Servo Magazine ( May 2016 )

Noodle Chef Robots: Precursor to Pathogen-Free Fast Food?

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

Every year, thousands of people in the US take ill from food-borne pathogens. The recent highly publicized cases of E.coli associated with Mexican grill restaurants is only one example [1]. In most instances, contaminated food can be traced to operator error, namely improper handling of food: Forgetting to wash hands, using soiled containers and utensils, not using masks when sick, or simply working when sick can all lead to contaminated food. Unfortunately, I’ve had first hand experience with contaminated fast food. I can attest that it’s not the best way to lose 10 lbs in less than a week.

The traditional fix is to retrain employees. That’s problematic in the US fast food industry, where annual turnover is over 100% [2]. Clearly, there has to be a better way to serve a safe burger.

Enter the Noodle Chef Robots, Koyo and Kona, introduced in Shanghai at the end of 2015. Although robots have been used to prepare food for decades — think automated cooking and packaging — they are still relatively rare at the retail level. The pair of robots — not exactly a minor investment at about $150K — is more of a marketing ploy than a cost-saving move.

The press has focused on the relative cost — especially in China, where wages are markedly lower than in the US. However, I think they’ve missed the point of robotic retail food preparation. Robots, unlike humans, can be routinely sterilized, bathed in bacteriostatic UV radiation, autoclaved, or doused with bactericidal chemicals.

Properly maintained, there’s no chance of a metal robot arm catching the latest E.coli illness and passing it on to unsuspecting customers.

The bottom line is that robotic fast food preparation at the retail level can save lives, and this has to be factored into the value proposition. We’re not talking about time to deliver a meal (it takes 90 seconds for Koyo and Kona to make a bowl of Ramen, for example), but about time NOT spent in an ER or at home missing work.

From what I can see on the videos, Koyo and Kona are outfitted with simple distance, joint angle, and perhaps temperature sensors. To be fully effective as purveyors of pathogen-free food — at a minimum — I’d want to outfit every fast food robot with sensors for toxins produced by toxic strains of E.coli and other bacteria commonly found in contaminated food. I’d certainly pay more for a meal “certified pathogen free.”

If such a system were to take hold in the retail space, follow-on affordable school cafeteria, hospital cafeteria, workplace, and home-based units would simply be a matter of time.

I enjoy cooking. There’s something about wielding a sharp Japanese steel knife that feels good. I don’t want to give up cooking. However, I also appreciate that not everyone shares a desire to chop shallots, and most people would rather pay a restaurant and focus on their real work.

Avoiding sickness from contaminated food isn’t really a choice — but with robotics, it could be.  SV


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