Automation Targets Entry Level Workers

A new article on automation appeared on CNBC titled Robots are coming to a burger joint near you. I’m going to comment on it  and on automation in the restaurant industry in general.

Miflippyso Robotics, a southern California start-up, has built a robot called Flippy to do the hot, greasy and repetitive work of a fry cook. Flippy employs machine learning and computer vision to identify patties on a grill, track them as they cook, flip and then place them on a bun when they’re done.

This is interesting, but I don’t see how it would compete with a human operating a commercial two-sided platen grill like the ones used by MacDonald’s for efficiency. Some  thing more like a conveyor belt system would be needed, I’d think. I’d be willing to bet MacDonald’s and others are working on such a system.

In a recent CNBC interview, Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed predicted robots would replace fast food workers by the mid-2020s.

Yum owns Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell. If you read the linked article, Creed doesn’t say much to back up the statement, and even seems to waffle on it.

It’s not as if workers love those jobs. Employee turnover in the restaurants and accommodations sector was 73 percent in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Fry cooks, the people who flip burgers (or fillets) all day at a hot grill, move on from the job faster than others in the field.

This is because these jobs are entry level jobs that allow young, inexperienced people to enter the job market. Of course they want to move on to bigger things. But if these jobs are eliminated, what will unskilled workers do to get that first job on the resume? If you don’t plan on college, you should definitely consider trade school.

Flippy uses sensors and cameras to see the food it is cooking and monitor temperature. Miso Robotics … expects to roll Flippy out, starting at the Los Angeles CaliBurger, in the first quarter of 2018, [CEO David] Zito said.

While this is interesting, I’d like to know how expensive Flippy is, how much cost it can cut, and how easy it is to program for different tasks. If it isn’t simple enough to set up, I don’t see why you would need something this flexible, especially in a fast food restaurant, where there tend to be large numbers of similar orders.

“Like the electronic spreadsheet did for accountants, this will cause the jobs to go elsewhere,” [Rob] Stewart [of Acacia Research, who helped fund Miso] said. “But there will be new hospitality and culinary jobs we have yet to imagine. And those will be jobs where people will get paid a higher wage, and where they’ll want to stay long-term.

That’s all very well, but those new jobs likely won’t be available to entry level employees with no special skills and training. Given that Stewart is promoting the technology, he’s biased towards its success, but I wouldn’t say he’s wrong about jobs being lost to robotics in the restaurant industry.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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