After debuting to much fanfare, Flippy the burger-flipping robot, who started a new gig at CaliBurger, has been sidelined — at least temporarily. It turns out the automated fast-food worker created by Miso Robotics was a victim of his own success.
When USA Today visited the Pasadena location on Thursday, the robotic arm was still on display but someone had pulled the plug. Anthony Lomelino, the chief technology officer for Cali Group, explained that they needed more time to train the human workers to keep pace.
“Mostly it’s the timing,” he said. “When you’re in the back, working with people, you talk to each other. With Flippy, you kind of need to work around his schedule. Choreographing the movements of what you do, when and how you do it.”
That means preparing the burgers before and after Flippy does his thing — seasoning the patties, adding condiments, and serving them to customers.
The six-axis robot arm is bolted to the kitchen floor and receives orders via digital tickets. Flippy is equipped with thermal and regular vision to monitor each patty as it cooks. Cooking times displayed on a screen tell the human employees when to add cheese or prepare the buns. Flippy also rotates spatulas, using different ones for raw and cooked burgers.
The robots, which run about $60,000, were designed for the CaliBurger chain and are exclusive for the next six months. Once Flippy gets back to work, the company hopes to have 50 locations operating by the end of the year, including restaurants in Seattle and Annapolis.
Robots have been popping up in more and more food and beverage industry positions. Sally the robot can make you a salad, and the Café X robot barista will whip up a killer latte. The robot revolution is already here.
There’s no doubt that automation is taking jobs away from humans, but it’s difficult to keep trained employees at fast-food restaurants like CaliBurger, which pays $13 or more per hour. “We train them, they work on the grill, they realize it’s not fun … and so they leave and drive Ubers,” said CEO John Miller.
According to the Washington Post, up to 50 percent of fast-food restaurant staff leave within a year. The prevailing cause is low wages, but the industry spends about $3.4 billion annually in recruiting and training. Employment in the fast-food industry is climbing faster than health care, construction, or manufacturing, with a 40 percent increase in the last decade.
“The kitchen of the future will always have people in it, but we see that kitchen as having people and robots,” David Zito of Miso Robotics said in an interview. “This technology is not about replacing jobs. We see Flippy as that third hand.”
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