Wednesday, June 16, 2021
June 16, 2021

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Brunell: Jetsons’ robot now a reality in fast food

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The TV series “The Jetsons,” about a space-age family featuring “Rosey the Robot,” gave us a preview of life with robots, kiosks and interactive television. In 1962, it was a fictitious cartoon; however, in 2018, many of the Jetsons’ conveniences are a reality.

Take fast-food restaurants, for example.

Faced with a growing shortage of workers and increased costs, some are turning to robots to flip hamburgers and clean grills — mundane, unpleasant and hard-to-fill jobs. Wendy’s installed self-cleaning ovens to eliminate the mess of cleaning grease off ovens and has new automatic dishwashers which wash bowls, spatulas and other food-preparing utensils.

In April, the U.S. Labor Department reported a record high 844,000 unfilled positions in the hospitality industry — which is one out of eight jobs available today.

CaliBurger LLC, a Seattle-based company formed in 2011, owns and operates fast-food businesses in North and South America, Asia and the Middle East. It combines payment kiosks and robots to offer sandwiches, cheeseburgers, hamburgers, fries and shakes.

The company teamed with Miso Robotics, Pasadena, Calif., to develop “Flippy,” the burger-cooking and grill-cleaning robot. If you remember the Jetsons, you remember Jane Jetson ordering custom meals for her family by punching buttons at a kitchen kiosk. Rosey the Robot prepared and delivered them in a matter of minutes.

John Miller, CEO and founder of CaliBurger, told the Wall Street Journal, “Flippy will handle the grunt work, freeing employees to tidy the dining rooms and refill drinks, less arduous work that makes it easier to recruit and retain workers. We’re a long way from teaching a robot to walk the restaurant and do those things.”

Dunkin’ Donuts experimented with robot baristas. The robots did fine at making simple drinks, but couldn’t grasp custom orders, such as light sugar, WSJ reporters Julie Jargon and Eric Morath wrote. “The machines also required a lot of cleaning and maintenance, and at up to $100,000 per robot.” However, Dunkin’ uses new high-tech digital refractometers to ensure its coffee meets its specifications consistently.

Self-ordering, in-store kiosks are showing up at many other restaurants. For example, Panera Bread invested $100 million to overhaul its technology, which combines orders from kiosks, computers and mobile devices. Panera now derives nearly a third of its orders from those sources.

While many fear that robots will replace workers in restaurants, the WSJ reporters found: “Instead, a twist on that projection is unfolding. Amid the lowest unemployment in years, fast-food restaurants are turning to machines — not to get rid of workers, but because there are not enough.”

Hopefully, that trend continues as more robotics come online.

According to the Washington Hospitality Association, restaurants and food service account for 10 percent of our state’s jobs. WHA projects that number will grow to 363,700 by 2028, which is an 11.4 percent gain.

The National Restaurant Association predicts a gain of 1.6 million jobs during that same period. Interestingly, seven in 10 restaurants are single-unit operations.

The shift in restaurant work requires employees to have a commitment to quality customer service. Workers must have people skills and be reliable.

Walt Disney made those principles the hallmark of his theme parks starting with Disneyland.

“Whether that’s through incorporating new technologies or providing healthier dining options in our parks — we are constantly looking for new ways to break the mold and improve the customer experience for our guests,” the Disney Institute on leadership and business training advertises.

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