A kitchen with a brain

How near are we to seeing autonomous processes, remote management and AI in control of the kitchen? Jim Banks speaks to the experts about how kitchens are becoming smarter

The terms ‘smart kitchen’ and ‘connected kitchen’ are often used interchangeably to refer to an environment in which various kitchen appliances – from cookers to chillers – communicate with each other, automate tasks and generate data that helps operators to improve efficiency. Some visions of the future depict a completely automated kitchen environment run by artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, the terms may not be synonymous at all.

Connected kitchens were, in a way, available 30 years ago. Appliances could be wired together to gather data in a central computer. Now, with wireless connectivity and data stored in the Cloud, we can look ahead to the smart kitchen – a kitchen with a brain.

“A connected kitchen means connection between the human function, the equipment and the management of tasks,” says consultant Joseph Schumaker FCSI, president and CEO of SCG FoodSpace in California, which focuses on corporate kitchens. “In that environment, functions such as pre-heating the oven to be ready for cooking can be automated and machines with AI will let operators know about potential problems with
the equipment.”

From his perspective, “We are lightyears away from smart kitchens, in which one hub enables the operator to see everything that is happening with equipment in the kitchen,” he adds. “Now, the market is fragmented between individual manufacturers who are  protective of their intellectual property – and rightly so – so equipment from different manufacturers cannot communicate with each other.”

Why connectivity counts

The connected kitchen is appealing to operators because it promises more efficiency and greater simplicity. The ability to automate processes to ensure the same quality of food time after time would be of great benefit, particularly in high-turnover operations. Connectivity is the basis for process automation, which relies on data put into the system at the beginning of each process.

Connectivity, and the data it delivers, can also help to reduce energy consumption and, through process optimisation, enable operators to simplify key tasks and realise time savings. More sophisticated use of data analytics can lead to predictive maintenance, where appliances are able to send alerts about potential technical problems.

The use of data on sales figures to structure delivery times and improve stock ordering is already commonplace, but more sophisticated still is the potential to personalize menus to the needs of individual customers – taking into account allergies, for instance, or food preferences – freeing up staff to add value elsewhere.

“Some say that AI will eliminate 80% of the jobs in foodservice but, in fact, those people will be used elsewhere,” says Keith Warren, chief executive of Catering Equipment Suppliers Association (CESA). “Just as the industrial revolution moved the market to mass production, people were then needed to fulfil other roles that add value.”

“Digitalisation could also play a big role in reducing energy usage and carbon footprint,” he adds. “The agenda is about connecting everything and generating data that can be used to make decisions about the business. You cannot have data for its own sake, it must add value.”

Most kitchen equipment has become very good at gathering data but using that information effectively – to see where processes could be improved or where value is either gained or lost in the typical operation of the kitchen for example – is not yet highly developed. The potential of AI to open up predictive analytics, however, holds great promise.

“It is important to remember that connectivity is a journey,” says Warren. “The digital agenda will end up in a place where everything in our lives in connected. Some manufacturers are embracing the idea, but when operators can see the economies of scale that can result from the inevitably higher priced connected equipment, then they will embrace digitalisation and see it as an investment that saves them money or increases the value to the customer.”

The slow road ahead

At the moment, the market is highly fragmented, with competing suppliers unable to open up to collaboration. “Now, manufacturers are developing their own software and data management systems,” says Warren. “We need a universal standard for the reporting platform for data so it can be reported and aggregated across all equipment in a kitchen. We need joined-up thinking.

“Standardisation, which is possible in the foodservice industry, would give confidence to manufacturers and the operators who are paying a higher price for equipment. They could have one login to manage their entire estate.”

Warren admits that this will not happen overnight, but there are signs that collaboration is possible. A prime example is the work Irinox, the chiller manufacturer, and oven manufacturer Rational have been doing to connect their products.

“We do not yet have a proactive kitchen that does more than gather data or respond to commands from users, but that is our final goal,” says Pietro Romanazzi, innovation manager at Irinox. “We want to have a kitchen with a brain inside, that is easy to use and that tells users what needs to be done.”

“It sounds easy but it is hard to do,” he adds. “So, we have started with communication between Rational ovens and our chillers, so that the cook/chill process can be automated to save time and money.”

The system enables Rational’s SelfCookingCenter (SCC) to communicate via the Cloud with the Irinox MultiFresh blast chiller. The SCC sends a message when the food in the oven is nearly ready, so the blast chiller can automatically start the pre-chilling cycle. When the pre-chill is complete, it initiates the most appropriate cycle for the type of food being prepared.

“The technology uses enhanced connectivity and a Cloud platform that allows the exchange of information in real time.” says Michael Hoffmann, director of product management and growth at Rational. “The Cloud is better than a classic wired connection because it is more scalable. That allows us to maintain the features more easily and release new functions without physically touching the machines in the field.”

“The idea is to create combined cycles of cooking and chilling,” notes Romanazzi. “All you have to do is press a button and move the food to the chiller at the right time.”

The system saves energy because the chiller does not need to always be running in order to be ready. It saves time because the two machines are perfectly coordinated.

For these kinds of synergies to become standard across an entire kitchen, the industry will need common standards. Organizations such as CESA are involved in these discussions and recognise that standards need to come from the top down. If standards come from manufacturers then the market will remain fragmented.

A smart future

The industry is perhaps eight to 10 years away from the truly smart kitchen, but there are already striking advances in the area of automation. Alfred from Dexai Robotics is a robot that can take orders from a POS system, pick up a scoop or ladle and then select ingredients in the correct amount to create menu items.

From scooping ice cream to preparing salads, Alfred’s capabilities represent a first step in the pursuit of automation, robotics and labour efficiency, which is now at the toddler stage. Robots are nevertheless becoming familiar and acceptable to customers in some applications.

The question hanging over the smart kitchen is whether operators will drive manufacturers to overcome their differences and introduce connectivity that works across brands.

“At the moment, we have a Mexican standoff,” says Schumaker. “No one has drawn their gun yet, and end-users are not sure what they would do with smart kitchens. They are worried about labour issues and about cost. But there are thousands of opportunities where technology could save money and time, as well as create opportunities for customer engagement.”

“It could take a third party from outside the industry to solve the problem of communication between brands,” he adds. “Millennials are foodies, so they could work to solve the problem or at least highlight it. We are already seeing young, smart, entrepreneurial people starting to look at it.”

Though smart kitchens currently face limitations, there is widespread agreement that foodservice consultants will have a major role in driving forward their development. Acting as a bridge between operators and equipment manufacturers, they bring together the needs of the industry and the capability of the technology.

As consultants talk to their clients about how connected equipment can deliver tangible value and as they talk to manufacturers to help drive innovation in the right direction for the market, they could well be the catalyst that takes us from the connected kitchen to the smart kitchen.

Jim Banks

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