Walmart Testing Flippy The Job-Stealing Robot Cook

Walmart is testing out a new kitchen robot assistant named "Flippy" at its Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters in order to see if it might make for a valuable team member in its in-store delis, according to Yahoo! Finance

While Flippy had somewhat of a rocky start at a Pasadena, California burger joint - having to be taken offline after its human co-workers couldn't prepare patties fast enough, the robot has had more recent success flipping 17,000 pounds of chicken tenders and tater tots at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. 

"Walmart saw what we were doing and said, ‘Could you bring Flippy from Dodgers Stadium to our Culinary Institute?" said Miso Robotics CEO David Zito. 

Yahoo Finance visited Flippy to see it in action at Walmart’s Culinary Institute and Innovation Center.

The way it works is Flippy automates the frying process for many of the items served in the deli, including chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, and potato wedges. -Yahoo! Finance

The way Flippy would work at Walmart is that an associate would place a frozen product on a rack, which Flippy would then identify and pick up using visual recognition technology. Flippy then "agitates" a basket of frying food to ensure even cooking, after which the robot will move the basket to a drip rack. 

After a human tests the food's internal temperature, the associate can season it before it's placed in the hot food display case. 

"If you think about commercial kitchens, they really are micro-manufacturing facilities. And yet, they are some of the hardest conditions for people to work in," said Zito. "Our whole thing is not about job replacement, right. You hear this over and over again. Automating food is very difficult. Ask any chef. Their goal is to try to faithfully reproduce that delicious recipe that they unlocked once. And in software we do that all day long, we make an app, it’s great, and everyone gets the same experience over and over again. With food, you crack that code once, and you get that flavor that’s so great and then it’s so hard to faithfully reproduce it. What we want to do is assist the hardworking linemen cooks and chefs in America with tools to give them the ability to faithfully reproduce while taking the burden off some of these more repetitive and mundane tasks."

While Flippy is advertised as an "extra set of hands," it's also much cheaper - with a one-time cost to purchase and minimal ongoing maintenance, Walmart and other employers won't have things like pesky Social Security and Medicare tax, federally mandated breaks, or liability insurance. That is, until Flippy becomes sentient and decides to get revenge on his human slave masters. 

Flippy, meanwhile, isn't the only game in town. A Japanese convenience store chain, Lawson, has installed 5-foot-tall robot which can cook "gyoza" dumplings and other items for its customers, according to NHK

Customers who order the bite-sized chicken at the counter receive a package that is placed in the box-shaped robot. Cooking takes about 1 minute.

Lawson officials say fried chicken and other hot food sell well during winter, but that sometimes stores cannot prepare enough due to the worker shortage.

The officials say Lawson stores nationwide use about 40 thousand tons of chicken to make about 2 billion pieces of fried chicken annually. They plan to install cooking robots at other stores. -NHK

Lawson President Sadanobu Takemasu has pointed to labor shortages as a serious problem in Japan, and said that his company needs to use the robots to maintain efficient store operations.