Kitchen Robotics: Is It Really An “Arms” Race?
12 October 2022
Almost every other day, I see another news story about how robotics and automation are poised to change the restaurant industry. Most of these show a robotic arm, fitted to a rail, manipulating kitchen utensils in a way that mimics human behavior. But is this use of robot “arms” really the most effective use of automation within the kitchen environment?

When we first started Karakuri, we focused on how we could deploy the growing competency of industrial robotics in commercial kitchens. The rapid increase in the range and dexterity of robot arms -- from multi-axis to delta to SCARA and beyond -- made us feel like these technologies would be the ideal solution to the growing labor and food quality/consistency challenges in restaurant kitchens.

However, after years of experimentation and several deployments, we found the realities of kitchen automation are very different from the industrial applications these robots, and their arms, were originally developed for.
Size and Cost
Most industrial robots have been developed for manufacturing, with automotive manufacturing being the classic example. Markets where industrial robotics have been successfully deployed typically have two factors in common:

• Out-of-Town Locations: Manufacturing plants that are typically located in large out-of-town facilities where the rental cost for physical space is lower.
• High-Value Products: Products that are often high-value items, such as cars and electronics.

Both of these factors are directly opposed to the needs of professional kitchens. Restaurant kitchens, particularly Quick Service or Fast Casual restaurant kitchens, are typically located in areas of large population density and consequently high rents. In addition, they focus on producing low-value items -- the best example being a $0.99 burger.

The combination of high rental costs and low unit values drives space efficiency in QSR and Fast Casual kitchens to an absolute premium. Every inch of space needs to be utilized, and employees often work in very close proximity to each other.
This is the exact opposite of industrial manufacturing where incremental costs of real estate are often minor compared to the value of the units being produced. This has allowed industrial automation to expand, providing a large working envelope around the robots and human workers to ensure a safe co-working environment.

The unit cost of items typically produced in robotic assembly is also very high: one line can produce tens of millions of dollars of production per year. This level of revenue can be 100-1000x higher than even the most successful QSR or Fast Casual restaurant.

Put simply: industrial robotics is too expensive and too large for most restaurant kitchens.
Speed and Safety
Many industrial robots can work at speeds that are faster than humans. However, to achieve these speeds, the robots need powerful motors to overcome the torque and inertia required for rapid motion. If these robots come into contact with humans while moving at speed, they can inflict serious injuries or even fatalities.

This is why large industrial robots are either situated in human-free zones or operate within protective cages – i.e., barriers that prevent humans from entering the working envelope of the robot. If a human enters this envelope, the robotic control system shuts down or operates at reduced output to limit the ability to inflict injury. However, the spaces required to cage a robot are large and incompatible with the compact nature of restaurant kitchens.

To overcome this problem, some companies (including Karakuri) have experimented with collaborative robotics. Collaborative robots contain sensors to detect when they collide with an object or person and automatically stop to reduce the impact force. While these work well for certain applications, the speed and torque of the motors have to be limited which makes collaborative robots entirely unsuitable for the rapid production throughput of a typical fast casual or QSR kitchen.

Put simply: industrial robots need a huge amount of space to operate safely, and collaborative robots are too slow to meet restaurant output requirements.
Control and Interoperability
As industrial robotics has developed primarily for major manufacturing industries, so have the systems used to control them. Most industrial robots are supplied with an industrial PC. The ancillary motors, conveyors, and sensing systems within factories are usually controlled by large industrial Programmable Logic Control (PLC) systems, typically based on a PC architecture.

These PLCs have evolved over many years to offer a well-structured control and monitoring framework for production lines. PLCs typically communicate with other similar systems within the same factories and haven’t needed to support a large number of “mini-factories” operating in parallel across hundreds or thousands of locations – which is the exact model used by large franchise QSR or Fast Casual restaurants.

These control systems have also evolved with the same cost and space requirements of industrial robotics.

Put simply: industrial PLC systems are too expensive and inflexible to operate effectively at scale in QSR or fast-casual restaurants.
Intelligent Motion without Arms & PLCs
Karakuri is pioneering a new approach to kitchen automation solutions. We experimented with industrial robotics and control systems in our first generation /SEMBLR product and quickly learned the issues related to the cost, size, performance, and inflexibility of these systems.

Fortunately, we had parallel product activity underway, that included the development of our Automated Portioning Control (aka /APC) technology, a deeply embedded control system that can sense and accurately portion food types, from liquids through to solids. This gave us a springboard for a new type of control methodology.

We worked extensively with major QSR partners, and through digital simulations of their existing operations, were able to accurately understand the economics of their business and what they needed in terms of unit costs, floor space, and interoperability with existing kitchen systems to make robotics a viable proposition for them at scale.
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We quickly realized that industrial robots -- with arms -- would never make a compelling business case in major restaurants.
The result is our new family of /FRYR automated fry lines. /FRYR moves away from industrial robotics and PLCs completely. In /FRYR, we have developed motion control and sensing systems that are specific to the requirements of high-volume kitchens.

The /FRYR control architecture is 100% proprietary and leverages the latest version of our patented /APC technology as the foundation of its kitchen automation. By combining our hardware and software innovations within this single, ‘armless’ fry line solution, we’ve created a smaller, faster, safer, and more reliable kitchen robotics system that costs a fraction of other solutions and can interoperate with any EPOS, KDS, KMS, or other types of kitchen hardware or software.

We think /FRYR is a game changer for QSRs and Fast Casual restaurants. Sign-up for a Free Trial and see for yourself!
Karakuri Fryr Press Photos 8