There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic is strangling the service industry. But, it’s also giving restauranteurs an opportunity to examine the upsides and downsides of automation.
States like California with high labor rates, increasing real estate costs, and high unemployment rates from the pandemic are perfect breeding grounds for restaurant automation. These states are also striking examples of the devastating human cost of automation. California’s unemployment office received a staggering 1 million unemployment claims in the last two weeks alone. Nearly 10 percent of the state’s unemployed work in the service industry. And that number is guaranteed to rise.
Automation has obvious benefits as well—namely reducing labor costs and improving efficiency. However, the practical downsides are just as important to consider. For example, many current automated solutions address the distance between customers and employee. However, companies making these products are using materials proven to have low antimicrobial resistance.
This article will examine a few ways which the pandemic has changed the automation debate. It is not meant to be an all-encompassing analysis. Rather, it will examine a few areas that are directly impacted by the pandemic.
One of the most impactful but most overlooked aspects of the automation debate is which materials should be used to develop automated products.
In 2010, the National Institute of Health (NIH) compared the growth rates of biofilms—bacterial attachment and growth on material surfaces—to the antibacterial properties of different metals. Nine pure metals such as titanium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, zirconium, molybdenum, tin, and lead were tested for their antibacterial properties against Gram-positive Staphylococcus aureus and Gram-negative Escherichia coli, two common bacteria found in restaurants and hospitals. The study found that titanium and tin had very low resistivity, while copper showed high resistivity. A similar study was conducted in 2017 by NIH that confirmed these results.
Unfortunately, most kitchens are outfitted with stainless steel equipment, from slicers and knives to prep tables. Stainless steel has no inherent antimicrobial properties as well. But that hasn’t stopped companies like Dishcraft from creating autonomous robots to perform sanitization services for restaurants.
Dishcraft’s signature product is an AI powered all-in-one dishwashing service that purports to clean dishes in an environmentally friendly and efficient manner. However, their system is built entirely of stainless steel just like many dish pits. Meanwhile, scientists recently discovered that coronaviruses can live on stainless steel for up to three days.
Pay with your face
While many restaurants are limping into the automation era by utilizing touch screen self-serve kiosks, they should be weary of the materials used to create these stations.
Cali Group, who owns popular California-based burger joint Caliburger, recently announced plans to launch a “Pay With Your Face” application known as PopPay that will obsolete credit and debit cards, both of which can transmit pathogens between customers and employees, from food service transactions.
The technology is pioneered by PopID, a facial recognition software company that’s been around since 2018. According to an article in Food & Wine Magazine, the process works like this: customers enter their favorite restaurant and signup for PopID’s rewards program at a large kiosk by entering their email address and credit card information. At the same time, a built-in camera captures your visual likeness and stores it in its system. Caliburger currently utilizes PopID technology in over 40 California stores.
However, utilizing the PopID kiosks requires customers to come in contact with plastics on its touch screen. New research from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland found that plastics collected from several locations along the Irish coast were antibiotic resistant.
There are currently several companies who utilized recycled sea plastics to make touch screens, including Xenarc Technologies, who partners with restaurants like McDonald’s who are embracing touchscreen technology in route toward automating their customer experience.
It should be mentioned that touch screens can be manufactured with coatings containing copper to reduce microbial buildup. Even so, touch screens may have an adverse effect on customer’s health if they contain antibiotic-resistant plastics.
Another piece of technology Cali Group is introducing to fight the spread of COVID-19 is Entry Screening, a tool that will measure the body temperature of customers and employees as they enter the building. This device is attached to the doors while the restaurant is open for takeout and delivery and will deny access to anyone detected to have a fever.
While this technology will certainly reduce exposure to COVID, many people who have naturally high body temperatures could be left out of purchasing food for reasons beyond their control. In fact, studies have shown that people who live in warmer climates typically exert a higher-than-normal body temperature.
For employees, this can be an especially precarious situation since it may keep some employees from working their shifts, even if their doctor deems them fit and healthy.
There are plenty of upsides to increasing automation in the hospitality industry as well. Peter Xing, associate director in technology and growth initiatives at KPMG, recently spoke at Singularity University’s COVID-19 Virtual Summit about this very topic. Specifically, Xing mentioned that automation can help all industries reduce scarcity and improve how supply chains deliver goods to businesses.
To begin with, automation is a driving force behind the production of several goods consumers are currently panic buying. One example is toilet paper. This phenomenon makes it difficult for both consumers and businesses to acquire essential goods, and, in turn, can be to the detriment of the customer’s experience of a restaurant.
Secondly, automation could provide more incentive for humans to interact. While this is not advisable given the current state of the pandemic, automating fast-casual restaurants could be an economic stimulus plan all its own. Xing’s research found that we spend about $12 to cook a meal at home. If fast-casual concepts could lower their costs to meet or beat this price, Xing believes more people would eat out. This could greatly improve the future earning of many restaurant concepts currently sloughing through the pandemic-stricken economy.
The debate over automation in the restaurant industry is far from over. But, given the state of the industry, pandemic-stricken businesses have a prime opportunity to consider the upsides and downsides to automation. Similarly, AI companies have an opportunity to develop new products that can help thwart future pandemics by utilizing antimicrobial materials.