The race to roll out an automated makeline is on.
Chipotle said Tuesday it will begin testing a new automated digital makeline in its Chipotle Cultivate Center in Irvine, Calif.
Described as a “cobot,” because it involves some human interaction, the new makeline system was designed by the robotics company Hyphen, which Chipotle invested in last year.
The move comes as fast-casual Sweetgreen pushes ahead with its new automated makeline units, which it calls Infinite Kitchens. Sweetgreen opened its first Infinite Kitchen in Naperville, Ill., earlier this year, and a second converted restaurant is scheduled to open in Huntington Beach, Calif., in December.
Sweetgreen’s automated makelines were developed by the team behind Spyce, which first debuted as a restaurant in Boston but was later acquired by the salad chain.
And coming soon is an automated restaurant dubbed Kernel, which is being developed by Chipotle founder Steve Ells. Scheduled to open in New York City this fall, Kernel is expected to operate in about 800 square feet with as few as three humans, but few details have been revealed about how it will work.
Sweetgreen’s system is a standalone makeline, with humans serving as ambassadors and enablers, doing all the chopping and prepping. Customers can watch the bowls progress through the system, and Sweetgreen says the makeline can produce up to 100 salads in 15 minutes, with improved accuracy.
In its first month of operation, Sweetgreen’s Naperville unit had restaurant margins of 26%, which company officials said is strong for a new store, and the chain is already looking to add more Infinite Kitchens to its development pipeline.
Chipotle’s system is somewhat different in that it is designed as two makelines: a human walks the analog line on top, like a traditional restaurant. The automated makeline is operating on a lower level of the counter, and finished bowls pop up at the end of the line.
See how it works here.
Chipotle said the system is designed for digital orders placed through the app, online or through third-party platforms.
The automated line only makes bowls. Orders like burritos, quesadillas or kids' meals would be made by the human team member on top.
Once a bowl order comes in, the container travels along a belt receiving the ingredients from dispensers. It then pops out the top, where the human applies the lid, adds chips or other side orders and puts the bowl in the designated pickup channel.
Chipotle says about 65% of digital orders are bowls or salads, so the cobot frees up the human team member to focus on the top makeline and providing hospitality.
It’s all about increasing capacity, especially during peak periods. An early version of the Hyphen makeline could produce about 350 bowls an hour, but Chipotle did not disclose what they expect for their system..
Chipotle said the makeline could also improve order accuracy—which so far has been the case at Sweetgreen.
“Chipotle’s new digital makeline built by Hyphen embodies our commitment to leveraging robotics to unlock the human potential of our workforce, ensuring an elevated dining experience for our guests,” said Curt Garner, Chipotle’s chief customer and experience officer, in a statement. “Our goal is to have the automated digital makeline be the centerpieces of all our restaurants’ digital kitchens.”
The cobot makeline won’t be the only robotic system being tested at the Cultivate Center.
Chipotle is also testing the Autocado, a new automated system that peels and cores avocados used for the chain’s hand-made guacamole.
UPDATE: This article was updated with new information from Chipotle.
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