July 2022
Cobots and the Future of Food: 6 considerations for cobot design
<a href="https://sundbergferar.com/author/lynnaea-haggard/" target="_self">Lynnaea Haggard</a>
Lynnaea Haggard

Marketing Manager

Evan Carpenter-Crawford
Evan Carpenter-Crawford

Senior Product Designer - HMI Design Specialist

Rob Rehrig
Rob Rehrig

Senior Electrical Design Engineer

Grey Parker
Grey Parker

CEO, Sundberg-Ferar

Cobots and the Future of Food: 6 considerations for cobot design

In this white paper:

Why are we talking about cobots?

Developing human-centric robotics is a fascinating and exciting endeavor. We’ve had incredible opportunities for this here at Sundberg-Ferar – delivery robots, research robots, humanoid robots, and food robots included. This design experience builds an awareness of the seemingly magical abilities of the human body.

The human capacity for motion is incredible: ultra-fluid movement with pinpoint accuracy and clever dexterity. We can sense touch and pressure with fine-detail resolution on every square inch of surface area, and we communicate with other humans to help us in our tasks along the way. Replicating even small tasks to the same level in a robot is a tall order. But when successfully reproduced at both a functional and an emotional level, there’s potential to change the world and enable new opportunities through robots that can collaborate with humans. Humanity has good reason to take on this challenge and we’re seeing many companies join the pursuit to create these collaborative robots, or “cobots”.

There are opportunities everywhere for this technology to make a meaningful difference, but perhaps none more directly influential and applicable than our kitchens and food preparation.

The need for cobots in the food industry

Cobots are moving from a niche topic to a widespread conversation in the food industry. While automated machines have been utilized in this industry for decades, collaborative robots, which must interact with and work alongside humans to get the job done, are now seeing higher rates of adoption. There is an urgent demand for solutions that free up human potential to focus on meaningful touchpoints with customers instead of mundane tasks[1], increase productivity, and fill labor shortage gaps, all while optimizing for space, versatility, and workflows. Design and development of collaborative robots is being expedited by everyone from specialized robotics manufacturers to up and coming food technology startups[2][3].

What does this mean for the future of the food industry? What does this mean for the humans that work or are served in restaurants, industrial kitchens, and ghost kitchens? Where do Cobots fit in? How might we shape the nature of collaboration between humans and robots in the food industry?

1. Where should cobots fit in? (Are we selling ourselves short?)

First, we need to play a bit of devil’s advocate with the current thrust of industry thought on where the best applications are for cobots, in view of leveraging the true potential of this idea of a “cobot”.

The adage in the cobot industry is that we should use cobots mainly for tasks that fall into the 3 D’s: Dirty, Dull (or boring), and Dangerous[4]. But we would ask, where does that leave the interaction between humans and robots? Are we truncating the true potential of human-robot collaboration by relegating their use to these 3 categories alone? And does using these 3 categories alone to create the full brief for their performance and capabilities really address any pain points in how robots interact with and augment the productivity of human teams and overseers? If we limit our understanding of a successful cobot to their ability to carry out these tasks, we believe we’re missing a bigger picture of how they can transform the lives of the human food production workforce for the better.

Now:

So where is that sweet spot where humans and robots meet their respective limitations and cross over to relying on each other as their individual strengths and weaknesses become complimentary?
Cobot players are going to have to explore and challenge their assumptions here if they want to be category leaders.

Future: 

What more might we do to create a cobot experience for human workers that they enjoy, and benefit from, and that results in more than the sum of its parts?

Up next are our thoughts on the untapped potential of cobots.

If we limit our understanding of a successful cobot to their ability to carry out these tasks, we’re missing a bigger picture of how they can transform the lives of the human food production workforce for the better.

2. On the nature of collaboration, and how it can inform our goals for cobot human-machine interface:

The industry has recognized the difficulty of creating a robot that genuinely collaborates with a human rather than impeding their movements, getting in the way, or even bumping into or hurting the human[5].

Making the robot to share the workspace with the human operator allows to take advantage of the features of the two resources, combining the flexibility of the operator with the repeatability of the robot.

However, including a new automation within the operator workspace may influence the performance of the operator and introduce new variables to be included, which rely mostly on human factors. In fact, the cobot may not only be a physical obstruction, which reduces the achievable throughput (Faccio et al., 2020), but it may also be a source of psychological stress for the operator…

Previous works have proved the impact of human factors on the overall manufacturing process quality in terms of productivity and production cost (Peruzzini & Pellicciari, 2017). In fact, the literature reports that nearly 50–75% of implementations of automation have failed in terms of quality, flexibility and reliability (Chung, 1996), and this is mainly due to the inattention to human-related issues (Castrillón & Cantorna, 2005; Ghani & Jayabalan, 2000). This lack of consideration towards human factors might result in unsuccessful implementations as people will tend to feel frustrated, neglected, and overpowered by robots (Kinzel, 2017). On the other hand, focusing on human factors makes operators feel comfortable with the new technologies, improving their efficiency (Kulic & Croft, 2005). Hence, a major focus of the fourth industrial revolution should be the development of human-centered working environments employing technologies able to support the development of human-automation symbiosis work systems (Romero et al., 2016).

