If you haven’t visited a fast food restaurant in quite a while, you might be surprised to learn that some of your favorite spots are turning to automation. That’s a direction in which the industry has been moving slowly, albeit steadily, in recent years.
When you think about fast food production, two factors are especially key to success: uniformity and speed. Automated food preparation, then, can have a significant impact on a restaurants’ efficiency. This production shift is taking place amid public calls for a minimum $15 per hour minimum wage. Automation may be an effective way for the chains to alleviate those higher labor costs. Employees might worry – and rightfully so – that their employers are looking to replace them. However, many in the industry maintain that automation is only intended to assist, not replace, humans.
The History of Fast Food Automation
Automation isn’t a new phenomenon in fast food. There have been elements of automation in place in this industry since the late 19th/early 20th century. Historian Nicholas Bromell described how automats bridged early 20th century cafeterias and the very first McDonalds and Burger King restaurants, which opened in the 1950s. Those early cafeterias were utilitarian, short on atmosphere and intended to provide a place where workers could grab a quick bite before heading back to their shifts.
The first automat opened in the late 1800s, shortly after vending machines were invented. Diners stood in front of a large “wall of tiny glass windows displaying a high-rise of culinary delights.” After making their selections, they dropped their coins into a slot, turned the knob, and it was time to eat. A kitchen behind the scenes replaced the food items as needed. Foods were standardized in shape, size, and weight. There was no take-out; instead, diners sat at communal tables and ate off real plates using real silverware.
After the first McDonalds and Burger King restaurants opened in the 1950s, innovations like the automatic hamburger machine brought automated convenience to food production. Computerized cash registers came on the scene after UPC barcodes were invented in 1974. Michael Ilitch, who with his wife, Marian, opened the first Little Caesars Pizza in Michigan in 1959, created the first conveyor belt oven in 1977.
Today, online ordering and especially ordering by app have become increasingly popular ways for consumers to avoid a wait and skip to the front of the line. Touch-screen kiosks are becoming increasingly common today. Panera Bread has announced its plans to add the kiosks to all of its restaurants shortly, and McDonald’s is exploring the addition of kiosks at all U.S. locations to allow diners to customize their burgers.
Some industry experts, like Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed, have stated the belief that fast food robots, automation, and artificial intelligence could replace humans in fast-food establishments by the mid-2020s. However, Creed added that humans would still be required to make a lot of the food that customers order so that they wouldn’t be entirely obsolete. At this point, it’s hard to make definitive conclusions.
Challenges that Fast Food Robots Will Need to Conquer
Automation requires the introduction of more machines to the restaurant environment, which in turn means an even greater need for reliable and accurate asset tracking.
Machines will need to rely on accurate asset tracking to ensure that food is assembled correctly and that the right items are given to the right customer. A powerful asset tracking platform that delivers data in real time will enable restaurants to determine impending shortages, carry the proper quantities of inventory and prevent run-outs. Asset tracking will also help fast food outlets keep up with routine maintenance on their machines, run smoothly and avoid the frustration associated with malfunctioning or otherwise broken equipment. As automation becomes more prevalent, the need for proper equipment maintenance will be more critical than ever – particularly if robots become a more common phenomenon.
The Future of the Fast Food Industry
With a formal asset management system, restaurants can access in one centralized location the complete lifecycle of every one of their vital assets, establish equipment refreshment schedules, eliminate ghost assets, curb theft and save time and money, among other benefits. Asset tracking also helps restaurants manage their other fixed assets, including furniture, décor, vehicles, food packaging and much more.
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