Automation has dominated all kinds of American jobs for decades. Amazon uses robots in its warehouses just like Fedex. In either case, however, robot workers haven’t really replaced humans. In fact, although robots and automation have been used by all kinds of businesses, they have not led to widespread job losses.
That doesn’t mean the specter of robots taking human jobs is gone, even though CNC, cleaning robots, and inventory robots haven’t taken many jobs from flesh-and-blood workers, it does doesn’t mean it will never happen.
And, if robots take over from human workers, it seems likely that it will happen in areas that require a lot of repetitive tasks. This makes automation the logical target of the fast food industry – and rising wages plus a shortage of workers make the day of robots making your burger and fries seem even closer.
While McDonald’s (MCD) – Get McDonald’s Corporation report and international restaurant brands (RSQ) – Get Restaurant Brands International Inc reportBurger King is still using human workers, how long will this last? A rival – an iconic fast-food brand – has expanded its use of robots to make french fries.
Flippy, the fryer robot
Although it was launched in 1921, the burger chain White Castle is taking things to the future and investing in frying robots. As part of its partnership with automation startup Miso Robotics, White Castle is bringing the self-driving kitchen assistant known as Flippy 2 to 100 of its locations.
After testing the first-generation Flippy at its Chicagoland site in 2020, the burger chain found it could automate the more technical parts of cooking fries while human workers had to focus on tasks such as quality control and working in contact with customers.
“Our partnership with Miso continues to pave the way for the future of back-end restaurant operations looking to equip team members with technology to better serve customers,” said Jeff Carper, director of operation of White Castle, in a press release. “Having Flippy 2 be a new addition to 100 of our White Castle locations keeps us on track to achieve big goals at White Castle.”
Automation has already been tried in fast food
White Castle isn’t the first fast food restaurant to dabble in automation – visions of robots flipping burgers date back to the 1960s.
In recent years, however, this once futuristic view has become increasingly commonplace. After IBM (IBM) – Get International Business Machines Corporation report acquired McDonald’s McD Tech Labs in October, the burger giant has toyed with a series of automated aisle lanes and ordering kiosks.
In 2020, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened a location in Moscow where robotic hands place chicken orders into secure boxes while Taco Bell also opened more and more automated restaurants across the country.
Will McDonald’s, Burger King and White Castle all use robots?
The definition of “robot” has changed a lot over the decades – while many still envision humanoid metal figures like C-3PO from Star Wars, the reality is often as simple as a machine that automates tasks like taking orders or make fries.
Once you change your definition of robot to anything that uses automation, you will realize that they are already everywhere in the fast food industry.
“White Castle was the first major brand to adopt our technology and we are delighted that our Flippy pilot has had such a positive impact on their operations that they want to integrate 100 more,” said Mike Bell, CEO of Miso Robotics, in a press release. “We look forward to continuing this journey with such an exceptional partner.
McDonald’s and Burger King haven’t moved to automated food production, but both have leaned heavily into automated order taking. App-based or kiosk-based ordering might not seem like automation, but it takes a human out of the process.
So far, that hasn’t led either chain to downsize. Instead, human workers have moved into production and customer service. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and Fortune’s Michael Joseph suggests it’s inevitable.
“Many tasks in the restaurant industry are monotonous and easily automated,” he writes. “Sharp knives, hot oil and slippery floors are not the safest working environment. Using robots in operations should increase efficiency and productivity. They do not organize walkouts or even sick calls. They can work long hours and won’t jump ship for more lucrative opportunities.”
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