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Rieber Reutlingen

Efficient processes in the canteen

Success story Rieber Reutlingen

Not just suited for production: the APAS assistant as service personnel

Collaborative robots can not only support employees in production environments. They can also be used in canteens and industrial kitchens, as Rieber GmbH & Co. KG, a leading supplier of kitchen technology and gastronomy infrastructure shows. The company based in Reutlingen, Germany, has been testing an automated kiosk consisting of own machines and a mobile APAS assistant since 2016 to explore the possibilities of collaborative robots for process and logistics automation in industrial kitchens and gastronomy.

The preparation and distribution of food in canteens has been focusing on the supply of a large number of people with standardized meals within a short timeframe for many decades. However, the working world has changed significantly. Industry 4.0 with varying market requirements, shorter product lifecycles and smaller batch sizes also mirrors in the expectations of customers towards canteens.

Customers demand more high-quality and individualized meals. This is true for choice, combination possibilities and portion sizes, as well as for an extended time span for food supply. A lunch break between 11:30 am and 12:15 pm no longer matches the realistic working world.

Ingo Burkhardt, Managing Director of Rieber kitchentec

Yet canteens often lack the required staff to supply meals over a longer period of time. Outside of opening hours, they usually provide snack machines, which only offer a limited choice of food. “With the APAS assistant we can close this gap,” Burkhardt says.

“A fully or partially automated kiosk makes it possible to offer customers a larger choice of cold and warm meals, irrespective of the time of day. This enables us to increase the provisioning time and the degree of utilization of canteens.” During peak periods, the robot can support the employees and help reduce queues. Customers can place their orders by app before visiting canteen.

Human-robot collaboration in the cafeteria

Picture showing the gripper of an APAS assistant enclosing a cup
The gripper hand of the APAS assistant’s robotic arm grips a cup.

Rieber is currently testing a combination of own machines and an APAS assistant explore the potentials of direct human-robot interaction: via an order app developed by Bosch, a customer orders a coffee and a bar of chocolate at the automated kiosk. Immediately, the gripper hand of the APAS assistant’s robotic arm grips a cup and places it below the coffee machine. It then lifts a tray onto the transport belt with the suction device of its gripper. As soon as the coffee machine signalizes that the coffee has been brewed, the robot picks up the cup and places it on the tray before activating the transport belt, which brings the tray to the customer.

Picture showing the gripper of an APAS assistant lifting a tablet onto a conveyor belt
With the suction device of its gripper the robot lifts a tray onto the transport belt.

The robot is supposed to take over monotonous and ergonomically challenging tasks such as preparing trays and tableware or positioning the packed snacks. Especially during peak periods, this would significantly support and relieve the kitchen personnel. “Complex tasks or jobs with higher hygienic requirements like handling fresh goods remain in human hands,” Burkhardt explains. “Once an employee has finished his job, for instance buttering a pretzel, and has put it onto the tray, he informs the robot at the push of a button. The latter then ‘tells’ the transport belt to start.”

Heading towards the intelligent kitchen of the future

Rieber wants to push digitization and automation in preparing and distributing meals, in other words from industry 4.0 to ‘kitchen 4.0’. The automated kiosk is a first step in this direction. Above all, large kitchens require flexibility. Thanks to its quick-fixation casters, the APAS assistant is mobile and can be employed wherever it is needed as additional workforce.

Its gripper can be individually adapted so it is able to handle a large number of different tableware. Employees can ‘teach’ the robot new tasks via a touchpad, intuitively and without special programming expertise. Standardized interfaces make it possible to connect the robot with other production assistants and equipment such as a transport belt or a dish stacker.

Picture showing the gripper of an APAS assistant placing cups in a  dishwasher
Standardized interfaces make it possible to connect the robot with other equipment such as a transport belt or a dish stacker.

The APAS assistant can also be configured for Rieber’s digitization and organization system CHECK. The system is designed for the use of sustainable reusable packaging. It records origin, transport routes, temperature and food ingredients from processing to the canteen via serial numbers. Against this background, many potential future applications are possible, for example in hospitals: the robot could automatically check patient data anonymously against app-based meal orders via QR codes printed on the tray.

This would help prevent distribution errors. Patients would further receive food that is individually adapted to their wishes, food intolerances and their doctor’s instructions. Rieber sees further application areas for the APAS assistant as dish washing assistants or at the clearing belt – basically everywhere it can help make work processes more efficient and relieve kitchen personnel from strenuous tasks. Ingo Burkhardt is convinced that “automation in the kitchen will prevail.”