July 13, 2024

Man versus machine?

As caterers adapt processes to do more with fewer staff, Julie Baxter asks whether robotics could provide some much-needed solutions…

In 2022 a team of former SpaceX engineers turned its attention to the food industry. In collaboration with US-based Stellar Pizza, they created food trucks ‘staffed’ by pizza-making robots that can prep to order, cook and serve a pizza in three minutes. 

From Miso Robotics, a robot arm called the Flippy 2 now works the fryer at US fast food restaurants and in the Middle East for KFC and Pizza Hut.

With kitchen staff in short supply, it’s easy to see the appeal but could it work for inflight catering?  

Automation is already familiar in catering kitchens, speeding up inflight tray-loading, packaging and operational logistics; and on the culinary side, auto-stirring kettles are common, depositors deliver dosed amounts to a recipe and formatters can aid neat presentations. The newest kitchens increasingly include smart equipment too, such as that supplied by German thermal cooking specialist, MKN, where classical equipment has evolved into intelligent operating systems, embedding chef knowledge as simply as using a smartphone.

Marc Warde, chef and founder of Niche Free-from Kitchen, says: “The advantage of automation and robotics in the kitchen is that when they work well they ensure absolute consistency on volume production, providing a perfect product every time. Certain manufacturers and caterers in our sector are using them, to varying levels of success, and I’m sure this will grow enormously as the cost falls. It can monitor and guarantee production yields better than humans. And the vital importance of nutritional data, allergen risks and accurate labelling means the precision it ensures is increasingly critical.” 

Precision driven

Warde identifies a cultural change in the role of chefs, driven by this need for precision: “Chef expertise is not just about adding a bit of this and a bit of that now, it’s about accuracy and consistency. The chef’s role has changed.”

Oliver Fischer, Director Group Culinary Excellence at gategroup, agrees and believes this cultural shift coincides with the rebuild post-Covid, driving change in catering kitchens. He says: “Robotics, automation and digitalisation are hot topics for our industry. We all need to make better use of the people we employ. There is always an urge to buy a tool, say a robot, to replace people because we all love innovation but there are challenges for inflight.

“We have looked for some time at the Kaizen principles developed by Toyota for fully automating the manufacture of meals or setting of trays. It can be useful in dishwashing, food prep and logistics but it is only beneficial if you have a standard operating model – standard processes at every base, and can move suitably-skilled people around your network to where they are needed. We have 160 kitchens worldwide, operating in very different environments – standardising these is the challenge we are working on and that really will bring efficiencies.”

He believes digitalisation of the kitchen is key to automating processes and cites gategroup’s latest initiative, the introduction of the Apicbase digital cloud tool to create inflight menus. The software can search a database of over 1,000 recipes to create concepts and culinary choices based on any specific airline brief.

Options are instantly available, clear and compliant in terms of allergens, labelling and nutritional values. Using this technology, every gategroup kitchen can work to a standard and create the same product – tweaking it to suit local supplies, tastes and trends.

“The core R&D task used to involve a lot of time and people and numerous spreadsheets and documents. This is automation at its best – it is creative, has incredible know-how instantly at its disposal and its formulas are all very precise in terms of meeting legal and safety needs. 

“The mysticism of menu creation is now entirely transparent and sharable worldwide for consistent execution,” says Fischer.

Digitising kitchen equipment, he says, makes it possible to automate the most boring and laborious (but essential) elements of the kitchen process, the admin, health and safety compliance, machine maintenance and auditing. 

“We still need people in the process but they now have a far more proactive role.They are there to observe, intervene and manage the processes, giving live feedback and skilled insights to the digitalised process. It is no longer the case that we are arguing about what went right or wrong yesterday, our staff make changes for the better now, the auditing is live, the improvement happens today, not days later after an audit review. This applies not just to culinary but to drivers or dishwashers too. It creates huge efficiencies and also avoids costly mistakes,” explains Fischer.

Trucking on

LSG Group turned to tech to tackle the global shortage of truck drivers, developing the Intelligent Truck. A system of seven cameras provides a 360° surround view of the catering truck exterior and upward-facing cameras help avoid wingtip collisions. Images are displayed on 10-inch screens inside of the caterer’s 600 truck cabs. A single driver can now safely cater an aircraft without a second person needed as a guide.

For many caterers automation is not just about working with fewer staff but about giving staff better jobs, improving health and safety plus adding more job satisfaction, to aid retention.

Fischer says: “Our kitchen staff are now more engaged in the full process. A robot can do some of the mixing and portioning but food is a highly emotional element of the inflight service and it is the finishing touches and the personal inputs that really make the difference, and for that you need engaged people taking pride in their role.

“Our industry has some quite specific needs. Any automated system has to be simple and very flexible. We have to be able to amend operations quickly, something we are expert at doing manually with our people.

“Any automation has to embed that flexibility too. Efficiency is not just about less handling on a standard day, it has to work on the difficult, unexpected days too and for that you need committed, well-trained staff,” he adds.

Boosting interest

Priority is being given to making kitchen jobs more interesting, so individuals’ roles make more sense. This has required a training ramp-up which is also being driven by digitalisation. Gategroup now offers a broad range of online training so its employees and culinary community can build knowledge at a pace and time convenient to them. 

Ultimately there is hope these will build to become a recognised apprenticeship programme, degree or other professional qualification, standardised across the industry to support retention and allow easier transfer of personnel and their skills around the world. 

As yet, there is no inflight kitchen training programme for the pizza robots!