Semblr is probably the most famous canteen employee in the U.K. at the moment. That is because the centerpiece of Semblr is a robot, or to be more precise: a KR AGILUS.
A new way to make personalized rice dishes
In September 2021, Semblr commenced working in “Tim’s Diner.” It now offers an alternative to the conventional lunch menus in the staff canteen of online grocery retailer Ocado. If you are hungry, you can choose to have your plate filled in the customary manner by an employee at the counter – or head to the cylindrical booth, 2.50 meters wide by 2 meters high, in which a KR AGILUS puts together and serves rice dishes.
The brains behind Semblr are to be found at integrator Karakuri, a London startup that currently has 36 employees. Karakuri has been developing robot-based solutions for the food industry since 2019. Hatfield is not far away, and Ocado is one of the companies that invested in the creation of Karakuri. This is because Ocado, too, specializes in food, but also in hardware, software and logistics. It was thus an obvious choice to provide the first canteen service robot to Ocado’s headquarters with 4,000 employees.
Canteen ordering 4.0
“It's like a conventional cafeteria,” siad Liam Rogers, marketing and communications manager at Karakuri, describing the concept behind Semblr. “The customer comes in and says a little bit of this, a little bit of that. The person at the counter puts together the food that has been cooked in the kitchen beforehand and serves it.”
Semblr takes over these tasks and works virtually side-by-side with the counter staff, who continue to be employed because the conventional staff canteen still exists. Employees have a choice every day: Order home-style cooking in the usual way. Or, order a rice dish from Semblr. In both cases, the Ocado chef is responsible for the quality of the individual components. Two Karakuri employees assist him and fill the ingredients into Semblr’s serving chambers. The KR AGILUS robot arm is responsible for mixing and serving the ingredients – hygienically, meticulously and quickly.
Farewell to queues!
Thanks to Semblr’s coolable and heatable serving chambers, all ingredients are at the ideal temperature – between 3 and 80 degrees Celsius. Someone remains present during service hours, currently from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., to supervise the serving of meals. The special feature of the preparation process: Guests make their selection in advance and are offered 2,700 possible combinations with the 17 ingredients available. They select the ingredients and their respective quantities via an app and thus pre-order their individual rice dish. Because Semblr delivers every meal in the agreed amount at the agreed time, and because the payment process is also digital, the result is a picture that is unusual for Britain’s canteens: there are no queues to be seen.
“The idea of less interaction with others being an advantage may sound antisocial,” acknowledges Liam Rogers, “but the world has simply changed over the past year and a half due to Covid-19.”
Encountering only one person on the way to the meal – the staff member who supervises Semblr and assists guests where necessary – reduces the risk of infection.
The way to the perfect bowl of rice
Little clue, lots of advice
The primary focus in the development of Semblr was on easing the workload of kitchen and canteen teams, while facilitating hygiene management and ensuring the high quality and customizability of meals.
Joe Muller, product development manager at Karakuri, reveals details from the two-year development project: “The robot arms we tried before just didn’t achieve the speed we needed. When we contacted KUKA, the team supported us and navigated us through the world of robot arms. It was vital for us to have a flexible and space-saving robot that nevertheless had a long reach.” This is because in order to find space in existing company canteens, the only possible option was a small booth. Nevertheless, the robot arm had to have a long reach to access as many serving chambers placed around it as possible. The KR AGILUS, a six-axis robot with a particularly small footprint, proved equal to the challenges. It impresses with a reach of up to 900 millimeters combined with speed and precision.
Step by step to an efficient solutionThe consultation with KUKA also made a difference for Karakuri:
This did not require an additional software solution, but accessories such as a gripper arm, filling hoppers, and bowls that can be cleaned efficiently and easily. First, a prototype called DK-One was created, which was intended to offer breakfast options starting in early 2020. Then came the pandemic and the Karakuri team modified its plans. Semblr is the further development that can prepare hot and cold meals as well as six different menu lines, such as cuisine from different countries, for example.
Many small steps on the way to an appetizing happy ending
Semblr looks elegant and flawless in action, but the road to this result was bumpy in places, as the Karakuri team admits. “Food is a very difficult raw material to process,” said Liam Rogers. “It’s sometimes sticky, sometimes liquid, sometimes clumpy. And because kitchens are usually not very automated and because there are different cooks at the stove, ingredients are prepared slightly differently each day. So we needed very robust dispensing technology.”
Currently, Semblr can theoretically handle 56 ingredients, and there are plans to add more in the future.
“Now they come for the food”
Semblr continues to be optimized in operation, states Joe Muller. “The speed is currently throttled to a maximum of 30 meals per hour. We want to stress test the system and slowly increase the speed.” He estimates that a maximum of up to 110 meals per hour is realistic, “but that depends on the complexity of the recipes and the quantity of each ingredient.”
“The future of gastronomy”
Stewart McGuire, head of corporate development and strategy at Ocado Group, made an enthusiastic statement at the inauguration of Semblr: “Ocado and Karakuri share a vision of automating key elements within the food value chain,” he stressed. “As evidenced by the opening of our canteen, our investment goes beyond financial support, and this ‘living lab’ gives Karakuri the opportunity to conduct stress testing in a production environment. Furthermore, we are able to give our employees a small glimpse into the potential future of catering.”
Robots could make their way into canteens even faster in Britain than in other countries, suggested the “International Federation of Robotics” in its World Robotics Report 2021. That is because the British food and beverage industry has nearly doubled its robot installations – from 155 units in 2019 to 304 units in 2020 (+96%). Brexit and the pandemic together led to a pronounced shortage of skilled workers in this industry. Whereas in the past workers from other EU countries, such as those of Eastern Europe, could step in to fill the gap, other solutions must now be found – such as robots, for example.
That is not all, however. Service robots like Semblr can also improve companies’ energy efficiency and environmental footprint. In the long term, emphasizes Joe Muller, Karakuri employees will no longer be required to supervise Semblr. The kitchen team will then be able to take over this task, resulting in fewer contacts and even better protection against infection. In the future, the analysis of particularly sought-after and particularly unpopular ingredients will also help prevent the disposal of food.
Subsequent Semblr generations could also be connected to a smart fridge. This would signal when an ingredient is running out. Another vision for the future is fully automated quality assurance, which will not miss even the fly in the ointment – or rather in the rice bowl.
“At the start of this project, we knew nothing about industrial robotics and robot arms. The KUKA team was very helpful. They worked with us to figure out what problems had to be solved and then suggested suitable packages,” added Joe Muller.