This pizza shop is using robots to cut costs

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(This post originally appeared on The Washington Post)

Running a pizza shop isn’t easy.

It’s long hours, dealing with demanding customers and staffing headaches. As if that’s not enough, the approximately 75,000 pizza shop owners in this country, like most small business owners, are facing higher costs of employment this year–from rising minimum wages to requirements for more overtime pay and increased demands for paid time off. To reduce their labor costs, big companies are investing heavily in technology to automate manual processes and encourage more customers to help themselves. But the typical pizza shop owner can’t do that. Right?

Wrong. Alex Garden and Julia Collins and their Silicon Valley start-up, Zume Pizza, are about to turn the business of making pizza as inside-out as a calzone. And in doing so they could disrupt an industry that employs tens of thousands of people. They’re using robots to do the work, according to this report on Phys.org.

“We’re going to eliminate boring, repetitive, dangerous jobs, and we’re going to free up people to do things that are higher value,” Garden, a former Microsoft manager who is also president of a mobile game maker, told the site.

The pizza makers are using “intelligent machines” to add and spread sauce on dough before sliding the uncooked pie into an oven. Soon, the entrepreneurs plan to add even more robots for dough preparation, cheese and topping placement as well as slicing and boxing the completed product.

Robots can’t do it all, thank goodness. Ken Goldberg, who directs the Automation Lab at UC-Berkeley believes that humans will always be needed to handle “irregular tasks” that require fine motor skills, judgment and taste.”There are so many jobs in food service that are so complex that it will be a very long time before we have robots doing them,” Goldberg told the site.

That may be true for Zume.  But for most pizza shop owners I know the opportunity to buy a piece of equipment that will cut down on the costs and headaches of dealing with employees will soon be more than pie-in-the-sky.

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