In keeping with the trend of humanizing robots, here’s another one you should meet — Alfred.
Alfred is a collaborative robot or ‘cobot’ trained as a sous-chef to assist in restaurant kitchens. And he can make salads, guac, bowls and serve ice cream.
Created by Greentown Labs member Dexai Robotics, Alfred is intended to increase assembly line productivity at quick-service restaurants (QSR). Dexai founders David Johnson and Anthony Tayoun want you to think of Alfred as another kitchen appliance rather than factory automation.
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“Think of it as the next microwave,” said Anthony Tayoun, co-founder and CFO at Dexai. “There is no reason for humans to do mechanical tasks anymore, we are better off having them do more productive things.”
Alfred’s specialty is working with deformable materials, the ones that change form as you interact with them (Think ice cream, guacamole). This is is because the robot is trained to assemble food using utensils like ladles, tongs, spoons and dishes.
If you think this is easy for a robot to do, Tayoun begs to differ. “[Deformable materials] are notoriously hard to work with,” he said. “Every carrot is different, for example. Humans intuitively know how to handle it, but robots don’t.” Dexai Robotics builds the software that trains Alfred to be an efficient employee working under a human chef at a kitchen.
The company is in conversations with QSRs like salad bars and those serving bowls — basically any restaurant with a service line. If you are reading this and thinking about Spyce Kitchen, the only similarity is that they both have robots making your food. Spyce is a fully functional robotic kitchen with original recipes. Think of Alfred like a friendly robot working under the guidance of a chef.
“Think of it as providing robots as a service,” said David Johnson, CEO of Dexai Robotics. Johnson started Dexai after working at Draper Labs for seven years. Johnson estimates that four Alfreds can assemble about 200 bowls in an hour.
The company is still toying with different business models but one that’s on the table is an output-based payment where Alfred will get paid for the number of bowls he makes. “It’s a competitive way to encourage restaurants to adopt automation – they pay for what they use,” Johnson said. “The model turns assembly cost into a variable cost.”
Tayoun, the company’s CFO argued that even with robotic precision and speed, under this business model, using Alfred would be about three times cheaper for 30-40 percent increased productivity since the restaurant can save on labor costs like hiring and training.
Would Alfred be displacing humans jobs? The Dexai team disagrees because most restaurants face a labor shortage. In an industry survey taken in August this year, 67 percent of restaurant owners cited labor shortage and worker competition as the biggest reason for rising costs. A typical fast-food employee used to be a teenager working a part-time or summer job, but that’s changing. A New York Times article explaining labor shortage at QSRs points to data suggesting that in 2000, about 45 percent of teenagers between 16 and 19 had a job, compared to 30 percent today.
John Piermarini, chef and owner of Fare Well, agrees. “In the fast-food business, there isn’t a lot of potential to move up,” Piermarini said. “This definitely results in a high attrition and turnover rate.” Fare Well is based in the Innovation and Design Center at the Seaport District and serves salad and grain bowls. Piermarini welcomes robotic automation in the kitchen.
“There are a lot of advantages to having a robot – it will show up on time, will be hygienic and can handle portioning with precision,” he said. But he also has some pertinent questions for robot makers like Dexai. “What happens when a human messes up? Will the robot mess up too? Will Alfred be able to move around in a tightly constricted space like humans do?”
Piermarini noted that the biggest challenge he foresees in adopting such technologies is that kitchens today may not be ready for them. “This might involve redesigning the whole kitchen space.”
Even with its challenges, industries like the food and beverages with have low levels of automation, are opening up to the idea of a robot making your food. Case in point: MIT-born Spyce that runs a robotic kitchen in downtown Boston raised $21 million in September to open new locations on the East coast and develop a culinary platform.
As for Dexai Robotics, the company received seed funding from Draper Labs and will fundraise more aggressively early next year. For now, here’s Alfred serving M&Ms.