In a test kitchen in a corner building in downtown Pasadena, Calif., Flippy the robot grabbed a fryer basket full of chicken fingers, plunged it into hot oil -- its sensors told it exactly how hot -- then lifted, drained and dumped maximally tender tenders into a waiting hopper.
A few feet away, another Flippy eyed a beef patty sizzling on a griddle. With its camera eyes feeding pixels to a machine vision brain, it waited until the beef hit the right shade of brown, then smoothly slipped its spatula hand under the burger and plopped it on a tray.
The product of decades of research in robotics and machine learning, Flippy represents a synthesis of motors, sensors, chips and processing power that wasn't possible until recently.
Now, Flippy's success -- and the success of the company that built it, Miso Robotics -- depends on simple math and a controversial hypothesis of how robots can transform the service economy. Costing less to employ than a minimum-wage worker, Flippy is built to slip in right alongside humans on the fast food line.
Off-the-shelf robot arms have plunged in price in recent years, from more than $100,000 in 2016, when Miso Robotics first launched, to under $10,000 today, with cheaper models coming in the near future.
As a result, Miso can offer Flippys to fast food restaurant owners for an estimated $2,000 per month on a subscription basis, breaking down to about $3 per hour. (The actual cost will depend on customers' specific needs). A human doing the same job costs $4,000 to $10,000 and up per month, depending on a restaurant's hours and the local minimum wage. And robots never call in sick.
If the cost of hardware hadn't gone down so quickly, Miso's business model would never have worked, said Buck Jordan, the company's chief executive. "We took a bet," he said. "A risky bet. But it's paying off."
So far, early versions of Flippy have put in time on the line at Dodger Stadium and at locations of CaliBurger, a small quick-serve chain that Jordan says also functions as "a restaurant tech incubator masquerading as a burger joint" (Cali Group, CaliBurger's parent company, is the parent company of Miso Robotics as well as two other restaurant industry startups). The next version of the robot will use the new, cheaper arms and be mounted on an overhead rail to conserve floor space in tight kitchens.
But Jordan believes Flippy is poised to become a regular part of fast food kitchens across the country in the next year, especially in markets with higher labor costs -- and real estate costs -- like California. Miso has raised more than $13 million in investment, and is currently trying to raise an additional $30 million to fund its push into fast food kitchens from small investors on the equity crowdfunding platform SeedInvest.
The restaurant industry as a whole has been facing a labor crisis for years, fueled by record-low unemployment across the economy and ever-rising consumer demand for prepared food. Nationally, the sector consistently has one of the highest percentages of open positions, with more than 820,000 unfilled jobs in December 2019, according to federal statistics. And turnover rates, which have always been high for low-paying fast food jobs, have climbed to more than 100% per year.