The Mouth-Watering World Of NIST Standard Foods

The National Institute Of Standards and Technology was founded on March 3, 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards, taking on its current moniker in 1988. The organisation is charged by the government with ensuring the uniformity of weights and measures across the United States, and generally helping out industry, academia and other users wherever some kind of overarching standard is required.

One of the primary jobs of NIST is the production and sale of Standard Reference Materials, or SRMs. These cover a huge variety of applications, from steel samples to concrete and geological materials like clay. However, there are also edible SRMS, too. Yes, you can purchase yourself a jar of NIST Standard Peanut Butter, though you might find the price uncompetitive with the varieties at your local supermarket. Let’s dive into why these “standard” foods exist, and see what’s available from the shelves of our favourite national standards institute. Continue reading “The Mouth-Watering World Of NIST Standard Foods”

Food Safe Printing Techniques

One thing that always provokes spirited debate around the Hackaday bunker is just how dangerous is it to use 3D printed plastic in contact with food. We mostly agree it isn’t a good thing, but we also know some people do it regularly and they don’t drop dead instantly, either. [Jakub] decided to do some testing and make some recommendations. There’s even a video explaining the results.

Unlike a lot of what we’ve read about this topic in the past, [Jakub’s] post is well-researched and does actual testing including growing bacteria cultures from cups used for milk. He starts out identifying the EU and US regulations about what you can call food-grade. There’s also recognition that while a base plastic might be safe for contact with food, there’s no way to know exactly what additives and other things are in the plastic to change its properties and color.

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Cleaning Up The Yard With AI — Avian Intelligence

Despite epithets like “bird-brain,” our feathered friends are actually pretty smart. Being able to maneuver in three dimensions at high speed must have something to do with it, and the cognitive abilities of birds are well-documented and still being researched. So it naturally makes sense to harness avian brainpower to keep one’s yard clean, right?

For the record, the magpies that [Hans] is training are very intelligent and strikingly beautiful birds who delight in swooping down to harass people, and who will gladly steal food from other birds and then poop on it and fly away. So they’re jerks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful jerks. The goal with his BirdBox system is to use classic operant conditioning, where a desired voluntary behavior is reinforced by a reward. In this case, the reward is a treat dispensed by a 3D-printed vibratory dispenser when the bird collects a bottlecap from the yard and deposits it in the proper slot. The video below shows the birds doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.

[Hans] tells us that the trick is getting the birds to accept the BirdBox and to have them integrate it into their “patrol schematic” of their territory. Once that’s done, it’s a simpler matter to have them associate the bottlecaps with the reward. The other challenge is making everything bulletproof, or in this case magpie-proof. Did we mention that magpies are jerks?

The possibilities for trading peanuts for yardwork are endless; [Hans] mentions plans he has for fallen fruit clean-up, and mentions a persistent garden slug problem that the birds might be employed to remediate. If you want to try this, it might be a good idea to brush up on the work of [B.F. Skinner] and his pigeons of war.

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The Ever-Accelerating Automation Of Fast Food

In the fast food industry, speed is everything. The concept has never just been about cooking quickly. Players in this competitive space spend huge fortunes every year on optimizing every aspect of the experience, from ordering, to queueing, to cleaning up afterwards. And while fast food restaurants are major employers worldwide, there’s always been a firm eye cast over the gains that automation has to offer.

Flipping Burgers

In the West, fast food most commonly brings burgers to mind. Preparing a quality burger requires attention to the grade of meat, fat content, as well as the preparation steps before it hits the grill. Then it’s all about temperature and time, and getting just the right sear to bring out the natural flavors of the beef. While a boutique burger joint will employ a skilled worker to get things just right, that doesn’t fly for fast food. Every order needs to be preparable by whichever minimum-wage worker got the shift, and be as repeatable as possible across entire countries, or even the world, to meet customer expectations.

Flippy ROAR (Robot On A Rail) at work on the fryers in a White Castle in Chicago.

In their efforts to improve efficiency, White Castle have taken the bold step of installing a robotic burger flipper, imaginitively named Flippy. Built by Miso Robotics, the robot hangs from a ceiling rail to minimise the space taken up in the kitchen area. Based on a Fanuc robot arm, the system uses artificial intelligence to manage kitchen resources, Flippy is capable of managing both the grill and fryers together to ensure fries don’t get cold while the burgers are still cooking, for example. Currently undergoing a trial run in Chicago, White Castle has ambitions to roll the technology out to further stores if successful.

