Grant Powell MBCS recently spoke to Alana Abbitt, Vice President of Product Development at Miso Robotics, to learn how AI-driven robotic technology is helping to revolutionise the fast food industry.

Flippy is an innovative and advanced robotic system powered by AI and developed by Miso Robotics, based in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. Designed to revolutionise the way cooking and food preparation is handled in commercial kitchens, it has multiple specific benefits for quick service restaurants (QSR), the cornerstone of the rapidly expanding fast food industry.

What led to the creation of the Flippy tool?

When we started six years ago, our founders at Miso were part of The California Institute of Technology. They had taken PhDs in robotics and were looking for industry applications where robotics could be best implemented that would unlock tangible business value. Through successful partnerships with leaders, board members and advisors within the food tech space, the whole thing really took off. The name 'Flippy' is a little bit of a misnomer; the earliest incarnation of the robot was primarily used to ‘flip’ burgers, and we ended up keeping the name. Now Flippy cooks a variety of foods, mostly within Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) but also in commercial kitchens. The key element is to ensure that we can cook at pace while satisfying each company’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Can you explain how Flippy works?

Flippy is essentially a cage with a robotic arm on a rail, and that robotic arm is programmed to understand the food intake. The robot has been designed to operate continuously to meet demand while taking food from three different dispensers as required. The AI behind Flippy needs to be able to understand which food to select and how to cook every item in line with the proper SOP. It's a self-contained system working around existing workflow data and driven by our proprietary software. Flippy uses a field of artificial intelligence — computer vision — to detect the food type, while Machine Learning (ML) helps to create a plan around the most optimised route for the machine to follow. So, for example, if Flippy has a basket of food that's going to be ready in one minute, but has something else that it needs to pick up, ML helps it understand the workflow and determine the best order of operation. This ensures that priority tasks are always completed first and that cooking times remain exact.

How does Flippy operate alongside existing kitchen staff?

Most of our current customers actually came to us because of the labour crisis, which meant that they were really struggling to recruit the necessary quota of staff, particularly in those back of house kitchen-based roles. Things organically evolved from there. With Flippy, we strive to help businesses remain successful even with fewer staff, by helping to make those existing team members more efficient at what they do. We also want to empower them, using our tool to take away some of the more dirty, dangerous and not particularly appealing aspects of their work. This frees up staff members to interact with customers and move toward roles that are more likely to elevate them for promotion, to become tomorrow’s managers, general managers and even franchisees.

Do you get much resistance from longer serving members of staff?

When something is new it’s natural for people to be sceptical, but I think once they get past the fact that it’s a robot, and just think of it as another piece of equipment, then they’re pretty accepting of its help. Also if you look at the staff turnover rate for some of the positions, it's typically highest around the fryers because there's oil, it's hot, it's hard work. So I think the prospect of something taking that pressure off and essentially doing the heavy lifting when it comes to the dirtier jobs, is generally welcomed. Staff feedback is really valuable and we regularly check in to find out how they are getting on with the system so that we can use that feedback to help us continue to evolve the product.

Where are you seeing the most demand for Flippy?

We started with the big commercial QSR brands because they have more consolidated corporate locations and they can make decisions autonomously versus the more consensus driven approach that a typical franchise might take. We are also able to leverage the existing equipment at each site, such as fryers, hoods and other industrial kitchen technology. This equipment often represents a considerable investment that the restaurant has already made, so it’s our intention to help them continue to make full use of that investment. Outside of QSR, we're now seeing an increasing interest from companies that we had not given much consideration to previously; these might be coffee companies, convenience stores, or what we term in the States ‘Mom and Pop’ stores, which are family-owned retail businesses. And we’re also seeing requests from more traditional restaurants.

Are people more open to the use of technology than they used to be?

It’s definitely a time of change. Previously, smaller companies were typically saying things like, ‘oh, that's not for me. That seems out of reach. That's too technologically advanced. I don't know anything about robotics, I'm in food.’ Fast-forward a few years and the costs associated with running a business are at an all-time high, and people are really struggling. Now, we’re getting a lot of requests for help; ‘I'm struggling and I’m open to doing anything I can to adapt and make the business work.’

How is Flippy beneficial from a health & safety perspective?

Since the pandemic, the food industry has an even greater awareness of the need to maintain excellent hygiene, and one of the main health concerns is the risk of contamination. The immediate benefit of using Flippy is that contamination is absolutely zero. The product quality and consistency is also a strong value proposition because Flippy follows its program exactly for each food item, so it can't undercook. This removes the risks associated with raw or improperly cooked foods, such as the presence of E-coli, which would put customers at huge risk while also impacting brand reputation.

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On the safety side there are various guardrails in place. Flippy operates behind a barrier and is programmed to stop immediately if anyone lifts it. Use of Flippy also removes the accidental slips, trips, falls and burns that can unfortunately be common in this type of work. A reduction in accidents and injuries is great news for staff, while a drop in work-based compensation claims and removal of the related financial headaches is good news for businesses — all thanks to robotics and automation.

What do you think the QSR industry of the future might look like?

I think we’ll increasingly see the adoption of technology that facilitates automation of processes back of house. Currently there is a huge discrepancy between the shiny tech at the front and the kitchen equipment at the back that really hasn’t had much of an overhaul design wise since the 90s. I also think companies will have more choice when it comes to tech. Some businesses may even want to automate their entire operation — for example, getting rid of restaurants altogether and having fully automated drive throughs. Others that are perhaps well known as more customer focused family-orientated businesses might not want to completely automate everything because they’ll lose that personal touch. So I can see it very much being a case of pick and choose; the size of site, the level of automation, how important it is to have customer facing staff vs any staff at all. And this will all be enabled by the availability of modular components that can be scaled up or down to meet exact requirements.

What does the future hold for Miso Robotics and Flippy?

We want to be a good partner to our clients. We want to be regarded as thought leaders in this space and we see competition as incredibly healthy. In fact, competition really provides confirmation that we’re on the right track and that the market is ready and primed for automation. We're on an evolutionary journey and we're really excited to see where this can go. I genuinely believe that technology has growing potential in this space to make people's lives better.