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.


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.


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!


Welcome To McDonald’s; Would You Like 3D Printing Resin With That?

University of Toronto researchers have succeeded in converting used cooking oil — from McDonald’s, no less — into high-resolution 3D printing resin. Your first response might be: “Why?”, but thinking about it there are several advantages. For one thing, waste oil is a real problem for the food industry, and thus it can be acquired rather cheaply. An even bigger benefit is that the plastic that originates from this oil is biodegradable. Their 3d-printed butterfly, of course, is made from the recycled resin.

We aren’t chemists, but apparently 3D resin has a lot in common with cooking oil already. The team used a one-step chemical process to convert one liter of McDonald’s greasiest into a little more than 400 milliliters of resin.

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FCC Filing Reveals Tasty Hardware McSecrets

If you’ve visited a McDonald’s recently, you might have noticed something of a tonal shift. Rather than relying on angsty human teenagers to take customer orders, an increasing number of McDonald’s locations are now using self-serve kiosks. You walk up, enter your order on a giant touch screen, and then take an electronic marker with you to an open table. In mere minutes your tray of nutritious delicious cheap food is brought to you by… well that’s still probably going to be an angsty teenager.

Thanks to a recent FCC filing pointed out to us by an anonymous tipster, we now know what kind of tech Ronald has packed into the electronic table markers (referred to as “tents” in McDonald’s parlance). It turns out they are Bluetooth Low Energy beacons powered by the Nordic nRF52832 chipset, and include some unexpected features such as an accelerometer to detect falls.

The Nordic nRF52832 features a 32-bit ARM Cortex M4F processor at 64 MHz with 512 KB flash and 64 KB SRAM. Quite a bit of punch for a table marker. Incidentally, this is the same chip used in the Adafruit Feather nRF52 Pro, so there’s already an easily obtainable development toolchain.

A image of the backside of the PCB shows a wealth of labeled test points, and we imagine figuring out how to get one of these table markers doing your own bidding wouldn’t be too difficult. Not that we condone you swiping one of these things along with your Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Though we are curious to know just why they need so much hardware to indicate which table to take a particular order to; it seems the number printed on the body of the device would be enough to do that.

This isn’t the first time we’ve taken a peek behind the Golden Arches. From reverse engineering their famous fries to hacking the toys they give out with Happy Meals, there’s more to do at the local McDonald’s than get thrown out of the ball pit again.

Reverse Engineering The McDonald’s French Fry

McDonald’s is serious about their fries. When they were forced by shifting public opinion (drunkenly swaggering around as it always does) to switch from their beef tallow and cottonseed oil mixture to a vegetable oil mixture; they spent millions to find a solution that retained the taste. How they make the fries is not the worlds most closely guarded secret, but they do have a unique flavor, texture, and appearance which is a product of lots of large scale industrial processes. [J. Kenji López-Alt] decided to reverse engineer the process.

His first problem was of procurement. He could easily buy cooked fries, but he needed the frozen fries from McDonald’s to begin his reverse engineering. McDonald’s refused to sell him uncooked fries, “They just don’t do that,” one employee informed him. He reached out to his audience, and one of them had access to a charlatan. The mountebank made quick work of the McDonald’s employees and soon [J. Kenji] had a few bags of the frozen potato slivers to work with.

What follows next was both entertaining and informative. At one point he actually brought out a Starrett dial caliper to measure the fries; they were 0.25in squares in cross section. Lots of research and experimentation was done to get that texture. For example, McDonald’s fries aren’t just frozen raw potatoes. They are, in fact; blanched, flash fried, frozen and then fried again. Getting this process right was a challenge, but he arrived at similar fries by employing his sous vide cooker.

He then wanted to see if he could come up with a french fry recipe that not only allowed the home chef to make their own McDonald’s fries, but improve on them as well. It gets into some food chemistry here. For example he found that the same effect as blanching could be produced by boiling the fries; if you added vinegar to keep the cell walls from disintegrating.

The article certainly shows how knowledge of the chemistry behind cooking can improve the results.

Hacking McDonald’s Minion Toy To Be An Electric Slidewhistle


This is a look at the brain surgery which [Tim] performed on a Happy Meal Toy. The McDonald’s package meal perk comes with one of several different Despicable Me 2 characters. But [Tim] wasn’t a fan of this one since you had to blow in it to make noise. He grabbed a 555 timer and added his own circuit to the toy which turns it up to 11 (seriously, turn your volume down before playing the video).

Disassembly includes removing a screw which needs a 3-sided screwdriver (protip: use a bench grinder and a cheap screw driver to make your own). There’s also some prying to get into the skull and then its time to work on the slide whistle. The blue tube is a regular slide whistle which you blow into from the back and pull on the red goo to change the pitch. [Tim] added a photoresistor to the mouthpiece and an LED on the slide. Moving the light source changes the intensity which is one of the adjustments to make 555 circuit howl.

We love the Happy Meal toy hacks because they seem so visceral. A couple years ago it was parts harvesting from Avatar toys. which in turn inspired a tripwire hack with a Penguin toy.

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Intruder Alarm McDonald’s Toy Hacking

[malikaii] needed to set up some kind of tripwire style alarm system for his office. His bosses kept sneaking in to find him slacking. So, like any loyal hacker, instead of just working harder he built an alarm system. After a failed attempt to recreate an IR alarm circuit he found on the web and built from old appliance parts, he found the Hack a Day article about harvesting McDonald’s toys. The end result was a fully functional IR detecting alarm for the office doorway. This is pretty simple really, the best kind of hack.

McLVDT: A Straw-based Sensor

We saw [Kevin’s] home-built Linear Variable Differential Transformer in a YouTube video last week and wanted to know more. We’re in luck, he agreed to share all the details as well as a bunch of information on these sensors. An LVDT is used to measure distance along a straight path. Unlike a linear optical encoder, this method uses measurements of inductance between two electrical coils to judge the distance.

[Kevin] used some magnet wire wrapped around two straws of different diameter to fabricate his sensor. A signal generator is connected to the primary coil and the resulting signal induced in the secondary coil is measured to reveal the change in physical position. Check out the video after the break to see the results.

It’s not hard to get your hands on a McDonald’s straw (hence the name ‘Mc’LVDT), a smaller inner straw, and a few feet of magnet wire. This will be a fun one to try when those dark winter days start to get to you.

Continue reading “McLVDT: A Straw-based Sensor”