Can robots help the food service industry become more efficient? One company believes so

The restaurant industry has done little to modernize. What robotics it has adopted were made for other industries, expert says.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Haitham Al-Beik, founder and CEO of Wings, about automation in the food industry. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Karen Roby: A lot of focus has been on the food services industry through this past year. Can we be inside for dining? All of that kind of thing. We’re seeing a rapid change as it is with the food service industry. Let’s start with the big picture first: Automation, how’s this being worked in, robots all that kind of stuff?

Haitham Al-Beik: This year and the year before, obviously, has been quite tough for the services industry to try to go back to what it was normal. We started even before all of that, and we really looked into the service industry saying, “OK, this is an industry that really hasn’t leaped forward in innovation for quite some time.” You look at different industries, like Silicon Valley or the manufacturing industry, and they’re way ahead. I think that the service industry is just like the middle child. It’s essentially borrowing tech from big sister, big brother, but it doesn’t quite work really well most of the time. What we really needed is essentially a reinvention, a rethinking in the service industry where we are today to wonder: OK, if we start from the beginning, what do we, as people… Service industry is about people, first and foremost. What is it that we want at the end of the day?

Essentially, services is right there, in the middle of life. It is literally in our daily lives, whether it’s for food, whether it’s for massage, whether it’s for fixing your car. It is there to enhance our lives, but now it seems to be more of a bottleneck in our lives. So we started looking at this very early on, and we wanted to understand it from the people’s perspective. And what we have realized from the beginning is that technology was always considered first and then seen how it needs to be applied to people. We are taking this to a whole different perspective. We start with the people first, and then we look at technology, if it even matters or we have to reinvent something from scratch. Automation and robotics seem to be a knee-jerk reaction sometimes, where we can see now a lot of restaurants today considering replacing people directly with one robot for every single person. That is where actually technology comes first before people. We are taking this in a whole different aspect, a different perspective, while still thinking about robotics and automation.

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Karen Roby: Obviously, one of the things, Haitham, that people get concerned about is taking jobs, what’s going to happen to jobs and the robots replacing everything. And, obviously, that’s not the case. We hear so much about, with artificial intelligence and things like that, that no, it will take some of those repetitive things, and people can do more specialized stuff. Talk about exactly how automation is coming in and what will it be replacing?

Haitham Al-Beik: It’s a very good question. The thing that we looked at, when we look at people first, these are artists, these are creative people from the beginning. The last thing that I want people to do is have labor tasks, repetitive tasks day-in, day-out, which kind of kills the creativity for the most part. So really, when we want to talk about replacing jobs or taking away certain aspects of industry, but really what we want to do is elevate the industry, we want more of the same people to be more creative rather than more laboring. And essentially even today, when you go to any modern restaurant, you still have somebody cutting the tomatoes in the morning to prepare for the dinner, for example, or for the menus coming up during the day. These are certain tasks that essentially are done repetitive all the time.

We can bring in technology to essentially enable the artist, the creative; to say, “Hey, can you be creative every day? Can you truly be creative every single day?” What does an artist and a creative person need? A canvas. Can you imagine a painter going in and creating the paints every morning just to paint? No, they just want to paint. So, similarly, a chef or anybody else who has ideas to do so, let’s allow the technology to enable you, to enhance you so that your creative levels go up. And that’s how we see it. We don’t see it as a replacement, we see it as an opportunity, a new idea of what a service industry is about.

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Karen Roby: And when you talk about the service industry, how receptive are they?

Haitham Al-Beik: Right now, it feels like they need anything at this point. They’re jumping onto, there’s a lot of reaction to… And we see that already. We see, for example, certain companies bringing in robotics, and they’re very niche kinds of solutions: I’ll do coffee for you, I’ll make a blender drink for you, I’ll do something for you. It’s a single-arm robot that comes in, essentially came from the manufacturing industry. And to me, this is another borrowed tech. It’s meant for cars, to build big equipment. Can you imagine a huge machine in front of you just to make an espresso? This is where we are in this situation: taking a lot of space, in my way, rather than actually enhancing my life.

So when we looked at this, we realized, “OK, yes. Robots need to come in. Got it.” Automation needs to come in. Great. But not at the price of me, not at the price of the people, not at the price of children. And in many ways those robots coming in are actually guarded in a way, because they’re not meant to be near humans. Well, the service industry is all about people. Why is this even here? So we had to go back and rethink all of this and say, “OK, what would be the receptive susceptibility of a service industry to technology?” It hasn’t been good for them. Let’s be fair. It hasn’t been quite good to them at this point in time. So, for something to be receptive to them is to bring in people from the services industry, to start building this with us.

We’re not a bunch of just engineers in robotics sitting down trying to invent the best robot. No. We have baristas, we have people who are from the service industry sharing their own experiences. For God’s sake, I threw myself in a restaurant in the middle of COVID just to understand, to manage it, to clean the floors, to cut the tomatoes, to do the barista work, to understand truly what is it that’s missing? What is it that inherently cannot be removed when you just suddenly put a robot in? When we started bringing that in and when they realized it’s about enhancing themselves and your creative effort, they’re more than happy to look into it and be a participant in this kind of mission that we’re in.

Karen Roby: Talk a little bit about the tech involved here. I mean, obviously, a lot behind the scenes going on.

Haitham Al-Beik: Yes. That was a lot behind. I mean, any engineer would love our soup of tech. We actually dabbled a lot in artificial intelligence, and crypto, and blockchain, and robotics and things like that. Not because they are… Well, they’re cool, but the highly emerging technology, even energy, energy is so important to us as well in terms of resources used to create something.

