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Seattle company is using artificial intelligence to make pizza; check out the assembly line

Upon entry into an industrial building on the outer edge of Interbay, the scent of pizza wafts throughout a large room where technology and food converge.

In the center of Seattle-based food-tech company Picnic’s 8,000-square-foot lab, an automated assembly line consists of a conveyor belt propped upon a metal base. To demonstrate the production, a Picnic worker places a pre-made 16-inch circle of pizza dough into the first module. A form of artificial intelligence (AI) called deep learning uses numerous layers of mathematical formulas to process and assess the size, dimensions and placement of the pizza on the belt, and to adjust the the module lighting so a computer-vision camera can properly see it.

The A.I. Age | This 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence. The series is funded with the help of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over the coverage.

The pizza chugs along to a series of modules where a small hose evenly squirts tomato sauce over the dough, then a tray dispenses cheese, followed by a spray of pepperoni and ham. The pizza completes its journey through the automated assembly line in a little over a minute.

The finished product glistens golden brown when it emerges from the oven. It tastes like pizza.

On Tuesday, Picnic — formerly called Vivid Robotics — unveils the prototype it calls the first intelligent, all-purpose automated assembly platform designed for the food service and hospitality industries. Because the system is automated, a customer-facing app is connected directly into the machine so the pizza eaters can customize their toppings. The assembly line can create up to 300 12-inch or 180 18-inch pizzas per hour, the company says.

Sauce is squirted and cheese dropped on  a pizza in an automated assembly platform designed for the hospitality industries at Seattle-based Picnic. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Sauce is squirted and cheese dropped on a pizza in an automated assembly platform designed for the hospitality industries at Seattle-based Picnic. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A finished cheese pizza is ready to eat during a demonstration at Seattle-based Picnic. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

While the current system serves as a prototype to be used for field testing, said Picnic CEO Clayton Wood, the company expects to have a production version next year.

Clayton Wood, CEO of Seattle-based Picnic 
Clayton Wood, CEO of Seattle-based Picnic

The startup’s first two customers are live event vendor Centerplate, which used the technology during a beta run at T-Mobile Park for 12 Seattle Mariners games in September, and the Redmond-based science-fiction themed restaurant, Zaucer Pizza. The automated system fills a need for restaurants seeking consistently tasty pies in large orders, said Wood.

T-Mobile Park’s suite section served as the ideal testing ground due to its controlled environment, said Centerplate General Manager Steve Dominguez. Picnic delivered a prototype to the kitchen at no cost, and stationed computer engineers who ensured the system created consistently high-quality pizzas. Dominguez called the trial run a success and said Centerplate would consider using the system in the future.

“For the customers, they couldn’t tell a difference, which for me was a win,” said Dominguez.

“That food assembly process is labor intensive and tedious,” said Wood. “It’s hard to keep trained workers who make a consistent product.”

Picnic’s automated system requires just one worker to place the dough into the assembly line and replenish the toppings. Wood sees Picnic as a solution to the shift from dine-in restaurants to delivery and takeout, where a high volume of food is needed in a short amount of time. His company’s customers are facing a staffing shortage that is creating “a great deal of stress” in the kitchen, he said.

Charles Chuman, vice president of sales at research company CHD Expert, said immigration constraints imposed by the Trump administration have created a massive labor shortage in the food industry, particularly in states such as California and Texas. Additionally, the food industry is being disrupted by online delivery, catering, AI and robotics.

But is AI well-developed enough to replace a sous chef? Not yet, said Chuman, although the automation of pizza assembly has become more commonplace in recent years. One company called &Pizza plans to place pizza-making robots in the back of vehicles.

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