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October 19, 2022

Your next Friday night pizza may be made by robot hands.

That’s the vision of Ajay Sunkara, who launched autonomous chef Pizzaiola, an AI-powered, voice-controlled pizza maker coming to Chicago-based regional pizza chain Slice Factory. The robotic chef monitors more than 1,200 parameters every microsecond, from food quality management to the point of sale machine.

When a customer places a pizza order, Pizzaiola will select, press and stretch the dough; add sauce, cheese and dressings; then cook, slice, and package the pizza to the customer’s specified preferences. It populates in real time and you can even have a giant individual slice ready to go through the Slice Factory drive-thru in minutes.

Not a single human touch is involved.

“There is robotics in the food industry, but in factories, meat processing centers and packaged food processing,” Sunkara tells Fortune. “We scaled it down from industrial to something that can fit in a normal commercial kitchen.”

Pizzaiola is the newest product from Sunkara’s Nala Robotics, the kitchen robotics company he founded in 2017. Sunkara, who now serves as the company’s CEO, said he saw an opportunity to innovate in the back of the house. in food service; Until then, most new products for the hospitality industry focused on the point of sale, reservations, and guest experiences. Its core product, Nala Chef, is a customizable multi-cuisine robot chef that serves a variety of dishes at the three Nala-owned restaurants in Naperville, Illinois: One Mean Chicken, a fried chicken concept; Surya Tiffins, a South Indian restaurant; and Thai 76, a Thai fast food joint.

The core of Sunkara’s automated chef is artificial intelligence. Sunkara recruited friend and CTO Vijay Kodali to use machine learning for the robot’s operating system, called Yum OS. What they built is a robot that not only learns intellectually like a human would, but can also harness all five “senses.” The robot chef can touch, smell, see, hear and even taste, thanks to a tasting bar that mimics the human tongue. The senses send feedback to the operating system, creating a learning cycle similar to that of a human being, which records all the information for future use. It is as if the robot is constantly in a culinary school class, but remembers every detail of the task.

“Multiple senses provide data so that we can make an intellectual decision,” says Sunkara. “That’s the A.I. process as well.”

Sunkara explained that the bot tracks all input, including customer feedback. If a customer complains that a pizza was too salty or a pad thai too spicy, you’ll use that data in future production.

It all goes back to the robot chef’s inspiration: consistency. Sunkara’s aha moment came from beer tasting, when he realized that automated beer production leads to consistent aromas, flavors, and balance from barrel to barrel, bottle to bottle. But when you looked at restaurant food production, it was largely human-driven, leading to subjective tastes and inconsistencies in the final product.

The AI ​​is not only programmed to make pepperoni pizza and chicken tikka, but it can also invent dishes. Give him a list of ingredients and he’ll draw on his knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Thai, and American cuisines to create a meal.

Although the A.I. The system powers the device, the mechanical side physically prepares the food. Sunkara noted that robotic arms have become significantly more affordable in the last decade, increasing the ability of the average fast casual restaurant to purchase such a machine. (His Pizzaiola robots rent for more than $7,000 a month, but he says they save on similar labor costs over a three-year period.)

There are other robot chef products in the space, and adoption is promising. It has accelerated especially since the pandemic, said Rajat Bhageria, founder and CEO of Chef Robotics. Bhageria’s products serve as stand-ins for a human assembly line cook in commercial kitchens at fast casual restaurants and ghost kitchens. Provides “robotics as a service” – robots that can be easily configured to work with different ingredients, serving sizes, containers, and locations within containers. The result is an adaptable system that can mimic a person’s flexibility, he said.

Bhageria explained that the line cook job has a massive turnover rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and restaurants are routinely understaffed by 20% to 50%. The job requires “redundant movements while standing,” something that is easily changed to automation. That frees the human being for other more comfortable, advanced or rewarding work.

There are advantages to a robotic environment at a time when the hospitality industry is facing severe labor shortages, especially as a result of COVID-19, and labor costs have risen with an increase in the minimum wage in states like California.

Since the cost of labor also significantly affects the cost of food, that rate increase is passed on to customers. Bhageria’s vision, he explained, is to reduce labor costs to reduce the cost of fresh food for customers, a win for all.

“Typically the way this happens in any industrial automation is that more jobs are created than destroyed,” says Bhageria. “As the cost of making food goes down and the volume goes up, brands are creating more storefronts and manufacturing plans. This drives further job creation.”

Robots are also making their way into home kitchens. Moley Robotics launched a robot-powered home kitchen in late 2020. The home version comes equipped with some 5,000 recipes from a variety of professional chefs and works in conjunction with a full smart kitchen, such as a smart fridge, for a fully automated setup. She’ll even do her own cleaning and dishwashing.

Bhageria explained that climbing is the next goal, and that’s where A.I. it really makes a difference. Since each ingredient is different depending on how it is grown, prepared and cooked, your business can scale with just changes to the software configuration. As more data is fed into the operating system, it becomes more flexible and knowledgeable about what the robot can create.

That can also carry beyond the role of chef. As Sunkara added, “We are going to see more cleaning robots, dishwashing robots, and labor that is hard to find these days. Robotics will be able to address that in the near future.”

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