Would You Like Robots With That?

Automation & customisation can open up production businesses

The fast food service model is ideally suited to automation. Uniform meals are made on a production line, satisfying customers’ desire for a familiar product that is ready in minutes. It’s this standardisation that attracts many people: go to any branch of a specific fast food restaurant and you’ll receive the same meal. It’s also what makes fast food production particularly well matched to robot workers. The mantra is simple: cook, package, serve, repeat.

In spite of its effectiveness, significant problems in this well oiled system arise when a consumer wants to make a change to a specific meal. Altering the standard configuration of a product in any way interrupts the smooth running of the system, especially where machines are involved. Unlike human workers, they lack the capacity to work flexibly, making customised items a nightmare to complete. Tailoring meals to individual customers’ preferences will be a vital stage in making automated restaurants a success. But automated, personalised food could also become the norm across the wider food and drink sector as a whole.

Automated, connected and frictionless purchases

It’s already possible to pre order food and drink with devices such as Starbucks’ mobile app. Customers using the app can use their smartphones to order and pay for their purchases, which will be ready and waiting for them to pick up in store. In theory, this service removes friction points from a consumer, making them more likely to make a purchase. However, reviews of the app suggest that mobile ordering has an adverse effect in busy stores, as baristas struggle to keep up with demand, resulting in long queues of irritated customers. It seems that unless Starbucks can resolve these issues, they would do better to ditch the app ordering system entirely, as stores full of people waiting also deter walk in customers.

It’s easy to see how a fully automated system could solve Starbucks’ problems instantaneously. If robots were able to quickly process orders, create meals precisely according to customer preferences, and serve them exactly when they arrive in store, customers would benefit from convenience and an entirely frictionless service. Not only would this improve consumer experience, it would also make customers more likely to spend. This is a prime example of how automation not only saves businesses costs – in labour and efficiency – but also facilitates a superior service. A more radical vision would be to see this principle applied not only to the restaurant sector, but to the point of grocery manufacture itself.

Personalised food by way of mass production

It seems like everyone has a specialist diet these days. With the nation’s range of food allergies, fad diets or simply individual preferences, it’s impossible for the manufacturers of preprepared foods to cater to us all. At least, it has been, under traditional methods of mass production. With increasingly intelligent robot machinery, however, factories could soon be able to tailor foods to individual consumers in the factories of the future.

In an automated but flexible production line, customers could make demands of their factory made food in ways that would only have been possible before in a chef to diner interaction. They could order a low salt version of a favourite ready meal, perhaps; an extra hot curry; or a tin of soup with an added dash of pepper. Customising food products within factory production methods might seem expensive and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to cost more. If machinery can be developed with the ability to make small changes to a product within the manufacturing process, then the output can be as cheap and efficient as traditional mass production.

Connected and well fed

Taking this line of thinking further, the day will soon come when everything in our lives is connected via the Internet of Things. With IoT technology, your fridge could not only restock itself, but also talk to food producers to tailor your diet to specific requirements at any given time. Athletes could automatically receive the nutrition they need according to their training schedule, ill people could get an extra boost of vitamins from their food, and allergy sufferers would never again have to scrutinise individual packets for potentially fatal allergen contents. If food producers do end up directly conversing with consumers in this way, the need for middle men supermarkets could soon become redundant. For an industry that’s been a mainstay of society for at least the past 70 years, that’s a truly disruptive change.

Would you buy food from a robot restaurant? Is personalisation an effective method of increasing consumer spending? Would customising preprepared foods such as ready meals make you more likely to buy them? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.