Friday, November 6, 2015

A Farewell to Aprons

There’s a saying among futurists that once the Model-T proved that mass manufacturing of low-cost cars was possible, and that demand for them was high, it was easy to predict the eventual mass adoption of cars. And there were a few second-order effects you could then predict too, like the need for a fuel distribution system and professional car repairmen. But few people predicted that everyone having a car would cause downtown shopping districts to be replaced by big-box stores on the edge of town. This essay attempts to draw together a few trends now emerging, and predict once of those harder-to-see second order effects.

I think cooking at home is set to nearly disappear within fifteen years (other than hobbyists). Within twenty years some new construction will cease to include much of a kitchen. It will become an afterthought, like the half-bath on the first floor of your average single-family home, not a central piece of family life. The days of $50,000 kitchen remodels are soon to be over.
What’s this based on? The convergence of two trends.

Trend 1: Robotics, Sensors, and Automated Cooking

Cooking is becoming subject to full automation. Momentum Machine’s automated kitchen can produce a gourmet burger from scratch ingredients. The Innit kitchen knows the recipe and cooking instructions for thousands of meals. The Moley Robotic Chef has two arms and hands that mimic the motions of Michelin-rated chefs to reproduce any meal. Eatsa is a fully automated fast-food restaurant in San Francisco. And so on.

The technologies driving this are the advances in robotics, machine learning, and sensors. These trends are covered in depth elsewhere, but the basic idea is that all the little sensors that going into smartphones and other mobile technology is combining with robotics-driven advances to produce robotic chefs that can sense the food they are working with and cook it properly.
This technology isn’t necessarily cheap on a per-unit basis. And I don’t expect it to come to the personal home, not any time soon. A robotic kitchen in a personal home would be dead capital 22 hours out of the day, just sitting there, since our need to eat just three meals a day isn’t going to change. In stage one of the great change coming to cooking, this technology will be deployed at restaurants, destroying millions of serve-sector jobs. Fast-food restaurants will become automats. Fancy restaurants will have a wait staff in the dining room but limited personnel in the kitchen.
But that’s an easy prediction. It’s already fairly obvious.

Trend 2: Supply-chain by drone

When most people hear “drone”, many think of the little quad-copters that have consumer and professional versions. I mean those too of course, but I also mean something much broader than that. When I say drone, I mean any self-propelled, unmanned system for transport. The Predator drone delivers bombs. Self-piloted cargo ships with 10,000 containers are drones. Little dog-sized boxes on wheels for home-delivery of groceries are drones. And so forth. Form-factors will vary by local geography and cargo, but the basic idea is that delivery-robots are going to quickly become our society’s distribution system. They’re going to replace air freight, cargo ships, and long-haul trucking, and solve the last mile too. This is going to revolutionize many industries of course, put millions of drivers and pilots out of work, and allow Amazon to bring you a tube of toothpaste on a moment’s notice. Wonderful! (Well, maybe not for the drivers and pilots…)
Similarly, Amazon is leading the way in automating warehousing and packaging for delivery. They still have humans involved in picking and packing, but you better believe they’re working on automating that too. Amazon’s ultimate goal has to be “dark” warehouses that minimal human supervision.

Taken together, supply chains are going to get automated in the same way that manufacturing has already been automated. At the beginning, and perhaps for a while, humans will be involved at the loading and unloading stages of delivery, but that is a minimal amount of labor compared to the current level of human labor involved in things like running FedEx and the Postal Service. Eventually I expect products to be travel half-way around the world, from producer to consumer, without any human touching them or operating any of the vehicles it travels in.
The Combination of the Two:

I want you to consider a “freshly prepared supply chain”, on the level of a city-sized area. Consider this how will reduce food waste, save time and effort for consumers, and offer a great variety of food items for (relatively) immediate consumption.
Stage 1 is that restaurants begin to automate their kitchens, lead by national chains but eventually including locally-owned restaurants. Eatsa is already fully automated, but this will spread quickly to established chains. The Momentum Machines burger-maker is an obvious good fit for burger joints like Five Guys. If not Five Guys specifically, a competitor. Similar machines will be developed for pizza, pasta, and so forth. When a high-throughput machine for commonly consumed items is not available, a highly-automated kitchen combining Moley’s chef-arms and Innit’s technology will allow a few low-skill employees to produce large numbers of carefully prepared food items.

