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Viewpoint: Robots at the Ready–Automating the Future of Food Service

Automation will bring a number of benefits to food management operations in the post-pandemic world.

COVID completely altered the landscape of food management, and maybe that is a good thing. What was once considered an effective safety protocol or food service best practice instantly became obsolete, and the push for contactless options—for both ordering/pickup and for food prep in general—exploded.

Just like the thought of ordering food on a smartphone to grab on-the-go food or get something promptly delivered to your door without any human intervention was just a dream a decade ago, some thought automated food service and so-called food robots were things of the distant future. Thankfully, for tech-lovers like myself, the pandemic dramatically accelerated the timeline for advanced food robotics.

While consumers demand access to healthy and affordable food during extended hours, operational costs skyrocket and staffing shortages continue to plague the food service industry, robotics companies are stepping up to help food service managers meet changing demands.

Vipin_Jain_-_CEO_and_Co-founder,_Blendid.jpegThere is no doubt in my mind that robotics will become an absolutely critical component of our everyday food experiences within the next five years. Leveraging advanced technology—including robotics, machine vision and artificial intelligence—autonomous food platforms are the future of food management in the post-COVID world. But what benefits do food robotics bring to food management and what kinds of food options will be readily available for consumers who want to quickly grab-and-go at work, between classes or while traveling? Here are some…

Answering the Call for Contactless

COVID may have accelerated the push for contactless food prep and service, but it has been a trend long in the making. Adding food robots and full-service automation platforms to the mix will minimize unnecessary contact and help ensure that food is ordered, prepared and served safely (for both consumers and workers).

Beyond the pandemic concerns, robotic solutions help food managers ensure a broad range of safety protocols that meet the highest standards. By automating the cleaning process, regulating timing and monitoring temperature of all food storage and prep areas and performing other similar functions, robotic systems help food managers easily meet the strict NSF and county health department codes while optimizing food quality and shelf-life and eliminating cross-contamination risks. When it comes to food safety, there is no room for errors.

Surmounting Staffing Shortages

Robots can also help overcome staffing limitations that would typically make providing 24/7 access to healthy food options incredibly cost prohibitive. While countless entry-level food service workers moved on to other positions (especially in the delivery arena) during the pandemic, unstaffed positions are slowing the economic recovery for food service managers. Robots add a layer of consistency and reduce the costs—and associated headaches—of trying to find, hire, train and retain food service staff.

Bridging the Tech Gap

While the food service industry as a whole has been slow to adopt future-forward advances in robotics, that is all changing as tech-native generations dominate the food service workforce. Food workers are ready to embrace new automation platforms. They are comfortable relying on—and often expect—advanced technology platforms as part of their work environment.

However, given the variety of new robotic solutions becoming available, it is important to also look beyond the basics. Food management companies should only rely on robotic platforms that also combine the power of advanced artificial intelligence engines, vision systems and cloud-driven Internet of Things tools to ensure precise food preparation and a full suite of provisioning, monitoring and analytics capabilities to effectively operate robotic solutions remotely.

Catering to Consumer Cravings

Automated food platforms can help meet the customization considerations that today’s generations crave while providing the safety, sanitization and automation requirements of the new food era. Today’s consumers are used to having choices and expect to have the ability to pick and choose exactly what they want (or don’t want) in their food and how/when they want it served.

By digitizing the ordering process, food automation solutions allow consumers to use their own smartphones or the tablets provided onsite to easily choose their items, make any needed customizations and schedule the best fulfillment time, be it immediately or when they plan to be walking through for a quick pick up. The robotic kiosks should also have the ability to safely store their order after it is prepared until they arrive to pick it up.

Serving Healthier Choices

Beyond food safety concerns and food service challenges, the pandemic also intensified consumer shifts that have been brewing for years, the most important one for the food industry being the demand for easier access to affordable, fresh, healthy food options on the go. In fact, the push to make healthier food options readily available for the masses—anywhere and anytime—may be one of the silver linings of the pandemic. Food automation platforms are the future of healthy fast food, using AI-powered robots to deliver on the promise of highly personalized, healthy, fresh and delicious food options anytime and everywhere, while keeping overhead costs low for food service providers.

Artificial intelligence, robots and real food make the ideal combination when trying to juggle current consumer needs and shrinking workforce interest. As the hallways and food courts of airports, healthcare facilities, office parks and colleges buzz with crowds of people once again, new team members will start joining the food service staff—robots.

From simple robotic systems focusing on streamlining one task like rapid/contactless beverage dispensing or pizza assembly, to holistic food automation platforms managing everything from orders, customization and guest pickup, robots will soon revolutionize 24/7 food service in the post-COVID world.

Be on the lookout and it won’t be long until you see one of the AI-powered robotic systems in action.

Vipin Jain is the co-founder and CEO of Blendid, bringing more than 28 years of experience in engineering, consumer product development and successful serial entrepreneurship to the company. Prior to co-founding Blendid in 2015, Vipin was the CEO of Retrevo before it was acquired by Barnes & Noble. He also co-founded Telseon, a metro broadband service provider that was acquired by OnFiber/Qwest Communications. Apart from heading successful startups, Vipin served in a variety of leadership roles at 3com, Extreme Networks and Barnes & Noble Nook Media. His current goal and passion are to realize his dream with Blendid and use robotics & AI to revolutionize contactless food prep.

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