There’s a new robot in the legion of automatons designed to change how restaurants prepare food.
Cambridge-based Dexai Robotics on Thursday introduced a mechanized kitchen assistant, named “Alfred,” that’s intended to work in existing kitchens by using everyday utensils to assemble dishes. Its creators hope restaurants will see the product as an appliance that can help assemble meals like salads and poke bowls while reducing the need for humans to do repetitive tasks such as gather ingredients.
It’s the latest effort by Boston’s tech industry ― long a leader in robotics ― to automate the hospitality business. Another startup, Spyce Food Co., has a restaurant in Downtown Crossing (currently closed for renovations) in which a wall-size apparatus prepares bowls of hot food, nearly from scratch.
Dexai is going for a different market. Instead of building its own restaurants, it hopes to work inside of food-preparation areas, both commercial and retail, that are already set up for people with established recipes.
"It’s designed to sit on the counter in the space that you would normally work, said Dexai’s chief executive, David MS Johnson. “That way, you can retrofit your kitchen and use the same utensils, the same recipes, and the same ingredients that you are already preparing in your kitchen.”
The company, spun out of the nonprofit Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge last year, announced Thursday that it had raised $5.5 million from venture capitalists to help it develop its business.
Alfred, named after Batman’s loyal butler, is built as a modification on top of commercially available robotic arms that are already being used in many manufacturing applications. Though it looks similar, Johnson said its capabilities are quite different: Dexai has added a camera to help Alfred see what it’s doing, but most of the company’s work has been on the software that tells it what to do.
Dexai says its robots possess a skill that most robots have a difficult time mastering: It can work with materials that are soft and may change shape while a machine is handling them ― think ice cream or soft fruit. Other Boston-area companies, including Soft Robotics and Root AI have been working on similar problems in various contexts.
The company also modifies the machines to make them food-safe, Johnson said, and installs an attachment that allows them to pick up and switch between utensils, such as scoops and tongs.
Dexai is piloting the devices in commercial kitchens, but it says they could be in restaurants this year. Johnson said the company is not selling the robots directly. Instead, it is offering Alfred “as a service” and taking a cut of the price of the meals it prepares in restaurants.
He would not say what the device costs, but said it is less than what many third-party delivery services charge client establishments.
In marketing materials, the company positions Alfred as a partial solution to the staffing challenges restaurants face. The robot will take on a menial task that a person would otherwise be doing, Johnson said, which he believes may free up time for people to do other jobs, such as maintaining the robot, training it, and experimenting with new recipes.
Alfred can’t chop food or actually cook it ― yet. Its main job is to assemble ingredients. But Johnson expects that time-saving role will soon grow as the company develops Alfred further.