Mitigating these issues is a good start, but merely creating a cobot that avoids human injury or impediment is a far cry from a cobot that helps, can anticipate, and empowers their human co-workers.

To understand how robots and humans should collaborate, we first need to understand the nature of collaboration. What elements are needed for effective collaborative relationships?

To witness close collaboration between two masters of their craft is to watch a thing of beauty. It’s a creative spontaneous activity where the output of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Together they can be not just more productive but also create a materially better product. Think of your favorite music ensemble creating music together; knowing exactly when to start and stop playing in perfect synchronicity, making their individual sounds swell or eb to bring out the expression of a theme, and intertwining to create something wholistically more satisfying than an individual performance.  All this created through the silent language of subtle movements, eye contact, breath, and all the mutual understanding born of hours spent honing a shared endeavor.

Can we reach this level of harmony and rhythm between humans and robots?

Academic research and industry players assert that the outcomes of cobot and human relationships are dependent on the limits of understanding between humans and robots[6][7].

Today this relationship is often characterized by stress, distrust, and miscommunication, the opposite of what is needed for collaboration. One source of this distrust and fear is the sense that human workers are being made redundant. Another is the learning curve required of human workers to train the robot, explain in its language what to do, and find a new way of working that accommodates the robot.

Now:

In the near-term, how might we find a more intuitive process for humans and robots to communicate with each other through non-verbals and body language; both necessary cues to be able to move harmoniously at speed?

What are the subtle cues to pick up on in a fast-paced, highly collaborative environment, and how can we leverage budding technologies to both uncover these cues and sense them real time?

Could we develop cobots that can recognize and sync with human patterns and rhythms of movement to anticipate and participate in a collaborative task?

How might we put increasing emphasis on cobots understanding and aligning to humans, rather than asking humans to cross the gap of understanding?

Future:

In the future, how might we create true collaboration which transforms a cobot from a job-taker, and a headache to an esteemed co-worker and employee who augments and empowers the creative work of the team?

3. Cobots and cooking-as-theater

As cobots become an increasingly common element in of restaurants and industrial kitchens, the question becomes: do we show them off? Or do we hide them? Part of this decision should be influenced by your target customers. For example, in general, older generations tend to be more averse to robots serving them or preparing their food, while younger generations are more likely to consider it an enhancement to convenience or even an exciting novelty.

For any audience, it bears putting some thought into how robots as part of the food prep experience can add value for the customer. One way this could be done is by leveraging robots as part of the experience, and taking advantage of the opportunity to make robotic food prep a new kind of theater.

Think of Rube Goldberg machines where the process to get from point A to point B is as much the point of the exercise as the final product. Robots that automate multi-step food prep using an enclosed system already lend themselves to this kind of whimsical treatment of the challenge. Think of hibachi grills or rotation sushi where the cooking itself is a show. Truebird Coffee is an example of this. The robotic barista, while enclosed in a sanitary prep space, is on full display so the customer can enjoy its mesmerizing movements.

(P.S. This product as well as the video below are owned by Truebird Coffee Co. Sundberg-Ferar was not involved in the design of this product nor do we own any rights to the video below. We just thought it was a super cool example!!)

Cobot elements to take advantage of in this context of cooking as theater:
• high levels of accuracy & repeatability
• ability to tolerate heat
• not necessary to limit robots to human-centric tools / can use new tools
• “personality” can be programmed

Future:

Could the novelty of cobots combined with the art of live cooking be leveraged to create new opportunities for business growth?

Now:

How might we create cobot capabilities that lend themselves not only to back-of-the-house logistics but also to front-of-the-house assistance, convenience, and entertainment?

(P.S. This product as well as the video below are owned by Truebird Coffee Co. Sundberg-Ferar was not involved in the design of this product nor do we own any rights to the video below. We just thought it was a super cool example!!)

4. Cleanliness and trust in cobot design

This idea of creating enjoyment in watching your food being made also creates an opportunity to build trust with the customer. For example, an industrial coffee maker today is usually fully hidden behind a stainless steel enclosure. Who knows how clean the inside of the machine is, or what ingredients it’s using to make your beverage? Just from outward appearances it’s impossible to tell if there is a good way to clean the machine, whether there are year-old grounds stuck somewhere in crevices and elbows within the machine, or if someone is regularly cleaning the interior. If you were working with or being served by a cobot that can make all kinds of hot beverages, would you trust it more if you couldn’t see what was going on inside, or if you could?

When a cobot’s process is made visible to its coworkers and customers, the proof is right in front of them that the machine is clean, what ingredients are being added, what processes are being used to prepare the food, and if they’re getting the order right. Chipotle, Subway and others have built much of their brand on the customer’s ability to see the process and fresh ingredients going into their food. A great example of this is Picnic‘s pizza-making robot in the video below.

Future:

Could the same strategies be used when considering how cobots should be presented to customers?

Now:

How can we develop cobot architectures for food service or restaurants that demystify the role and function of the cobot to create trust?