Happening at the same time is the rollout of general delivery companies for prepared food, like Uber Eats. Currently Uber Eats uses human drivers in traditional cars, but Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been completely transparent about his intention to buy and own self-driving cars as soon as they’re available. And that’s by road. By air we are seeing Google Wing and Amazon Prime Air as leading the way in local delivery by drone.
Within five years, when delivery by drone and self-driving car is common, initially we will see a mass adoption of meal delivery via App. I expect that websites like Seamless will see some very good years in the near future if they adapt to this, and there’s no reason to think they won’t. But the less obvious play is in managing the supply chain behind the restaurants. The key insight here is that there’s no reason the restaurant a meal is ordered from has to prepare all the food it sells. Preparation specialization can happen at a metro-regional level, as long as it is within the range of common air drones—or even further, if the item refrigerates well. Imagine one kitchen in a city-region that produces the best puddings, or cream sauces. They might just produce a few ingredients, or common side items like salads or fresh-baked bread.

This might sound expensive, and something only the rich will participate in, but I imagine it will be the opposite of that. Momentum Machine’s burger-maker makes “gourmet quality” burgers with fresh ingredients for the same price as a McDonalds burger. The Eatsa automated restaurant provides fresh bowls of food for the same price of a McDonalds combo meal. And McDonalds itself can lower prices from its current price-level by replacing staff with automated versions of its kitchens.
There are other cost-savings too, besides automating human labor. An automated kitchen can be set up in the warehouse part of town, and pay warehouse rent. It doesn’t need to be downtown to serve a region, because the drones take care of bringing food to where the people are. Further, food items that are currently rejected by buyers for grocery stores for cosmetic reasons, and then trashed, can be used by the meal prep supply chain (and purchased from farmers at a discount to the "pretty" food). Supply-chain management software will use items before they wilt or expire much more efficiently than the average American consumer, who throws away nearly half their food every year.

A second source of cost-savings will be the value customer. Right now the profit margin on the sale of a bowl of rice and beans is too low for traditional eateries if it’s sold near cost. Restaurants want to sell high-value items like cocktails, wine, and steaks. An automated supply chain without wait staff will eventually realize that a family-sized portion of rice and beans, plus some vegetables, can be acquired and prepared for less than $1, and sold at a “mere” 100% mark-up. Meatballs or other proteins can be added as a value-add item, but aren’t necessary for human nutrition, and thus freshly prepared but simple meals will be available to nearly any American.
The greatest cost-savings of all however is time. Nearly a hundred years ago much of the work that went into maintaining a home was automated with the invention of the electric dishwasher, vacuum, washing machine, and dryer. The home-manufacture of clothes, once common, was replaced by the Sears catalog, and later the department store. The last two chores remaining that Americans spend the majority of their time on are folding laundry and preparing meals. Automating those away will produce tremendous improvements in quality of life, especially for families who do not have an adult at home full-time or part-time to prepare meals. The harried working-parents who currently take their kids to McDonalds will appreciate the convenience of a meal being brought to the home, ordered through an app as they commute home. I suspect it will be irresistible.

So, to recap, I will draw your attention again to a few key points. The drone supply chain will be able to distribute freshly prepared foods quickly and conveniently anywhere in a metro region within 10 minutes or so (both to consumers and middle-man kitchens). Automated kitchens will be able to consistently produce well prepared meals in a high-volume manner. These meals will be tastier than most meals prepared at home, and probably for about the same cost as groceries at the store (just like how Costco rotisserie chickens are cheaper than whole raw chickens) – and that's before accounting for convenience and time saved. Eventually this will lead to consumers losing the skill to prepare meals (just as most of us cannot sew clothes), and the family kitchen will probably be relegated to milk and breakfast cereal, plus a microwave for reheating leftovers. Kitchens will become smaller, people will spend less money on them, and the “social center” of the home will move from the kitchen to the dining areas – much like the aristocracy of previous centuries.

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