Silicon Valley can’t get rid of the ‘obsession’ about the robot that can make pizza by itself

Tram Ho

When she started considering a career change, Jaya Iyer had 2 degrees in mechanical engineering and 8 years of experience in the aerospace industry. Iyer, then working for a subsidiary of Boeing, consulted with a former colleague at SpaceX and decided to meet Benson Tsai, who was trying to harness the “smart minds” from many companies. aerospace around Los Angeles to tackle a new challenge.

Instead of developing battery technology for satellites and spacecraft, Benson Tsai suddenly turned… making pizza. His vision is a robot capable of making cakes himself, then selling to customers who order online at offices, shopping malls or residential areas. It is known that Tsai persuaded a large number of investors to invest and assembled a group of about 40 rocket scientists to solve the “pizza problem”.

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The “pizza problem” that Tsai refers to comes from the mushroom. In 2020, when Iyer first visited Stella Pizza’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, the team figured out how to knead the dough, spread the ketchup, and sprinkle the green peppers, but didn’t fix the problem with the mushrooms. The design of the robot requires them to be pre-cut before being loaded into the machine, but doing so will cause the mushrooms to stick together.

Stellar made a strong impression on Iyer. She decided to give up her career at an aerospace company, join Tsai and become a mechanical engineer overseeing the shaping of pizza toppings.

Called a robot, but it doesn’t look like a robot at all, according to Bloomberg. The machine is more like a food truck with a miniature assembly line inside.

“If you look closely enough, it’s not easier than a rocket,” Tsai said.

At SpaceX, the final mission is to colonize Mars. At Stellar, the goal is to compete with Domino’s instead of trying to make the best Neapolitan pizzas in the world. Domino’s Pizza currently generates more than $4 billion in annual sales. Tsai expects Stellar to surpass this number by saving space and hiring less staff.

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Stellar is expected to surpass Domino’s by saving space and hiring less staff.

Currently, most of the personnel are in the laboratory. Iyer spent the first year building prototype slides, testing propellers as well as a variety of vegetables. Meanwhile, the problem with the fungus remains unresolved. Stellar cannot be substituted for other ingredients because mushrooms are said to be a must. According to research firm NPD Group, mushrooms outstrip onions, green peppers and black olives as the most requested root vegetable.

After days of failed experiments, Iyer finally found a solution. Instead of putting fresh mushrooms directly into the machine, Stellar keeps them in the refrigerator for a few days, then uses them. This keeps the mushrooms dry and easy to handle.

People talk a lot about the race between Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, but few talk about things like pizza-making robots. They don’t really get high on the list of pressing issues. However, the idea of ​​​​a robot making pizza for many years still has a certain influence, especially with technology lovers.

The most ambitious endeavor of the decade could be the startup Zume Pizza. Alex Garden, a former President of a video game company, founded Zume in 2015 with the goal of building pizza-making robots. Masayoshi Son, the founder of Japanese technology group SoftBank, is one of Zume’s big investors because he thinks that in 25 years, robots will have an IQ of 10,000 and can soon replace “the entire population of the people.” number is working”. Reportedly, SoftBank committed $375 million to Zume in 2018.

Zume bought robotic arms and programmed them to bake cakes on the road to save time. This is a big mistake because the cheese ends up flowing all over the place and becoming a mess. By 2020, Zume has switched to sustainable food packaging design and laid off more than half of its employees. The robots also lost their jobs after Zume stopped selling pizza.

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Stellar designs and builds most of the parts for its prototype itself, the same way Tesla did for electric cars.

Tsai follows Zume’s bumpy path. At first, this guy considered bubble milk tea, a trendy Taiwanese drink, but eventually gave up because Americans didn’t consume enough. Pizza meanwhile is a good candidate. According to the Department of Agriculture, about 13% of Americans eat pizza on any given day. However, most of them feel unsatisfied, because according to the customer satisfaction index, the big 4, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa Johns and Little Caesars all lost points.

According to Bloomberg, Stellar designs and builds most of the parts for its prototype itself, the same way Tesla did with electric vehicles and SpaceX did with rockets. For the first version, Tsai and the staff had to frequent Home Depot and Lowe’s Home.

The problem appeared after the robot arm that was supposed to move the pizza malfunctioned. Josh Villbrandt, the head of software at the time, had to reprogram everything.

“We pause the machine, then restart it. That’s a pretty big drop in efficiency,” Josh Villbrandt said.

Avidan Ross was one of the early investors. As a founding partner at venture capital firm Root Ventures, Ross says he’s inspired by big ambitions.

“There is a group of engineers who are not only unafraid to challenge, but also enjoy being called ‘crazy,’” Avidan Ross said, while rationalizing his $6 million investment by citing the situation. current economy. With the food industry experiencing the dual effects of labor shortages and inflation, Ross hopes robots can solve any problem.

In addition to Stellar, Seattle-based Picnic Works also sells automated assembly lines of 100 pizzas an hour. In Fremont, California, formerly Tesla’s headquarters, Middleby also manufactures PizzaBot with the ability to create cakes in less than a minute. Meanwhile, Pazzi Robotics was looking to build an automated pizza restaurant in Paris, but was unfortunately forced to liquidate the whole thing in October. Philippe Goldman, then CEO, blamed “weak” capital flows ” with the pessimism of public opinion about the potential of robots.

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Stellar has overcome technical challenges, won the hearts of students and received backing from investment firm Jay-Z.

The restaurant industry is seeing an opportunity in automation. “There is so much credit to the founders of Stellar Pizza because they were engineers at SpaceX,” said Brittain Ladd, a strategy consultant. A robot can be successful if it actually delivers better experiences.”

Still, consistency remains one of Stellar’s biggest challenges. Under the pressure of the cooking process, the dough is continuously overblown and then burst. Tiny pieces were strewn across the walls and top of the 900-degree F oven.

The engineers approached the problem the same way they did at SpaceX. They started with a hypothesis that the layers of powder did not bind together well enough, so it was easy to explode. The rolling process was later adjusted, however, still not giving satisfactory results.

To increase texture and flavor, Stellar’s pizza dough is usually refrigerated for 2 days before being placed in the oven. This is thought to make the cake more explosive. After days of research, Stellar found the exact yeast content as well as the exact temperature that helped the robot bake the perfect cake. Around the beginning of 2022, they finally succeeded.

“It felt like a relief,” said Arik Jenkins, a former automation engineer at SpaceX who joined Stellar in 2020.

A Bloomberg reporter had the opportunity to try Stellar’s pizza. He commented that this is not a gourmet cake, but it tastes much better than Domino’s.

Stellar reportedly began a stress test in September around the University of Southern California campus, where students were willing to download an app in exchange for a pizza. In the early days, the fact that 180 customers placed an order within 5 minutes caused the company to overload. A 12-inch cake will cost $8.

In a few years, Stellar sold a lot of pizza. Tsai said he’s glad he overcame technical challenges, won the hearts of students, and received backing from Jay-Z, a venture capital firm with $16.5 million in capital. in October. Still, Stellar still has many challenges ahead, including proving the economics of the business and scaling beyond Los Angeles.

By: Bloomberg Businessweek

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Source : Genk