Raising a likely somewhat contentious topic, iFixit and Public Knowledge have challenged the manufacturer behind McDonald’s ice cream machines to make them easy to diagnose and repair. This is a subject that’s probably familiar to anyone who is vaguely familiar with US news and the importance of ice cream at McDonald’s locations to the point that a live tracker was set up so that furtive customers can catch a glimpse at said tracker before finding themselves staring in dismay at an ‘Out of Order’ sign on one of these Taylor ice cream machines.
The story is more complex than just a machine being “broken”, however. The maintenance contracts are lucrative, the instruction manual is long, and the error codes are cryptic. When you add to that the complexity of cleaning and maintaining the machines, it’s tempting to just claim the machine is out of order. These Taylor machines (the C602 and the C709 from the iFixit video) are a bit more complex than your usual ice cream maker in that they also have a pasteurization element that’s supposed to keep already poured mix safe to use the next day.
The beacon in question has the look of being an older model judging by the 2009 date codes on its radio module and the evident corrosion on its battery terminals. Its Bluetooth 4 SoC is end-of-life, so it’s possible that this represents a previous version of the system. It has a few other hardware features, including a magnet and a sensor designed to power the board down when it is stacked upon another beacon.
Probing its various interfaces revealed nothing, as did connecting to the device via Bluetooth. However some further research as well as asking some McD’s employees revealed some of its secret. It does little more than advertise its MAC address, and an array of Bluetooth base stations in the restaurant use that to triangulate its approximate position.
The golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant are a ubiquitous feature of life in so many parts of the world, and while their food might not be to all tastes their comforting familiarity draws in many a weary traveler. There was a time when buying a burger meant a conversation with a spotty teen behind the till, but now the transaction is more likely to take place at a terminal with a large touch screen. These terminals have caught the attention of [Geoff Huntley], who has written about their surprising level of vulnerability.
When you’re ordering your Big Mac and fries, you’re in reality standing in front of a Windows PC, and repeated observation of start-up reveals that the ordering application runs under an administrator account. The machine has a card reader and a receipt printer, and it’s because of this printer that the vulnerability starts. In a high-traffic restaurant the paper rolls often run out, and the overworked staff often leave the cabinets unlocked to facilitate access. Thus an attacker need only gain access to the machine to reset it and they can be in front of a touch screen with administrator access during boot, and from that start they can do anything. Given that these machines handle thousands of card transactions daily, the prospect of a skimming attack becomes very real.
The fault here lies in whoever designed these machines for McDonalds, instead of putting appropriate security on the software the whole show relies on the security of the lock. We hope that they don’t come down on the kids changing the paper, and instead get their software fixed. Meanwhile this isn’t the first time we’ve peered into some McHardware.
Some of you around the world may have come across these Android-based gaming tables installed in your local fast-food outlet, and may even have been lucky enough to paw at one that was actually working at the time.
Originally based on an ancient mini PC, with a 1080p flat panel LCD and a touch overlay, they would have been mind-blowing for small children back in the day, but nowadays we expect somewhat more. YouTuber [BigRig Creates] got his hands on one, in a less than pleasant condition, but after a lot of soap and water, it was stripped down and the original controller junked in favour of a modern mini PC. To be clear, there isn’t much left beyond the casing and display from the original hardware, but we don’t care, as a lot of attention was paid to the software side of things to get it to triple-booting into Windows 10, Android x86 and Linux running emulation station, covering all those table-gaming urges you may have.
Internally, there is a fair amount of room for improvement on the wiring side of things, and [BigRig] is quick to admit that, but that’s what this learning game is all about. Now, many of you will choke on the very idea of playing games on a table system like this, after all, it’s pretty obvious this will be really hard on the back and neck. But, it does offer the easy option to switch from landscape to portrait orientation, simply by walking around the side, so it does have an upside. Also you’ve got a handy place to dump your beer and the takeaway when it arrives, so maybe not such a bad thing to have in your apartment? And, yes, it does run Doom.
We were particularly amused by the custom boot logo as well as the slick custom art in emulation station. It’s attention to detail like this that makes a build a great one and a conversation piece at parties. Now if only he could sort out that wiring job.
The story of the McDonalds’ frozen treat machine involves technology, trade secrets, inside business dealings, franchiser/franchisee friction, and an alleged NDA violation. In short: lots of money and lawyers. But it also involves something that matters to all of us hackers — what it means to own a machine.
The brief background is that McDonald’s requires its franchisees to buy a particular Taylor Soft Serve machine. The machine would enter pasteurizing mode and has opaque error codes that are triggered apparently without the owners or operators understanding, at which point Taylor service techs come in to fix them — and get paid for their service, naturally. A small hardware startup, Kytch, stepped into the mess with a device that man-in-the-middles the Taylor machine’s status codes, allowing the machine’s owners to diagnose and monitor it themselves. Heroes, right?
Taylor, naturally, wants to look at a Kytch device, but they’re locked up under NDAs that Kytch require users to sign in order to protect their trade secrets. So when Taylor gets their hands on one, Kytch takes them to court for, ironically, reverse engineering their device that they built to reverse Taylor’s protocols.
There are no good guys in this fight: it’s corporate secrecy fighting corporate secrets. None of which, by the way, is Hackaday particularly fond of. Why? Because these secrets rob the ostensible owners of the devices of their ability to inspect, fix, and operate their machines. This is akin to the “right to repair” idea, but it’s somehow even more fundamental — the right to know what your own devices are doing.
What this story needs is a Robin Hood. And as the devices we get sold become increasingly wrapped up in EULAs and NDAs, and full of secret sauce that’s out of our control, we’re going to need a lot more Robin Hoods. It’s McDonald’s frozen treat machines, but it’s also your smart thermostat and your inkjet printer and your — you name it. Have at it, Hackaday!
We see so many dystopian visions of automation, it’s time for us to do it right! The Redefine Robots round of the 2021 Hackaday Prize just started, and it’s your chance to build robots that respect the users. It doesn’t have to be the largest project in the world, but it does have to be automatic and helpful. Start your engines!
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We always knew that McDonald’s soft serve (you can’t really call it ice cream) machines are known to be finicky. There’s even a website that tracks where the machines are broken and, apparently, it is usually about 10% or more of them at any given time. But when we saw a news article about a judge issuing a restraining order, we knew there must be more to the story. Turns out, these $18,000 soft serve machines are in the heart of something we are very interested in: when do you own your own technology?
There are apparently 13,000 or so of these machines and they are supposedly high-tech marvels, able to produce soft serve and milkshakes at the same time. However, they are also high maintenance. Cleaning the machine every two weeks (try not to think about that) involves a complete teardown. Worse, if anything breaks, you need a factory-authorized service person.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!