We’ve all heard that robots are taking our jobs, right? Well, there’s a takeout joint in Mountain View where robots help make the pizza, and it illustrates how automation could impact the food industry.

Zume is tucked into an office park and it only delivers pizza. Its brand is about being healthy and locally sourced, and Zume pays for the better ingredients in part by saving on labor costs in the kitchen, says Julia Collins, co-founder and co-CEO of Zume.

“In a lot of ways it looks like a traditional kitchen,” Collins says as she shows me around Zume’s kitchen. “But what you’ve never seen before is a robot-enabled pizza assembly line.”

Collins walks me down the line. The first thing you notice is there are people working on the line. They make about $18 an hour, and one of them is Jose Lopez. He’s holding a mound of dough.

“So Jose has taken our dough, and he’s using this dough bot to press the dough out,” Collins says, as Lopez places the dough into a rectangular machine.

So, instead of throwing the dough into the air to make a pie, at Zume a “dough bot” presses it into one.

“It’s nine times faster than doing it manually,” Collins says.

Lopez takes the 14-inch sheet of dough and places it onto a conveyer belt. A stainless-steel dispenser squirts tomato sauce onto the middle of the pie. Then it moves to a second machine, which spreads the sauce. Most of the machines on the line are centrally wired into a computerized brain, which keeps track of the pizza orders.


And then human beings put the toppings on the pizza.

“When we first looked at this line, we did think of automating these steps as well,” Collins says. But picking up toppings takes dexterity and a soft touch. Human hands are the best tools for that task.

“This is probably the favorite robot of everyone. His name is Bruno,” Collins says.

Bruno is a large automated arm. But where there might be a hand, there’s a large pan.

“You’ve seen this robot stacking pallets or moving tons of machinery,” Collins says.

At Zume, Bruno has been reprogrammed to place pizza in the oven. The pizza glides off the conveyer belt into its tray, and then Bruno lifts its arm and slides the pizza into the 800-degree oven.

Collins says the assembly line was designed for machines and people to work side by side. And when possible, Zume “outsources” the more dangerous or repetitive tasks to machines like Bruno.

Michael Chui is with McKinsey Global Institute and he co-authored a big study on automation. His research found that the food service industry was ripe for automation. Chui says you can see why the food industry is ripe for automation at places like Zume. For one thing, much of the technology already exists.

“There are sensors that can measure the temperature, arms that move and can pick up food,” Chui says. Like Bruno. Still, Chui says it will be a long time before robots totally replace humans.

“Right now, the wage within fast-food restaurants tends to be relatively low,” Chui says. “And for it to make economic sense to bring in robots, you actually have to see these robots have a lower cost per hour.”

So until robots are willing to take a pay cut, humans are safe.

Robots Making Pizza Still Need a Human Touch 6 September,2017Queena Sook Kim

  • james Hall

    You’re missing part of the story. These folks were very vocal in planning to have the pizzas actually cooked in delivery trucks…and delivered piping hot in 1/2hour in silicon valley. I think the County Health department shot that idea down, at least for now. Talk about fantasy startups. A good way to drop a big investment into the oven

Author

Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows – Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift – for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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