We’ve seen other robotic burger systems before, too. In late 2018, our own [Brian Benchoff] went down to check out Creator, which cooks and assembles its burgers entirely by machine. Despite suspicions about the business model, Creator have persisted until the present day with their unique blend of technology and culinary arts. Particularly impressive were their restaurant modifications in the face of COVID-19. The restaurant received an overhaul, with meals being robotically prepared directly in a take-out box with no human contact. Take-out meals are double-bagged and passed to customers through an airlock, with a positive-pressure system in the restaurant to protect staff from the outside world.

Pizzabots

Pizza is a staple food for many, with high demand and a stronger dependence on delivery than other fast food options. This has led to the industry exploring many avenues for automation, from preparation to order fulfillment.

In terms of outright throughput, Zume were a startup that led the charge. Their system involves multiple robots to knead dough, apply sauce and place the pie in the oven. Due to the variable nature sizes and shapes of various toppings, these are still applied by humans in the loop. Capable of turning out 120 pizzas per hour, a single facility could compete with many traditional human-staffed pizza shops. They also experimented with kitchens-on-wheels that use predictive algorithms to stock out trucks that cook pizzas on the way to the customer’s door. Unfortunately, despite a one-time $4 billion USD valuation, the startup hit a rocky patch and is now focusing on packaging instead.

Picnic aim to make lots of pizza, fast. Their business model involves working directly with existing restaurants, rather than creating their own fast-food brand from scratch.

Picnic have gone further, claiming an output rate of up to 300 twelve-inch pies an hour. The startup aims to work with a variety of existing pizza restaurants, rather than striking out as their own brand. One hurdle to overcome is the delivery of a prepared pizza into the oven. There are many varieties and kinds of pizza oven used in commercial settings, and different loading techniques are required for each. This remains an active area of development for the company. The company has a strong focus on the emerging ghost kitchen model, where restaurants are built solely to fulfill online delivery orders, with no dining area.

Domino’s is one of the largest pizza companies in the world, and thus far have focused their efforts on autonomous delivery. The DRU, or Domino’s Robotic Unit, was launched to much fanfare, promising to deliver pizzas by a small wheeled robotic unit. Equipped with sensors to avoid obstacles and GPS navigation, the project has not entered mainstream service just yet. However, between this and the multitude of companies exploring drone delivery, expect to see this become more of a thing in coming years.

Despite the marketing sizzle, the DOM Pizza Checker does not project holograms.

A more immediate innovation from Domino’s has been the DOM Pizza Checker. With customer complaints about pizza quality plaguing the chain, the pizza checker is an AI-powered visual system. It’s responsible for determining if the correct pizza has been made, with the right toppings and good distribution. An impressive practical use of AI imaging technology, it sounds an alarm if the pizza isn’t up to scratch, prompting it to be remade. However, it has come under scrutiny as a potential method to harass franchisees and workers. Additionally, the limitations of the system mean that Domino’s are still perfectly capable of turning out a bad pizza on occasion.

Other Efforts

One of the most visible examples of fast food automation is the widespread adoption of order kiosks by McDonalds, which kicked off in earnest in 2015. The majority of stores in the US now rely on these to speed up the ordering process, while also enabling more customization for customers with less fuss. Over-the-counter ordering is still possible at most locations, but there’s a heavy emphasis on using the new system.

McDonald’s automated beverage dispenser will be a familiar sight to many. Considered a great help when it works, and a great hindrance when it jams, spills, or simply shuts down.

In general, online ordering and delivery has become the norm, where ten years ago, the idea of getting McDonalds delivered was considered magical and arcane. This writer made seven attempts to take advantage of an early version of the service in China in 2015, succeeding only once, largely due to a lack of understanding of addresses written in non-Latin characters. However, due to the now-ubiquitous nature of services like Ubereats, Postmates, and Menulog, it’s simple for any restaurant to largely automate their ordering and fulfillment process, and reach customers at a distance from their brick-and-mortar locations.

Other efforts are smaller in scope, but contribute to great efficiency gains back-of-house. McDonalds and other chains have widely adopted automated beverage systems. Capable of automatically dispensing cups and the requisite fluids, they take instructions directly from the digital ordering system and take the manual labor out of drink preparation. They’re also great at slightly underfilling the cups, in a way that any human would consider incredibly rude.

