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Zume’s robot pizzeria could be the future of workplace automation

Zume’s robot pizzeria could be the future of workplace automation


Where robots take over only the most tedious tasks

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Photo: Zume Pizza

Zume Pizza, a food delivery startup in the San Francisco Bay Area, is expanding to a new location in the heart of Silicon Valley — with the help of robotic companions. The company, which starting today will deliver fresh pizzas to Palo Alto and the Stanford area in addition to its hometown of nearby Mountain View, says it has pioneered a robot-assisted technique for pressing pizza dough in a perfect circle in just nine seconds.

That allows the operation to improve efficiency and let its human employees spend time on less tedious work, according to CEO and co-founder Julia Collins. “We wanted to identify places where humans were overtaxed physically, bored, or whether the job they were doing was not safe, like sticking their hand into a 600 degree oven for six hours a day,” Collins said in an interview with The Verge. “That’s why we focused next on this practice of opening the dough.”

The new robot, aptly named Doughbot, is now being deployed on Zume’s “robot-enabled pizza assembly line,” where it does the job of pressing dough up to five times faster than even the most seasoned pizza spinning pros.

Photo: Zume Pizza

If this all sounds like an alien and absurd idea — robots making pizza does look like overkill, at first glance — it’s helpful to understand the full context of Zume Pizza and its food-delivery ambitions. The company, which first began delivering pizzas last year, was founded on two core concepts: robotic automation and on-route cooking. Robotic automation is easy enough to understand. Zume, which sources machines from industrial robot maker ABB, employs these devices for tasks like dispensing the perfect amount of sauce, spreading that sauce, removing pizzas from ovens, and, now, spreading the dough with just the right thinness and crust-to-pie ratio. The various robots work in unison with humans in an assembly line-style work space attached to the company’s Mountain View facility.

Zume is one of a number of automated startups popping up in the Bay Area trying to fuse cooking with technology. For instance, Eatsa — which now has a number of locations in California — has made headlines in the past for letting you order healthy and low-cost quinoa-based bowls without interacting with a single human. These types of companies combine the on-demand ambitions of startups like DoorDash, Munchery, and Postmates with a kitchen technology twist, all with the aim of avoiding the typically heavy costs associated with food production and logistics. To that end, Zume has hired Susan Alban, who led the launch Uber’s food delivery arm UberEats, as its new vice president of operations, Collins announced today.

Zume relies on both robots and on-route cooking to cut costs and speed up deliveries

For Zume, robots are just one aspect of the business. It’s really the on-route cooking concept that got Collins and her co-founders excited years ago, when they first began applying for patents and churning through hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to protect their inventions. “Folks often go to the robots first, because robots are sexy,” Collins says. “But the founding idea of Zume was really cooking on route.”

You see, Zume Pizza uses up to six specially designed delivery vehicles the size of FedEx trucks. Each one is outfitted with dozens of pizza ovens that can simultaneously reheat hundreds of pizzas, so that each one can be placed fresh and hot into the company’s custom pizza box. That way, when someone orders pizza, it arrives in under 20 minutes.

Photo: Zume Pizza

“We use predictive technology to make really high-fidelity bets on what pizzas people are going to order,” Collins says. “Early in the morning we produce a daily inventory of pizzas. We predict the total volume of pizzas and the types of pizzas that we need to satisfy that day’s demand.” That way, Zume doesn’t have to cook every pizza from scratch, while still managing to avoid the fast food pitfalls of serving precooked meals.

Zume predicts how many and what kind of pizzas it needs to make each day

The predictive factors at play range from simple stuff like time of day and day of the week to more complex ones like what sporting event or television premiere happens to be airing at the time. When demand gets too high, Zume stops going door to door for deliveries and parks its trucks. It then deploys a fleet of small Fiat vehicles and scooters to ferry the pizzas out in a more efficient manner.

Zume’s ultimate goal is to make fresh, locally sourced food at reasonable prices by aggressively rethinking the costs of running a food operation dependent on delivery. Zume pizzas are priced between $10 and $20 for a single pie, and the company uses up to 60 ingredients to offer gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as artisan-style pizzas with ingredients like arugula pesto, asparagus, and ricotta.

All ordering is done through the company’s mobile or website. There is no storefront. “So rather than paying 10 percent of sales in rent, we pay 2 percent of sales in rent,” Collins says, while “robots increase our production volume.”

Photo: Zume Pizza

This is what allows Zume to keep costs down without relying on contractors, like so many of the Bay Area-based food delivery startups (and ride-hailing apps). Collins says Zume has around 115 full-time employees, all of which receive benefits like health insurance. As for whether these employees will all be automated away by robots, Collins stresses that the goal is never to fully automate the process of making and delivering food.

“Our goal was never to have end-to-end automation. It was never, ‘How can we have a pizza production operation that would have no humans?’” Collins says. Automation allows Zume employees to shift focus from laborious tasks to more creative ways, she adds. “Our best pizza spinner is really happy to work on our menu and ingredient selection.”

“Our goal was never to have end-to-end automation.”

This all sounds like the quintessential utopian dream of automation: a world where robots takeover only the most boring and physically taxing jobs and humans are free to perform creative and fulfilling work. Of course, there’s no telling how well Zume will scale when it attempts to tackle a market as dense and complex as, say, San Francisco, which is undeniably the biggest target on the company’s radar.

There’s also no telling how sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics will be in just five year’s time. Who’s to say ingredient selection won’t be perfected by an algorithm? Driving Zume’s trucks most certainly will be automated by self-driving cars at some point in the future, even if that practice is still decades away on a regulatory timeline.

But Collins is confident that Zume can lay the groundwork for the future of high-quality, tech-infused food delivery that doesn’t treat human labor as an enemy. That her company employs only full-time workers, and its leadership so dedicated to keeping those employees from doing tedious tasks, seems like a promising step toward that dream.

“We want to make sure everyone has access to high-quality, affordable food,” she says of Zume’s goal, “and to use technology to solve American’s food problem.” If that mission involves a robot that can press dough or spread sauce faster and better than a human being, can you really blame Zume for being the first to get out there and use it?