Prices for robots are reducing dramatically… A humanoid robot that used to cost $50,000 five years back now costs less than $10,000. These price declines are driven by computing power becoming more affordable, sensors getting less expensive and economies of scale coming to robotics – as robots are used in vacuum cleaners, 3D printing and manufacturing, components of those robots become increasingly inexpensive.
Figure 1: Automation study conducted by the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)
As robots get affordable, they can be used in whole new markets. A number of studies have been conducted to understand which markets could be disrupted by robotics in the next 10-20 years. A study from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) is shown in Figure 1. Food preparation is shown as having the highest chance of getting automated. Figure 2 shows a study from Oxford University which reached similar conclusions.A study from McKinsey is shown in Figure 3. Guess which industry McKinsey thinks could see the most automation? Accommodation and food service.
Figure 2: Automation study by Oxford University
The Robotics Opportunity in Foodservice
The McKinsey study indicates 48% of food service tasks involve predictable physical work. Robots cannot aspire to automate more than half this predictable physical work – the flexibility, multi-tasking ability and intelligence of humans are just so crucial. So, a maximum of ~24% of foodservice jobs have the potential of getting automated in the next 20 years with robotics. This being said, robots also create jobs – you need labor to clean, prep and refill robots with food, you need labor to make the robots and labor to maintain robots when they go down. If the number of jobs created due to robots is 5% of the foodservice worker population in America, that could be 19% of current foodservice jobs not being available in 20 years. So, the sky is not falling in the foodservice worker industry in America – there is a huge shortfall of kitchen workers at present. I am not trying to belittle the jobs lost due to automation… All I’m saying is that I hear people saying ALL foodservice jobs will go away, and that is simply not true.
Now, 19% of a $250B market for foodservice work is a $47B opportunity. These are obviously back-of-the-envelope numbers but they show the scale of the opportunity. That’s why you are seeing so many venture capital backed startups entering the space – when you have a new $47B market open up, you create at least two billion dollar companies. Companies in the space besides Chowbotics include Momentum Machines, Spyce Kitchen, Teabot, Zume, Flippy and several others. At Chowbotics, we’ve launched the first commercially available food equipment in the space, have raised some of the most capital and have some of the best talent, but it will be a few years before the winners in the space will be known. We will be working our hearts out to emerge as a winner obviously. I should also add that we are not going after the labor reduction market with robotics. We are targeting making healthy food accessible to people anytime, anywhere and making it affordable – robots help with this mission in a compelling way.
Startup Culture in Foodservice
For the past few decades, the food equipment industry has involved selling commodity ovens, grills, microwaves, salad bars and other equipment. A commodity business, as you can imagine, is slow moving, inefficient and has tons of politics. We’re fortunate enough to work with amazing sales and marketing people in the foodservice world. Startup work culture, like we have, excites them. They tell us the foodservice industry doesn’t see engineers work all night and weekends just because their work is fun. Neither do they see industrial designers involved in creating beautiful products. Team members using slack to communicate well across geographies is a novelty in the food equipment world as well. So is the sight of people proficient with salesforce. When our engineers get something done in 3 days, we hear it would have taken our foodservice colleagues a month to get that done in their previous companies. A foodservice industry guru I deeply respect told me recently, “I have been in foodservice since waiting tables in college. So glad Chowbotics showed up. You are the first genuine disruptor our industry has seen in my opinion.” Just to clarify, I didn’t pay him to say that. His comments made my day! The next decade will be interesting for the foodservice equipment industry. Expect its landscape to change dramatically.
Figure 3: McKinsey study on industries to be disrupted by robotics.