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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced every business to adjust its operations, but the restaurant industry has been affected perhaps the most. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are more than 1 million restaurants in the U.S., and projected U.S. annual sales were $899 billion before the novel coronavirus crisis. Nearly 15.6 million Americans are employed in the food service industry, but these jobs are endangered. Dexai Robotics Inc. has recently upgraded its system to help ensure sanitary, affordable meals and keep restaurants afloat.
Even before COVID-19, automation started to infiltrate the restaurant and food-service industry, and the pandemic is expected to accelerate that trend. Dexai Robotics said its Alfred 2.0 system offers a space-saving, safe, and tablet-controlled option for food preparation. The Boston-based company raised $5.5 million in March, and it won a Red Dot design award in September.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the way that we eat,” said Justin Rooney, a mechanical engineer at Dexai. “Hands-free orders reduce human proximity and contact with Alfred, thus reducing the chance of transferring pathogens. This feature should reduce the spread of infectious disease and keep food fresh for longer.”
Dexai designs for safe service compliance
Dexai Robotics introduced Alfred 1.0 in 2018, and this year it upgraded the automation to allow for hands-free ordering that can be placed through any device with an Internet connection. The robot also includes a new subsystem for utensils.
“The utensil holders ensure compliance with ServSafe regulations by storing utensils in food bins, keeping them at the same temperature,” Rooney said. “All hardware subsystems were updated to improve aesthetics, reliability, safety, and user-friendliness.”
The system includes a robot, two areas to hold tools, a kitchen display system, a bowl-passing arm, an enclosure for electronics, and two refrigeration units.
“The bowl-passing arm now moves uninhibited around the base of the robot, preventing ingredient spillage and increasing salad production throughput,” Rooney said. “We also updated the electronics enclosure that has improved thermal performance, enables 15-minute installation, and is easier to service in the field.”
In addition, Alfred 2.0 is able to swap utensils while complying with food-service standards.
“Unstructured robotic tool changing has been a historic problem,” said Rooney. “The food-service industry requires unique utensils for separate food allergen groups. The same pair of tongs, for example, can be used to serve romaine and arugula, but a two-ounce disher cannot be used to serve chicken and parmesan.”
ServSafe – a food and beverage safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association – also has requirements for proper utensil storage.
“The 2.0 design stores the utensils directly in the food bins,’’ Rooney said. “Mechanical fixturing and compliant design place the racked utensils in a place where the main robot arm can still change tools reliably. Conveniently, the tool holders pivot out of the way when the utensil is not mated, allowing uninhibited access to the food bins for picking or replenishing ingredients.”
Alfred 2.0 glides with plastic
The slewing ring is a large bearing made with sliding elements from igus’ iglide properties. The bearing enables smooth rotation of the bowl passing arm’s revolution joint beneath the main robot arm.
“The bearing is rated for a large, dynamic tilting movement, which is essential to support the cantilever loading from the bowl-passing arm in addition to common overloads,” Rooney said.
igus slewing rings are frequently used in automation, as well as in applications such as conveyors, assembly stations, stage and lighting technology, and renewable energy. The rings are maintenance-free, and provide high wear resistance, high load capacity and high rigidity, said the company.
Rooney said the self-lubricating properties removed the need for periodic servicing, and an online calculator provided critical data on estimated component lifetime. The ring replaced two aluminum turntables on Alfred 1.0, he said. Dexai also used igus 3D printer filament to create custom two-part bearings that are used for cable management beneath the main robot garment.
“Traditionally, a solution like this would be prohibitively expensive,” said Cody Chu, Dexai’s design leader of the project. “This has been transformed, thanks to igus’ robust selection of wear-resistant printer filaments. Limiting movement of cables on a 6-7 DOF [degrees-of-freedom] robot arm to a predictable motion is a challenging problem in robotics.”
Chu said the flexibility of developing customer-facing parts using engineering materials and fused-deposition modeling technology has accelerated development and market-deployment times. “It allows us to transfer this aspect of manufacturing from out of house to in house,’’ he said.
Dexai goes modular for adaptability, cost
Dexai Robotics designed its food automation system to be modular so that cost-conscious restaurant owners can adapt it to various kitchen environments without needing expensive refits.
“Alfred is currently capable of mounting to an array of off-the-shelf refrigeration units and scooping and picking ingredients from hotel pans,” Rooney said. “Restauranteurs can simply buy Alfred and retrofit it to work with their existing kitchen equipment, with a simple 15-minute install.”
Dexai also said it plans to teach Alfred to operate other common pieces of kitchen equipment such as grills, fryers, espresso machines, ice-cream cabinets, and smoothie makers.
“The artificial intelligence algorithms powering Alfred are also compelling,” said Rooney. “Every time Alfred scoops, the data associated with this scoop gets uploaded to the cloud and fed into a machine learning model. As a result, an individual Alfred can learn from the accumulated successes and failures of every other Alfred that has ever existed.”
Robotics could help restaurants weather pandemic
Because of SARS-CoV-2, nearly 100,000 restaurants closed by the end of September in the U.S. Restaurants lost three times more jobs than any other industry since the beginning of the outbreak, Restaurant.org reported in May.
Automation such as Dexai’s Alfred 2.0 could be a useful tool in helping restaurant owners get back on their feet. “COVID-19 highlighted the need for such food-service automation,” Rooney asserted. “Alfred is a safer option for us all to enjoy our favorite meals.”
About the author
Nicole Lang is iglide product manager at igus NA.