PHOTO: Flippy the robot demonstrates its ability to man a fry station at Miso Robotics on Jan. 28 in Pasadena, California. Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times / TNS

In a test kitchen in a corner building in downtown Pasadena, California, Flippy the robot grabbed a fryer basket full of chicken fingers, plunged it into hot oil — its sensors told it exactly how hot — then lifted, drained and dumped maximally tender tenders into a waiting hopper.

A few feet away, another Flippy eyed a beef patty sizzling on a griddle. With its camera eyes feeding pixels to a machine vision brain, it waited until the beef hit the right shade of brown, then smoothly slipped its spatula hand under the burger and plopped it on a tray.

The product of decades of research in robotics and machine learning, Flippy represents a synthesis of motors, sensors, chips and processing power that wasn’t possible until recently.

Now, Flippy’s success — and the success of the company that built it, Miso Robotics — depends on simple math and a controversial hypothesis of how robots can transform the service economy. Costing less to employ than a minimum-wage worker, Flippy is built to slip in right alongside humans on the fast food line.

Off-the-shelf robot arms have plunged in price in recent years, from more than $100,000 in 2016, when Miso Robotics first launched, to under $10,000 today, with cheaper models coming in the near future.

As a result, Miso can offer Flippys to fast food restaurant owners for an estimated $2,000 per month on a subscription basis, breaking down to about $3 per hour. (The actual cost will depend on customers’ specific needs). A human doing the same job costs $4,000 to $10,000 and up per month, depending on a restaurant’s hours and the local minimum wage. And robots never call in sick.

If the cost of hardware hadn’t gone down so quickly, Miso’s business model would never have worked, said Buck Jordan, the company’s chief executive. “We took a bet,” he said. “A risky bet. But it’s paying off.”

The next version of the robot will use the new, cheaper arms and be mounted on an overhead rail to conserve floor space in tight kitchens.

Jordan believes Flippy is poised to become a regular part of fast food kitchens across the country in the next year, especially in markets with higher labor costs — and real estate costs — like California. Miso has raised more than $13 million in investment, and is currently trying to raise an additional $30 million to fund its push into fast food kitchens from small investors on the equity crowdfunding platform SeedInvest.

The restaurant industry as a whole has been facing a labor crisis for years, fueled by record-low unemployment across the economy and ever-rising consumer demand for prepared food.

Miso Robotics is hardly the first company to try to find profits in automating kitchen drudgery. Food has long been on the forefront when it comes to replacing human effort with machine labor. In the 1920s, it was a new device called the dishwasher that was raising alarms, threatening to wipe out an entire category of back-of-house jobs.

Despite the intersecting trend lines of cheaper technology and tighter labor markets, however, restaurant robot companies have been struggling.

Zume, a Mountain View, California,-based company that tried to build a fleet of pizza delivery trucks that used robot arms to cook the pizza en route, received $375 million from Softbank’s $100-billion Vision Fund in late 2018. In January, the company laid off more than half of its employees, and announced that it would no longer make or deliver pizza.

Zume’s pizza, according to reviews by customers, was never that good.

Creator, a restaurant built around a mainframe-sized robot that builds burgers from scratch, from grinding the beef and slicing the tomatoes to assembling the final product, has built a more loyal following at its one location in San Francisco. But the company has yet to expand beyond its single location, and a deal with the same Softbank Vision Fund reportedly hit the rocks in January.

For most of the time robots have been around, the notion of building them to operate in human workplaces was a far-off fantasy. Until recently, most required fully robot-centric environments. Similar to early computer mainframes, which were scheduled for computational activity around the clock, industrial robots have been too expensive to run at anything below maximum capacity for most of their history. Unlike early computers, high-output robots are also too strong and dumb to safely work alongside humans.

But now robots are safe and cheap enough to use in occasional spurts in a normal work environment. That has given rise to panic about a “job apocalypse.” But many experts predict the real effects will be subtler and more mixed.

Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, likens the effect on the workforce to the advent of personal computers and software. “When spreadsheet software first came out everyone was predicting the end of all bookkeeping and accounting jobs,” Goldberg said. “What actually happened was it changed the job, so accountants didn’t spend their time punching numbers into the adding machine all day, but instead started doing all these visualizations and scenario planning.”

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(2) comments


Somehow I doubt that "A human doing the same job costs $4,000 to $10,000 and up per month" working for $10.25/hr part time (so there are no benefits).


Somehow I doubt that the average burger flipper costs $4,000 to $10,000 and up per month working for $10.25/hr, part time (so there are no benefits).

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