The idea of robots in the food industry has been on the horizon for some time.
The dawn of 2019 brought with it the news that the San Francisco-based start-up Robomart - a self-driving, mobile grocery shop – had made it onto the road, while US retailer Giant Food Stores announced that 172 robotic shop assistants were to be added to its portfolio of stores across the country.
Meanwhile, progress was made with automatons on the production line while 3D-printed food manufacturing made steps towards being a mainstream proposition. But in terms of robots producing food for consumers on the spot, we’re still waiting.
Enter Karakuri, a London-based company that claims to be the world's first fully customisable, food preparation system, combining robotics, automation and machine learning.
Founded in 2018 by tech entrepreneurs Barney Wragg and Simon Watt, Karakuri began with a mission statement to usher the food industry into the “fourth industrial revolution” and plan to have a fully operational robot (which appears as single or multiple arms) working in foodservice outlets by the end of the year.
“Every sector I could think of was using a lot more technology in terms of managing resources, planning, optimising inventory, understanding customer behaviour and adapting to provide a service at the best possible price,” Wragg tells Food Spark.
Heston Blumenthal came on board as a Karakuri food advisor late last year and, earlier this month, they hired a director of food, Pippi Brereton, who's development CV includes the likes of Itsu, Graze.com and Gü Puds. She arrives to help “develop and optimise their offering, menu and operations."
And, with recent consumer trends very much towards the realms of health and nutrition, Karakuri’s focus is on providing unique specifications to each consumer as they work towards their foodservice debut.
In creating Karakuri (meaning a traditional Japanese mechanised puppet), Wragg found that while technology was advancing in sectors across the world, from manufacturing to product production, restaurants and overall foodservice was lagging.
“Everything from cars to clothes are so personalised now. But when you look at restaurant/commercial kitchens operations, things haven’t changed much in the last 50-60 years.
“The menus and techniques have evolved, but the process through how food is prepared and made hasn’t.”
Wragg says that their first focus was on providing solutions to data collection, menu creation, ingredient ordering, managing inventory and staff. This then developed towards ways to optimise service.
“As we looked deeper into applications, we found interesting by-products of automation in terms of portion sizing and dispensing,” continues Wragg.
“With these robots, you can be very specific about portioning and have a system that reliably and repeatedly gives exactly the right portion size. This would give the consumer a lot more control over exactly how much, nutritionally, they would get in a portion of food.
“You could allow people to make choices on the number of calories or the amount of fat and carbs they might want, for example, and design portions around allergens and taste preferences.
According to Wragg, it’s all about improving the quality of service and staff conditions, while helping the owner/operator via a more predictable product and a better margin.
Helping with food waste?
While Karakuri initially singled out foodservice for their robots, over the last 12 months they’ve turned their gaze towards retail and catering (Ocado actually acquired a minority stake in the company in May 2019), with food waste emerging as a target.
“One of the things that we’ve found in development, that we didn’t initially forecast, is the pressure in retail to change inventory management to be more efficient and cut down on waste, and to change their approach in terms of packaging and move away from plastics,” explains Wragg.
“Biodegradable packaging breaks down much easier than plastics so in being able to produce things closer to the customer just when they want it, you cut down on waste as you’re fulfilling a known demand rather than having to predict when the customer might want it with food prep."
Salads and ready meals are key focus areas for Karakuri, with their new director of food Pippi Brereton saying that the use of robots could add “real value” in making personalised nutrition fast and convenient.
“People are much more fitness minded today and, with our product led by science, we’re able to deep dive into specific food categories, understand what the consumer demands are, and then tailor meals and dishes to individual people,” Brereton says.
“Convenience is so important today as well as personalisation. And, with Karakuri, you’d be able to bring an accessible uniqueness to every customer by allowing them to personalise 20-40 ingredients, and thousands of possibilities, to their own needs.”