(P.S. The product in the video below is owned and designed by Picnic. Sundberg-Ferar was not involved in the design of this product nor do we own any rights to the video below. Again, just a great example we wanted to share with you!)

5. Cobots to Empower Humans

We’ve already mentioned how cobots should empower their human co-workers, and not hinder them. But what if cobots provided a unique opportunity to engage disabled workers in roles which have previously not been an option? Dawn Avatar Robot Café kitchen is using a business model where they can employ disabled workers as servers by allowing them to remotely control robot avatars who take orders and interact with customers[8]. The whole premise of cobots is to leverage them where humans meet limitations like attention-span, precision, repetitiveness, and even movements or motions that are impossible for them. This is simply an extension of that principle applied in a beautiful way to create new avenues for social growth and engagement. How else could cobots actually create opportunities for human employees?

Future:

How might we use cobots to enable people who are passionate about food to pursue their passion regardless of physical limitations?

Now:

How might we use cobots to execute tasks like hearing, translating, seeing, lifting etc?

6. Culinary Virtuosity and  Cobots

The final frontier of cobot collaboration may be in the chef’s kitchen. Boutique kitchens are affected by labor shortages and increased demand just like industrial kitchens. Yet, expert chefs and seasoned cooking staff rely on their ability to adapt to new ingredients, unforeseen circumstances, and the inspiration of the moment to deliver their best culinary experience. Patrons of such establishments go there because they believe in the magic of a dish prepared with passion and love. Mom’s spaghetti is the best spaghetti because it’s “made with love”. Is it possible to replicate these instincts in a cobot chef, sous-chef, or humble line cook?

Is it possible to deliver high culinary art in a kitchen where humans and cobots intermingle?
The speed, dexterity and flair, fluid movements, ability to handle and apply multiple ingredients with a deft hand, multitasking, perceiving the changes in the food as it cooks, and knowing in your gut when to take it off the heat – can this be replicated in a cooking cobot? Can a cobot help accomplish the goals of a culinary artist?

Future:

How might we create robots that can assist with culinary arts at a highly skilled level, complementing the unique style of an individual chef of cook, and helping artists realize their vision?

Now:

How might we create cobots that don’t merely execute a task, but execute it with their own flair created by their unique capabilities?

Robot kitchens from the 50s to now

In 1959, Sundberg-Ferar designed Whirlpool’s “Miracle Kitchen” for the American National Exhibition in Moscow. The kitchen featured a robotic dishwasher that would come take your dirty plates for you, the first ever robotic vacuum cleaner concept, and a robotic command center that could verbally communicate with users and initiate automated tasks for them. The demonstration of this technology concept was made possible at the time by pulley systems, magnets, and “men behind the curtain”, but it was enough to spark the famous “Kitchen Debate” between Russian Chairman of the counsil of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, and US President Nixon.

Today, there is still hot debate on the subject of what role robots (and many other disruptive technologies) should play in our daily lives, and a lot of these same concepts are still re-imagined in technology shows today with increasing fidelity. But the theme of the conversation around cobot innovation should remain the same. How can the quality of human lives be improved through exceptionally designed robot innovation?

We’re ready to help you answer that question.

Already we’ve designed robotic and automated products for the future of food, and we’re up for the challenge of helping you create the next cobot with exceptional human-machine interface, whether your goal is to improve the lives of your workers, increase productivity, create a compelling experience for customers, grow your business, or all of the above!

Let’s build a foundation for a future where cobots increase joy and effectiveness in the workplace, allow customers and employees alike to feel safe, self-assured, and supported, and ultimately enable more people to access great food experiences!  

Cobots and the Future of Food: 6 considerations for cobot design

Author

Co-Authored by Lynnaea Haggard, with Evan Carpenter-Crawford, Rob Rehrig, and Grey Parker

Lynnaea HaggardMarketing Manager, has been sharing the perspective of Sundberg-Ferar and the value of Industrial Design with the rest of the world for over 4 years. As Marketing Manager, she leads the studio’s marketing strategy and initiatives, including thought leadership and content marketing among other responsibilities. She holds a BA in Industrial Design from the International Center for Creativity.

Evan Carpenter-Crawford, Senior Product Designer and HMI Specialist, has been building the company’s skill set and portfolio for over 20 years at Sundberg Ferar. Evan began SF’s UI design capability in 1997 and continues to foster its development on the bleeding edge of product interface innovation. Apart from Sundberg-Ferar, Evan has also been teaching design for over 20 years at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.

Rob Rehrig, Senior Electrical Design Engineer, is a hardware hacker by day and design deliriant by night with a passion for human-computer interaction, music, and rapid prototyping. With over 10 years experience in the field, he also holds an MS in computer engineering from University of Delaware, as well as a MS in Music Engineering Technology from University of Miami (Florida).

Grey Parker, CEO, has been at the helm of Sundberg-Ferar for over 3 years, building on the company’s team and capabilities and overseeing some of the studio’s most important projects in industry 5.0. With his deep background in automotive and product design & engineering, he knows the factory floor and how to push the limits of feasible design while thinking ahead to production, and throughout his career, he’s taken pride in making products beautiful from the inside out.