Chris Roberts takes a look at what automation in the kitchen really means, and what he predicts technology will soon be delivering

When thinking about a robotic kitchen of the future, most people will think of concept kitchens from Moley Robotics, Sereneti Kitchen or having a burger created by Flippy. But looking at the bigger picture, is an automated future kitchen more than just robotic arms, recreating the same moves a master chef would make? Do we have to rethink the cooking process through an engineer’s eyes to make leaps such as turning a wok through 90 degrees as the guys behind Spyce have done?

You only need to browse through CES’s offerings to see that the integration of kitchen appliances in their current form into the connected or ‘smart’ home is a key focus of technologists. For some, the vision of the future is general-purpose domestic robots, whilst for others it is automation with a specific purpose. The LG and Drop combination enabling automatic adjustment of oven settings to match recipe selected is one step towards the seamless integration of cold storage, heating and cleaning of pots, pans, crockery and utensils. How long before personal assistants are so integrated that I’ll be able to say, ‘Alexa hand me a whisk’?

But what of the changing consumer and will they even desire the invasion of a robot into the heart of their home? How can a robot augment the social aspect of preparing, cooking and sharing food? As we see with the rise in premium prepared foods, meal kits and grab-and-go options, today’s time-starved consumers are seeking convenience, however, they also have rising healthy eating and sustainability priorities. The new generation of home cooks still wish to have an in-home experience; want to be challenged with new ingredients or flavours but sometimes lack the skills or time to accomplish this. With a greater focus on addressing food waste and traceability of ingredients driving food choices it is often what to prepare that we need help with.

A recent report from Mintel says that 27 per cent of US consumers agree it takes too much time to prepare healthy food. But is time the real issue? If the recent resurgence of the slow cooker of 1970s popularity shows anything it is that people will plan ahead if the reward is home-cooked food. The challenge for technology development is knowing what the relevant problem in the kitchen is and from there, working out exactly how automation can help.

Our experience from developing automation solutions for catering clients suggests that the key to success is to do detailed analysis before deciding which tasks to automate, and then carefully design how you automate them. Most people who are employed in a catering environment are excellent at multitasking, something that’s hard for a robot to do. The main driver for automation, in our experience, is not cost (robots are expensive!), but difficulties in recruiting and retraining staff. This means it is more valuable to automate loading a dishwasher than it is automating cooking. It’s important not to just replicate a human, but to play to the strengths of robots. An automated solution generally needs more space that the person, but it also doesn’t need everything at waist height to work on, for example. The automated kitchen would drive changes in the supply chain – for example my robotic kitchen may work best in combination with pre-portioned ingredients, much like a meal kit, for which I could have daily d liveries of fresh produce. These ingredients could even have been fully or partly prepared by offsite robots in large catering kitchens such that my in-home robot merely finishes the process. Advances in autonomous delivery will accelerate new business models incorporating customised daily delivery of fresh produce in pods specifically designed to slot into my robotic kitchen.

What would a kitchen look like if designed from scratch around a robot? Could a future be an adaptive workspace where the human is very much at the centre with a supporting cast?

There’s been a trend towards collaborative robots (cobots) that can work safely with people, but they’re not perfect yet. State-of-the-art cobots tend to stop on collision with people or the environment. Ideally, you’d want something that plans around the human, but that needs advanced sensors and software. This doesn’t exist in off the shelf form (yet!) but we’re working on it.

When a top-end new kitchen easily costs of tens of thousands of pounds an entire new kitchen built around a robot may be affordable for some but the challenge will be in modularisation for the masses. Not just to meet the individual consumer preference but the hugely varied physical environment of the rooms we call kitchens.

Should the focus be on some of the least satisfying tasks? The tasks I hate most involve dishes. Even loading and unloading a dishwasher is an unwelcome process. And where is that special spoon or sharp knife just when I need it? That’s right, dirty in the machine. Rethinking crockery, utensils, pots and pans cleaning alongside storage could be a key innovation space in future. The challenges of identifying, manipulating and sorting items for cleaning isn’t trivial as we found in a recent project for an automated catering kitchen dishwasher. The key challenge here was identifying and picking up the plate, bowl and glass on a tray, when they could be partially hidden by food waste, napkins and other debris. Once you’ve identified it, the rest can be done with relatively ‘dumb’ automation.

How will automation change the shape of the kitchen? Not with a humanoid Jeeves but with a behind the scenes system bringing the kitchenware I need to where I need it. Doing the tasks I really don’t want to do. This comes down to carefully choosing the task. A fully automated kitchen that does everything for me – still science fiction – but a dishwasher that loads itself? Or a voice activated, self-cleaning food prep machine? Those are the sorts of innovations I expect to be developing soon. D

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Chris Roberts is Head of Industrial Robotics at Cambridge Consultants. Cambridge Consultants develops breakthrough products, creates and licenses intellectual property, and provides business consultancy in technology-critical issues for clients worldwide. For more than 50 years, the company has been helping its clients turn business opportunities into commercial successes, whether they are launching first-to-market products, entering new markets or expanding existing markets through the introduction of new technologies.