From factory production lines to self-driving cars, automation is an omnipresent fact of life. As more and more business owners replace unreliable and costly human labour with fast, efficient machinery, it would appear we’re hurtling toward a future only Isaac Asimov could have dreamt up. But will the culinary industry, surely dependent on the human touch, be next to succumb to this trend?
Debate has been ignited by news that a French start-up company plans to open a fully ‘autonomous restaurant’ staffed by a three-armed ‘pizzaiolo robot’, supposedly capable of making up to 120 restaurant-quality pizzas per hour (for comparison, this is three times more than a professional human pizzaiolo can produce in the same time). The benefits of this kind of technology aren’t difficult to imagine: maintenance of the robot will be a cost factor but will fall far short of paying the wages of three trained pizza chefs, and the uniformity resulting from the lack of potential for human error means far fewer pizzas being sent back to the kitchen.
In fact, robots are slowly creeping their way into the fast food industry all over the world; American company Chowbotics produces a robot called Sally who prepares fresh salads in front of customers, fast-casual chain Caliburger plans to introduce a burger-flipping robot in 50 of its restaurants, while in Japan one can visit eateries staffed entirely by a production line of automatons. To what extent can this automation continue? Michael Chui of consultancy group McKinsey Global Institute claims that 54% of the tasks performed by humans in the catering and hospitality industries could be performed by a machine.
Reasons for the widespread growth of automation are numerous, but most centre around one factor: cost efficiency. New minimum wage laws and extensions of employee rights across the world are making human labour more expensive than ever, while at the same time the cost of these complex machines is lowering, with the average sophisticated automaton costing 40% less than in 2005.
The initial costs involved in automation may still be high, but compared with those involved in employing humans, who require a regular wage, take sick days and holidays, and can only work up to the maximum government-imposed weekly limit, the long-term benefits of machine labour mean that this trend shows no sign of stopping.