retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

There must be something in the air, because there were two stories that dovetailed over the past couple of days.

First, a piece in the Washington Post about a “burger flipping robot” called “Flippy.”

According to the story, “The robot, or more specifically, a specialized industrial six-axis robotic arm bolted to the kitchen floor, works lunchtime shifts” at a CaliBurger location in Pasadena. “It takes burger orders through a digital ticketing system, then flips the burger patties and removes them from the grill. It uses thermal and regular vision, as well as cameras, to detect when the raw meat is placed on the grill, then monitors each burger throughout its cooking process … In addition, Flippy can rotate through spatulas for raw meat and cooked meat (to prevent cross-contamination) and clean those spatulas while the burgers are cooking. Another skill: Using a scraper to keep the surface of the grill in good shape.”

And the, there was the story in the New York Times about “SAM”, a semi-automated mason that serves as a robotic bricklaying machine. It recently was on display in Las Vegas at the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500, the world’s largest competition of bricklayers.

According to the Times, “SAM is far from being widely adopted. There are only 11 of them, costing roughly $400,000 each, a prohibitive amount for many small contractors. The machines can’t do corners or curves or read blueprints. SAM also requires workers to load its brick, refill its mortar and clean up the joints of the brick it lays. What SAM does do is work without getting thirsty, sick or tired. In some ways, it is running a different kind of race.”

While Flippy seems more versatile than SAM, both robotic systems illustrate one of the conundrums facing business these days. Even if companies want to hire people, there are fewer people available to hire … which means that automation ends up being a default choice.

Labor leaders, of course, see such a choice as anathema. Technology is seen as the enemy, providing businesses with the ability to avoid the messiness that can occur when they have to hire actual people.

Ironically, considering all the recent headlines, I heard Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, make the observation that high productivity and automation have actually resulted in high levels of steel production in the US - but that these same two factors have hurt steelworkers, who aren’t reassured by high productivity if they are struggling to find work.

This is one of the core issues that every business has to face these days. Some will embrace technology, some will use people, and others will find an approach that combines the two. And still others will decide that regardless of the advantages that technology can offer, their people can be their ultimate differential advantage. It will mean investing in those people so that they feel invested in the business. It will mean changing traditional approaches to staffing, and making sure that employees feel that they are an asset, not a cost.

For those companies, I think, the future will be an Eye-Opener.
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