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Let’s talk about our technology that we like. We had to realize that the robotics in the industry today, if it had to be reinvented from the services industry, what would that be like? And what we created is something we call HiveRobotics. The best way to compare that to the current robotics, essentially, today there’s some arm robot. Essentially, it’s a robot that’s made of multiple joints, it’s multi-access, it can have multiple different directions, could be two axles, three axles or whatever they need to be, but essentially it’s limited in many aspects in one way. First, it’s only arm length, because it’s literally an arm. And number two, it is very, very heavy, it’s industrial. And you can have different versions of those, which means also the space it acquires is very tiny, unless you have other arms coming in and trying to help one another.

So what ends up happening is now this idea of replacing a person with a robot shows that you’re not fundamentally stepping back and looking at the big picture of resources coming in, products coming out. What needs to happen here, it needs to be completely re-thought, which is internal logistics, external logistics, how ingredients are stored, how much space are you actually taking. As you know, in retail and in the food industry square footage and space is highly valuable. Next thing you know, instead of an espresso machine that takes this much space, you have a robot that takes 10 times that space to do the same thing. We’re going backwards, we’re not going forward.

So now we’re talking about food that’s coming from the top rather than taking any space in front of you, so you have free room. We’re talking about robots not physically connected together. Instead, they’re small hive robots that go around. They’re autonomous on their own. They have certain tasks they need to do. Some of them go cleaning, some of them make sure that the ingredients are in a good shape, some of them are going to deliver, some of them will come together to create a certain task for a certain person.

The reason we had to go through this is because in the restaurant industry or the services industry the input is a bunch of people coming in. You have no idea when they’re going to come, you have no idea what they want, you have no idea when they want the results, the food they want. In the manufacturing setup, in an industry, you already have that calculated. The robots are ready to go, they know what’s coming in, what’s coming out. Well, how do you do this here? When you have random people coming in and out and you want to deliver on time, clean, safe and accurate, but most important, personalized. This is the other thing that we are very, very adamant about, is that we don’t look at a group of people, we look at you as one person. Each person is our addressable market, not a group of people, because one person has allergies, has certain conditions, and has certain ways they want to deliver the food. These are facts that we take number one before we jump in and just plug in any tech that we want.

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These hive robots are there to make sure that they are there to serve you the best way possible. We have set up where you go in and sit at a table and the hive robots know where you are, they will deliver food to you. But let’s say, you change your mind, you go to another table because the view is better. They know, they go back, and they deliver to the new table. They’re there to make sure you are focused on your own life, and we’re there to disappear. Honestly, we don’t want to be in front of you. We are there just when you need us, and if you don’t, we’re not there anymore. And that’s what I think the service industry is more receptive about. And if you want to connect with people, now you can. You don’t have a person running around, trying to make sure things are managed. You don’t have a manager that’s worried about when he’s going to get the next broccoli tomorrow. And this is the issue that we’re seeing in the service industry, too much stress and not too much living.

Karen Roby: How did you get to this point? What made you all realize the restaurant industry or the service industry, food service is stressed or they’re at a breaking point because of this, this and this? I mean, how did you get here?

Haitham Al-Beik: To me, I’m always about people. It’s always about making sure people are happy with whatever they do. Service industry was my daily life. First thing in the morning I have an espresso coffee with a nice croissant, that’s how I start my day. And I always ask the people working there how they’re feeling, how things are going. And if you look at the services industry, even the restaurants, for that matter, there’s no killer product, there’s no killer restaurant in terms of, “Wow, this is changing the industry.” Last time that was in McDonald’s, when they questioned everything. They had to invent new materials, change the logistics, change the menu, change how we even deliver everything. And they really did it because they know the necessity and the cost, the margin is too much.

We have issues with labor costs and how much you can pay for people, again, because restaurants are not making money anyway. The business model needs to change. It is time for that. And to be honest, what we think of restaurants I see in the feature will start changing. Whether you are focusing on the to-go market, whether it’s a dine-in experience, whether you’re driving through to pick something up. I’ll share this with you that we’re having for a while, but this is what we’re focusing on.

The first step that we’re going into is the to-go market. And the to-go market is something where people, the last thing they want is to be disrupted in the middle of where they need to go, which means they need to go somewhere, pick something up, and then they can go. Typically, the best one they have right now is the vending machine or a kiosk with no person. You pay something, you pick it up, and you go. But that is not an experience that you want. How about food that’s made for you literally right there, personalized to you, and still not to-go but on-the-go, real-time. You come in, it comes down, you pick it up, and you go. That’s our first entry to the market as the new opportunity to start there and easy for people to start accepting robotics in their life.

Karen Roby: Well, no doubt it’s changing, an exciting industry, really.

Haitham Al-Beik: Definitely. I would add though also that bringing that to the services industry, you would get exposed to robotics more and more in our daily lives. People think of robots, they see them in manufacturing. I want to see kids and people who are like, “Wow, I want to be part of this. I’m going to learn how we can further serve other people, because everybody should be served equally, no matter what your conditions are, whatever it is.” So this will inspire a new set of revolution to enhance and elevate the service industry in terms of education, in terms of technology, in terms of logistics, in terms of many things. So this is a huge opportunity from where we see.

Also see

Robot serving a meal concept

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby spoke with Haitham Al-Beik, founder and CEO of Wings, about automation in the food industry. 

Illustration: Lisa Hornung/kirill_makarov/Shutterstock

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