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Design masterclass: When does multifunctional kitchen equipment make sense?

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While it might be the right option in many instances, "smart" foodservice equipment is not necessarily always the smartest choice when it comes to specification, says Tim Smallwood FFCSI

To say that a piece of multifunctional equipment cannot do everything at the same time would seem to be stating the obvious. However in many cases that is in effect the justification for the investment in the Super New, Best in the World: Flexible and Economic gadget.

In an à la carte environment the various functions of, say a combination oven; convection, steam and even smoking, are needed at the same time to deliver the various dishes on the menu. Certainly during the mis en place the various functions can be used, but if an oven and a steamer are required during service, there is little advantage to be had in combining all the functions into a single piece of equipment. Changing from one function to another might involve a delay for cooling or even special cleaning before it can be used for the next purpose during a busy service.

The 80-20 is a generally accepted rule that applies to the application of much technology: 20% of the capabilities are used 80% of the time and 80% of the equipment capabilities are never used. The same applies in many cases with new professional catering equipment that is being selected on the basis of all the things that it might be possible to use the equipment for some time in the future. In fact 80% of the time the original justification for the purchase was the requirement to do one thing well and the selection of the more sophisticated model being a solution looking for a problem.

The 80/20 rule

During decades (I remember seeing the first combi ovens in the late 1970’s) in our industry it has seemed that 80% of chefs buying a combination oven, do so because they require a convection oven. It is certainly the case that the materials handling systems and clean-in-place systems available in combi ovens are far superior to that in most convection ovens and that in itself could be a reasonable justification for selecting the type of equipment.

However the more systems integrated into a single item, the more complex the technology and the greater the cost of ownership.

There are many instances where the designer and operator should avoid multifunction equipment and not just because most of the capabilities will never be used. The most obvious is the anticipated competency of the users. Community kitchens operated by people without training in particular is a situation where a simple oven (possibly convection) with analogue controls is much more useful with far less potential to get damaged through (accidental) misuse than a combi oven.

Resisting the temptation to over-specify

Another situation applies with professional dishwashing equipment with various cycles and starting and end of day procedures that are totally unsuitable for use by staff in an office pantry or community kitchen, Certainly the washer has to meet the food safety sanitising requirements, but it should only require a single button push to operate from start to finish. How often in a community kitchen the dishwasher tank is still full of smelly dirty water from the last use a week ago (or more) because no-one knew that they had to, or followed the instructions, to dump the water at the end of the day.

There are many similar situations where the consultant has to resist the temptation to over-specify when simple efficient equipment designed for a single purpose, often with analogue controls are the ideal solution. Though in these days of continuing technical improvements it is often difficult to find models of equipment with all the benefits of technical, efficient, and green credentials designed with a simple user interface.

The logical application for multifunction equipment is in the production process where the equipment will in use for various purposes working over the day and sometimes 24-hours-a-day. Multifunction equipment that can be used both for pre-service production and during service for a single purpose will also make investment sense. But again, the level of sophisticated programming options that are required and going to be utilised or if they are included just in case sometime in the future they might be used needs to be interrogated because of the potential whole of life cost of ownership.

Smart equipment is not necessarily the smartest choice.

Tim Smallwood FFCSI