Walmart (WMT) is in the early stages of testing a kitchen robot assistant named “Flippy” at its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters to see whether or not it’s the right fit for its in-store delis.
Flippy is the world’s first autonomous robotic kitchen assistant powered by artificial intelligence from Miso Robotics, a two-year-old startup. The robot made headlines a year ago debuting as the burger-flipping robot at a CaliBurger franchise in Pasadena.
More recently, Flippy got a gig at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles with vending food service company Levy Restaurants, part of Compass Group, to fry up chicken tenders and tater tots. Through the World Series, Flippy churned out 17,000 pounds worth of the fried foods. It’s able to fry up to eight baskets of food simultaneously.
“Walmart saw what we were doing and said, ‘Could you bring Flippy from Dodgers Stadium to our Culinary Institute?'” Miso Robotics CEO David Zito told Yahoo Finance.
Yahoo Finance visited Flippy to see it in action at Walmart’s Culinary Institute and Innovation Center.
The way it works is Flippy automates the frying process for many of the items served in the deli, including chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, and potato wedges.
In practice, a Walmart associate would place a frozen product on the rack. Using visual recognition technology, Flippy identifies the food in the basket and sets it in the cooking oil. The machine then “agitates” the basket by shaking it to make sure the product cooks evenly. When the food is finished cooking, Flippy moves the basket to the drip rack. An associate then tests the food’s internal temperature. A few minutes later, the associate can season the food before it hits the hot display case.
Miso Robotic’s vision behind Flippy was to put “eyes and a brain” on an industrial robotic arm that could be found in a manufacturing facility and apply that to a commercial kitchen.
The reason Walmart is looking at the robot is so it can do some of the more mundane and repetitive tasks at the deli.
“If you think about commercial kitchens, they really are micro-manufacturing facilities. And yet, they are some of the hardest conditions for people to work in,” Zito said. “Our whole thing is not about job replacement, right. You hear this over and over again. Automating food is very difficult. Ask any chef. Their goal is to try to faithfully reproduce that delicious recipe that they unlocked once. And in software we do that all day long, we make an app, it’s great, and everyone gets the same experience over and over again. With food, you crack that code once, and you get that flavor that’s so great and then it’s so hard to faithfully reproduce it. What we want to do is assist the hardworking linemen cooks and chefs in America with tools to give them the ability to faithfully reproduce while taking the burden off some of these more repetitive and mundane tasks.”
What’s more, the deli job typically has a high turnover as it’s a difficult job due to the cooking requirements.
The robot is supposed to serve as an “extra set of hands,” letting the associate spend less time putting potato wedges and chicken tenders in fryers and more time on other services like taking customer orders and prepping other foods.
It’s also a way to create a consistent product every time and also help ensure food safety and minimize food waste.
Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter. Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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