” technology, a patented system that employs 56 individual ovens that are wired to initiate a cook just minutes before the arrival at the consumer’s door to give them an “out of the oven” experience.
The company, which opened its first restaurant this year, has applied for permits to operate its mobile pizza ovens on wheels and just this month raised close to $23 million in equity financing, so there’s a good chance we’ll see more restaurants -- and possibly some pizza ovens on wheels -- from Zume in 2017.
While Starship isn’t really a food robot, there’s a good chance it’s robots -- or ones like it -- will help bring food to us in the future. That’s because Starship, a company cofounded by Skype cofounder Ahti Heinla, makes sidewalk delivery robots that are already being put into trials by large grocery stores to deliver food to consumers.
When I spoke to Heinla earlier this year, he made it clear he thought robotic delivery had huge advantages over the traditional method of humans and cars.
“With robots,” he said, ”the cost is in technology, manufacturing, and maintenance. The safest bet you can do is that technology is getting cheaper all the time. It’s just a question of time before this (delivery) will be one dollar, fifty cents.”
What’s interesting is Starship robots still require humans to control them -- much like today’s drones -- in the process of a delivery. Heinla envisions a human remotely controlling up to 10 or so Starship sidewalk delivery robots at some point, but unlike cars or even drones, what makes these robots ready for delivery deployment today is how slow they move.
“With a sidewalk robot, when a robot encounters a situation that is too complicated for the automatic system to handle, the robot can simply stop on the sidewalk and call up the (human) operator to help. This is the beauty of using a robot moving at pedestrian speeds on a sidewalk.”
2016 saw significant advancement in food and cooking robotics. While the professional kitchen is further along in the food robot revolution in part because efforts to add robotics to centralized and professional food production facilities have excited for decades, we think 2017 could be an exciting year for the consumer market too as Moley, bartenderbots and even cooking robots like Sereneti finally make their debut. Investor interest in both sectors seems to be rising, so we also expect some new companies to debut in 2017 and beyond that bring robotics to the kitchen.
Lastly, there is a whole bunch of innovation going on in cooking automation and food 3D printing, areas which often overlap with kitchen robotics (take the pancakebot, for example). We expect those areas to be equally exciting in 2017.
Stay tuned and check back here at The Spoon as we cover the food robot revolution -- and more -- in 2017.