Changing the Pizza Industry – Workplace Automation

The FlexPicker (type IRB 360) is often used in factories that do mass production. Illustration: Salgood Sam
Robots and food. It seems like a golden combination. One of the biggest game changers in this field is ASEA Brown Boveri (ABB), a Swedish-Swiss multinational corporation. This corporation operates with one-hundred-and-forty-thousand employees around the globe, working every day to robotise the world little by little; including, the food industry. Due to changing trends in society, the technological possibilities are dramatically increasing. There are already robots operating in restaurants that are making and baking pizzas and cakes.

Text: Kimberly van Dijk

Chris van Dijk (47) is the Service Manager Benelux at ABB and has been working with the company for over 17. He leads all industrial automation in the industry from different areas. ABB operates mainly in robotics, power, heavy electrical equipment, and automation technology areas. This company specialises in the so-called ‘process robots’. These are mostly robots with one arm that accomplish just one task. The areas in which they are leading are vehicles, metal-work, packaging and foods/beverages. In all these areas it is important to make the work easier and more efficient to produce products.

“One of the possibilities that make it easier to produce food is the FlexPicker. This is aimed at one action a time, also called pizza picking, it can be used to put the dough on the conveyor belt or put the sauce on the pizza. These are mainly simple jobs, mostly in mass production factories”, said van Dijk.

The idea of robots being used to work in mass production processes is nothing new. However, the latest robot technologies are opening up a whole new world. “Robots are getting smarter. Or actually, people are getting smarter. Programmers go along with trends, things that society wants and expect from products,” van Dijk said.

“Personalisation is an important trend at the moment. People want to have the feeling that something is made especially for them. Where, for example, the FlexPicker is used for mass production, models like the IRB 140 are again very suitable for smaller and bigger companies that like to offer personalization to their customer. He said.

An example of the IRB 140 in a mass production environment, working in a personalised way is the robots at Interbanket. This is a small company however, they use this type of robot for packaging their cookies, and another for more precise decorating. They needed to be profitable and flexible at the same time. The robot takes care of the speed and you can choose your own design per cake, this responds to the needs and wants of the customer.

Another factor, besides the trends in a society, that plays a major role in adopting robots is the culture China, and other Asian countries. Many corporations find keeping up with all their technological developments is really difficult, but ABB is trying. “In the Chinese city, Kunshan a restaurant opened that is run by robots,” van Dijk said.

“They bring the dumplings, spring rolls and other dishes around and they even work in the kitchen. There are four robotic cooks in the kitchen, each of whom performs a simple task such as stirring, beating, shaking oil spraying oil.” He said.

Van Dijk also mentions that, as advanced as these robots are they all still require help from human colleagues. People are still constantly running around with ingredients, bringing food, or cutting chicken into pieces. The robots at this point do not seem to be much more than multifunctional kitchen machines with lights like eyes however, they do ensure that only six employees are needed per shift instead of twenty.

The waiter robots are even more impressive than their kitchen colleagues. After they have gone through the restaurant with the dishes, they are sent back to the kitchen by the guests with a soft pat on the head. “A robot can work more than ten hours a day for seven to eight years,” he says.

“Waiters work about eight hours a day, and you have to feed them and give them shelter, and those robots use less than 38 cents of electricity per day”, says van Dijk. It is a lot cheaper and more efficient than using human employees.

Chris van Dijk thinks the first changes will be seen in the fast food area. Zume Pizza, a food delivery start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, owns one of ABB’s robots that presses pizza dough in a perfect circle in only nine seconds. This is up to five times faster than the fastest human spinning pros. Because of this robot, employees spend less time on tedious work.

“It also cut costs and speed up deliveries. Other tasks the robot has is checking the amount of sauce and spreading the sauce, place and remove pizzas in the oven and checking the tight thinness.” Says van Dijk.

The pizza-making robot from ABB (type IRB 140) working on a personalised pizza.
Picture: Zume Pizza

With all these technological advancements people assume this means that many jobs will disappear, however, Chris does not think so. Sure it has some effect but in the long term. In the future, robots will become cheaper. That is already visible. The prospect is becoming more and more accessible. For example, robots can be used in mass chains such as McDonald’s, but also smaller artisanal bakeries. But often, purchasing robots is too expensive for smaller companies.

Certain actions can certainly be taken over by robots. There are more and more specialised jobs where the robots may be programmed to take over the work of human beings. The demand for automation is slowly growing. A transition is taking place. But the mentality in The Netherlands is also different than that of the mentality in Asia. They would not be able to do without robots and we are maybe just too sober.

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