Automation Reshaping—But Not Yet Replacing—Fast Food Workers

From by Nevin Barich
Automation Reshaping—But Not Yet Replacing—Fast Food Workers

Photo by naureen-s / Flickr

Photo by naureen-s / Flickr

You’d be forgiven if you thought that the fast food industry was quickly on its way to going the way of robots.

After all, go to the drive-thru and you’re often greeted with a recorded voice asking if you want to try the latest new product. Go inside any McDonald’s in the country and you’re likely to find a wall of kiosks to take your order instead of a cashier. Some places will even serve your food in glass compartments!

Yes, automation is making an impact on the U.S. foodservice industry. It just might not be taking over as fast as you expect.

Digital kiosks, tabletop tablets, and mobile phones are increasingly taking orders at various U.S. restaurant chains, but early evidence suggests that although automation is reshaping the work of people in food service, it is not able to replace them entirely — at least not yet.

The reason for this, industry officials say, is that many kitchen jobs are too complex for robots, which can’t multi-task and don’t necessarily work safely with humans in cramped spaces. While robots excel at complex calculations and precise, repetitive tasks, they have difficulty stacking blocks and sensing objects in space.

Then there are menus. Most restaurants serve a range of menu items, each of which might need numerous specialized forms of automation. And fast-food restaurants that offer some variety of sit-down service have additional tasks that are hard to automate, including setting and clearing tables, refilling drinks, and bringing additional amenities like condiments.

So it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that there were slightly more workers per restaurant in 2015 than in 2001, according to data from the National Restaurant Association. There are still a lot of jobs that need people!

Make no mistake: Automation will continue in fast food. And if the technology gets created that can eventually handle the complex human work, the industry will bring it online. But we’re not there quite yet. Fast food still needs the human touch.

"Automation Reshaping—But Not Yet Replacing—Fast Food Workers" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.