Robots Making Pizza Still Need a Human Touch

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We’ve all heard that robots are taking our jobs, right? Well, there’s a takeout joint in Mountain View where robots help make the pizza, and it illustrates how automation could impact the food industry.

Zume is tucked into an office park and it only delivers pizza. Its brand is about being healthy and locally sourced, and Zume pays for the better ingredients in part by saving on labor costs in the kitchen, says Julia Collins, co-founder and co-CEO of Zume.

“In a lot of ways it looks like a traditional kitchen,” Collins says as she shows me around Zume’s kitchen. “But what you’ve never seen before is a robot-enabled pizza assembly line.”

Collins walks me down the line. The first thing you notice is there are people working on the line. They make about $18 an hour, and one of them is Jose Lopez. He’s holding a mound of dough.

“So Jose has taken our dough, and he’s using this dough bot to press the dough out,” Collins says, as Lopez places the dough into a rectangular machine.


So, instead of throwing the dough into the air to make a pie, at Zume a “dough bot” presses it into one.

“It’s nine times faster than doing it manually,” Collins says.

Lopez takes the 14-inch sheet of dough and places it onto a conveyer belt. A stainless-steel dispenser squirts tomato sauce onto the middle of the pie. Then it moves to a second machine, which spreads the sauce. Most of the machines on the line are centrally wired into a computerized brain, which keeps track of the pizza orders.

Robots Making Pizza Still Need a Human Touch

Robots Making Pizza Still Need a Human Touch

And then human beings put the toppings on the pizza.

“When we first looked at this line, we did think of automating these steps as well,” Collins says. But picking up toppings takes dexterity and a soft touch. Human hands are the best tools for that task.

“This is probably the favorite robot of everyone. His name is Bruno,” Collins says.

Bruno is a large automated arm. But where there might be a hand, there’s a large pan.

“You’ve seen this robot stacking pallets or moving tons of machinery,” Collins says.

At Zume, Bruno has been reprogrammed to place pizza in the oven. The pizza glides off the conveyer belt into its tray, and then Bruno lifts its arm and slides the pizza into the 800-degree oven.

Collins says the assembly line was designed for machines and people to work side by side. And when possible, Zume “outsources” the more dangerous or repetitive tasks to machines like Bruno.

Michael Chui is with McKinsey Global Institute and he co-authored a big study on automation. His research found that the food service industry was ripe for automation. Chui says you can see why the food industry is ripe for automation at places like Zume. For one thing, much of the technology already exists.

“There are sensors that can measure the temperature, arms that move and can pick up food,” Chui says. Like Bruno. Still, Chui says it will be a long time before robots totally replace humans.

“Right now, the wage within fast-food restaurants tends to be relatively low," Chui says. "And for it to make economic sense to bring in robots, you actually have to see these robots have a lower cost per hour.”

So until robots are willing to take a pay cut, humans are safe.