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Photo 1.jpg Corewell Health
Corewell is working with automation firm Dexai on the use of robots to produce more efficient food production, starting with grab and go salads.

Corewell Health explores automation’s potential to boost dining service efficiencies

Can robotics improve kitchen production operations in hospitals? This Michigan health system is looking to find out.

Corewell Health in Michigan has operated one of the more cutting-edge dining services in the market for a while under its former moniker of Spectrum Health, something that helped it maintain its patient room service program even at the height of the COVID crisis. The system underwent the name change last fall following its merger earlier in the year with Beaumont Health, itself a longtime innovator in its dining operations, to better reflect the emphasis on health and wellness of the combined organization.

Recently, Corewell’s nutrition services department has also been looking at ways automation can help expand its production efficiencies and customer services. This effort currently is concentrated on working with automation firm Dexai on robotic grab and go salad production.

“We’d already been working with physical automation and robots for about five years, and learned a lot, so this is a natural extension,” says Kevin Vos, Corewell Health’s vice president of environmental services, nutrition services & hospitality, citing ongoing initiatives at Corewell such as the robotic TUGS that have been hauling trays from his production kitchen to patient floors, the system’s transition from manned to self-checkout in its retail outlets and its recent purchase of autonomous floor scrubbers.

The program with Dexai—currently in a 12-week pilot phase that, if successful, will result in Corewell purchasing four of the units—involves using one robot attached to a salad refrigeration unit and programmed with six different salad recipes.

“It can actually grab a container, mix the salad and then drop the container onto a chute that can hold ten salads,” Vos explains. “Then the robot’s assistant puts lids on the salads and labels them.” Dexai is currently looking at how to have the robot perform those latter tasks as well to produce a true end-to-end grab and go production unit, “which is when some pretty significant ROI will start happening,” he says.

He says one of the advantages of Dexai’s robot, other than its manageable cost for a healthcare foodservice operation, is that it can attach to existing kitchen equipment, “so you don’t have to retrofit your whole kitchen to use them.”

Currently, the robot is making 19 salads an hour, which of course is just a fraction of the health system’s needs, but it’s a step in a process that targets what Vos considers a major issue across the foodservice world—labor efficiency.

“Foodservice FTE productivity has essentially remained flat for the last 30 years,” he explains, “while in the manufacturing community, productivity per FTE has dramatically improved over that same time because of automation. What we’re putting together here in a business pro forma is an actual productivity increase per FTE using the Dexai automation.”

He cites the numbers he’s developed: one human staffer over an eight-hour shift can produce an average of about 220 salads, or about 27 an hour, but if you put a robot with that individual, over that same eight-hour shift they can increase the total to 317—and once the goal of four robots paired with one human assistant is realized, it jumps to 608.

The current labor environment adds urgency to the initiative, in both cost terms—labor cost in the hospitality/leisure area in Michigan recently rose 11%, Vos notes—and in availability.

“I have more open positions than I have applicants in cook labor right now, so we’re running with fewer cooks and buying more grab and go products from outsourced manufacturers,” whose food and labor costs are also going up, forcing price increases across the supply chain.

Furthermore, those pre-made salads sourced from external suppliers return minimal revenue to the Corewell foodservice operation, while salads made in-house with robots can return twice as much even if priced at a lower cost to customers.

Given a pairing of one human with four robots, Vos explains, the labor cost per salad for the human is about 30 cents and the cost of the robot about 45 cents for a total of 75 cents, while a human-only production operation has a per-salad labor cost of about 83 cents, so there is already a “labor” cost advantage of about eight cents in using the robots—“but with the robots I’m also making way more salads!” Vos adds.

If and when the robotic grab and go salad production initiative is implemented, Corewell and Dexai will look to other areas to automate, such as yogurt parfaits, another popular grab and go item that can benefit from more efficient mass production.

Automated production not only reduces per unit production costs but also maintains consistency in ingredient usage, a particularly relevant issue for healthcare organizations, where portion control of ingredients is critical to maintaining nutrition content requirements, something even pre-made products from manufacturers sometimes don’t meet, Vos suggests.

Another advantage to robots is that they eliminate all the ancillary costs of recruiting, training and retaining human labor, he adds. “I bring a robot in and if I don’t change the recipes, we just dial it in and we get that productivity.”

Of course, robots aren’t perfect and do occasionally break down or suffer glitches, especially in the current early adopter period when systems are still being refined. Vos says Dexai currently anticipates its units will require human assistance about 20% of the time, a realistic approach he says he appreciates.

“The flexibility and economics behind this unit I think are right for operators like myself that have pretty large-scale non-commercial kitchen operations,” he concludes, adding that the experience of having utilized the TUG robots for years now has made the Corewell foodservice staff more comfortable with working alongside robots than would be the case in operations where automation is being introduced for the first time

“If you don’t have robotic automation in your kitchen in any way, there’s a significant amount of change management that it takes to get your team to buy into working alongside the robots,” he warns.

The automation program at Corewell extends beyond testing the potential of robots in food production. As noted, the system has employed robotic TUGS for years and has been operating a growing number of unmanned micro-market outlets, with more on the way in the former Beaumont facility (now known as Corewell East) once the two organizations’ point-of-sale systems are aligned.

The micro-markets fill a need made more urgent by the current work environment, Vos explains.

“As health systems have more of these business centers that have transitioned to mostly virtual or hybrid work schedules, we still have to provide some level of foodservice, and the micro-marts have been a really nice solution that is very low labor but still meets the demand for food,” he says.

Another automation solution Corewell is embracing is high-tech vending, which provides a superior array of choices to traditional machines. The system recently installed 16 Farmers Fridge units in the Corewell East facility because it skirts the POS compatability issue, and will soon add two Bledi branded smoothie machines as well for the same reason. They are in areas where both staff and visitors can access, “but it’s primarily our enhanced solution because on the legacy Beaumont side we do not man our cafeterias after 8 p.m.,” Vos explains.

Slated for deploying in the near future is mobile ordering through the GET app. It’s currently being piloted at a self-branded coffee kiosk at the main medical center in Grand Rapids. “We picked it because it has a very loyal clientele and represents high value in making sure orders are executed efficiently,” Vos says.

He sees forays into tech-forward areas like mobile ordering, self-checkout, automated points of sale and robotic production as an emerging necessity if large organizations like major healthcare systems are to continue to serve customers efficiently with attractive and conveniently available food and beverage choices. For Corewell, where the Spectrum/Beaumont merger basically doubled the organization’s size, more automation solutions seem like the best way to go forward if the foodservice operation is to continue to provide quality, convenient and efficient meal service.

“I’m really excited about the potential of automation for what is now a much larger organization to impact,” Vos says.

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