Conclusion

Robots in the fast-food kitchen stand to reduce or eliminate tedious, repetitive work. Robots don’t get sick, and less human labour means fewer rostering hassles. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that more automation is on the way, and while some startups may falter, others will surely succeed. Your next meal may just yet be entirely prepared by a robot, even if it’s still delivered by a tired grad student on a moped. Come what may!

 

Tend Your Garden… Again

In the early 1940s, several countries saw an incredible shift in agriculture. What were called “victory gardens” were being planted en masse by people from all walks of life, encouraged by various national governments around the world. Millions of these small home gardens sprang up to help reduce the price of produce during World War 2, allowing anyone with even the tiniest pot of soil to contribute to the war effort.

It’s estimated that in 1943 alone, victory gardens accounted for around one third of all vegetables produced in the United States. Since then, however, the vast majority of these productive gardens have been abandoned in favor of highly manicured, fertilized, irrigated turfgrass (which produces no food yet costs more to maintain), but thanks to the recent global pandemic there has been a resurgence of people who at least are curious about growing their own food again, if not already actively planting gardens. In the modern age, even though a lot of the folk knowledge has been lost since the ’40s, planting a garden of any size is easier than ever especially with the amount of technology available to help.

As someone who not only puts food on the table as a writer for a world-renowned tech website but also literally and figuratively puts food on the table as a small-scale market farmer, there are a few things that I’ve learned that I hope will help if you’re starting your first garden.

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Beautiful Sourdough Bread At Home Thanks To Dynamic Recipe Parameterization

More people are making sourdough at home than ever before, and while it may not take a lot of effort to find a decent recipe, it’s quite another thing to try using recipes to figure out how and why bread actually works. Thankfully, [Makefast Workshop] has turned copious research and hundreds of trials into a dynamic sourdough (and semi-sourdough) bread recipe chock-full of of drop-down options to customize not just ingredients, but baking methods and other recipe elements as well. Want to adjust quantities or loaf styles? Play with hydration or flour type? It’s all right there, and they even have quick-set options for their personal favorites.

In order to do all this, [Makefast Workshop] needed to understand bread at a deeper level than is usually called for. During research, they observed that the format of recipes was often an obstacle to understanding how good bread actually gets made. The reason for this is simple: recipes are presented as standalone documents describing a fixed process; a set of specific steps that, when followed, yield a particular result. What they do not normally do is describe the interplay and balance between ingredients and processes, which makes it difficult to understand how and why exactly the recipe produces what it does. Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to know what elements can be adjusted, and how. The dynamic recipe changes all that.

[Makefast Workshop] performed hundreds of tests, dialing in parameters one by one, to gain the insights needed to populate their dynamic recipe. It’s got clear processes and drop-down options that dynamically update not just the recipe steps, but also the URL. This means that one can fiddle the recipe to one’s desire, then simply copy and paste the URL to keep track of what one has baked.

When it comes to thoughtful approaches to food, this certainly isn’t [Makefast Workshop]’s first rodeo. We covered their beautiful directions for creating delicious speculoos, complete with effective 3D printed molds for a modern twist on a Belgian classic.

Don’t Trust Your Ears For The Freshest Chips

We hear fables of how to restore the crispness to your crisp and the crackle to your crackers, but they are more hot air than some of the methods. We found one solution that has some teeth though, and it doesn’t require any kitchen appliances, just a pair of headphones. Keep reading before you mash potato chips into your Beats. [Charles Spence] co-authors a paper with [Massimiliano Zampini] titled The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips. It’s a mouthful, so folks refer to it as the “Sonic Chip Experiment,” which rolls off the tongue. The paper is behind paywalls, but you can find it if you know where to look.

The experiment puts participants in some headphones while they eat Pringles, and researchers feed them different sound waves. Sometimes the sound file is a recording of crackly chewing, and other times it is muffled mastication. The constant was the Pringles, which are a delight for testing because they are uniform. Participants report that some chips are fresher than others. This means we use our ears to help judge consumable consistency. Even people who knew all about the experiment report they can willingly fool themselves with the recordings.

What other foods would benefit from the augmented crunch, and which ones would suffer? If shapely food is your jam, we have a holy cookie which is probably best enjoyed with your eyes. If you prefer your Skittles organized by color, we have you covered.

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