How do you digitize making schnitzel? How do you create a combi-steamer that’s as intelligent as the person using it? Is the commercial kitchen world really getting a little smarter every day? For answers to those burning questions, KTCHNrebel turned to Dr. Peter Stadelmann, CEO of Rational AG since 2014 and its Head of Digital Customer Solutions since 2018.
Mr. Stadelmann, a combi-steamer manufacturing company might not be the first place people expect to see Digital Customer Solutions. What exactly are those?
That’s a team within Rational that’s completely focused on digitization in commercial kitchens. It’s not about our own appliances, such as the SelfCookingCenter combi-steamer or the multi-functional VarioCookingCenter. Our team considers cooking processes as a whole and tries to identify areas where software could help people work more intelligently and more efficiently. It’s not just about cooking; it’s also about coordinating different areas of the food production process. We took people that were originally involved in a wide variety of processes – that’s what we call our teams and business units – and put them together to create a kind of task force. So you can see just how important this subject is to us. We absolutely intend on using these digital services to develop an additional area of business.
You mentioned working more intelligently. “Intelligence” is a word that gets thrown around a lot at Rational. Can you give us an idea of what people at your company mean by that?
When it comes to our appliances, we use intelligence the same way you’d use “skills” when you were talking about a person. The more intelligent something is, the more it can do. SelfCookingCenters are equipped with sensors that continuously monitor the condition of the food so that it can track cooking progress. And then the unit continuously compares that against the target results that the chef has specified. Our cooking intelligence – our software, in other words – tailors the whole cooking process with that result in mind. It eliminates the inefficient process of checking up on the food over and over – or at least minimizes it. And it means that the quality of the results doesn’t depend on the person’s cooking skills. Even I, as a non-chef, could still prepare a wide range of different foods perfectly.
About two years ago, you compared the SelfCookingCenter to a autonomous driving car. Do you still think of it like that?
Of course, the SelfCookingCenter lets us do “autonomous cooking”, because it’s intelligent.
For example, take an analogue camera from, say, 1980. They had a light meter, and you would adjust the aperture and the shutter speed until you got the lighting right. And visual displays in the viewfinder helped you get the picture into focus. After 36 shots, your roll of film would be full, and you didn’t get to look at your pictures for a few days. Nowadays, cameras adjust the focus and the lighting automatically, they detect faces and contexts, they correct red-eye from flashes, stabilize the image when you wobble, save dates and times and GPS information for your images, and show you your pictures right away. In other words, digital cameras are light years ahead in terms of intelligence. They let everyone take much better photos, even people who aren’t trained photographers. Better yet, you don’t even need to own a camera nowadays – you can do it all with your smartphone. So back to the car. Cars in the future are going to be a lot more intelligent, and eventually they’ll be able to drive completely autonomously. They’ll be able to transport anyone and anything whether or not a person with a driver’s license is in the car. Just imagine what that will mean.
Does “autonomous cooking” still need a chef? Because if so, your SelfCookingCenter isn’t really a solution to trained staff shortages.
The SelfCookingCenter takes cooking off the chef’s hands, but not everything about the process. Obviously, somebody still has to tell it what dishes to cook and how. After that, all they need to do is follow the instructions that the SelfCookingCenter or the VarioCookingCenter gives them. To make it even easier, we developed “MyDisplay”. The user only sees photos or icons on the display – say, a picture of a croissant – and then all they have to do is tap the picture and wait for instructions. So even new or inexperienced users will get the same exact results every time. A good example are bakeries, where there are a lot of trained, but non-specialist staff. With MyDisplay you can easily produce a lot of tasty snacks – without the need for skilled staff.
Generations Y and Z have joined the workforce now. And their expectations for workplaces are a lot different from their parents’. Does Rational have a solution for that?
First of all, I would say that having a SelfCookingCenter is a big plus in terms of workplace appeal. It takes routine tasks off your hands – the SelfCookingCenter even cleans itself. So automation and digitization, with an intelligent cooking appliance, let you simply delegate a lot of the more unpleasant kitchen work. A kitchen with one of our units in it is a modern kitchen. Which is what Generations Y and Z want. Modern kitchens also have a different atmosphere than kitchens with Stone Age equipment. There’s less stress, less need for overtime, because our intelligent cooking appliances make sure that everything turns out great – for example, because they have the power to cook faster, or because they take work off your hands through overnight cooking. That’s like a win in itself – one that wouldn’t be possible without digitization.
Speaking of digitization: ordering software, order kiosks, service robots, customer transponders, guest tracking. That’s all front-of-house stuff. What about the back-of-house?
ConnectedCooking is Rational’s solution in that regard – it has been since 2017. ConnectedCooking is the cloud-based online platform used to network Rational units. So the chef, or the kitchen manager, or whoever can operate and monitor SelfCookingCenters and VarioCookingCenters remotely, through their smartphone, tablet, or PC. The only thing you have to do yourself is load and unload the food – but your smartphone lets you know when to do that. At the same time, you’ve got your hygiene data under control, you can transfer recipes from one unit to another, and the unit will even call your service technician for you if you give it permission. With the ConnectedCooking app, you have everything in view from your couch.
Artificial intelligence systems are able to analyze huge amounts of data, along with patterns and discrepancies, in no time at all. In fact, they do it more precisely than humans. Should we expect to see robots preparing our food sometime in the near future?
Prepare, maybe one day, but don’t expect them to “design” it. Our goal with intelligent appliances is to help make life easier in the kitchen – to help people work more efficiently, to increase the level of standardization. Robots don’t have taste buds. They can’t smell. But they can repeat specific activities over and over again without taking a vacation or getting sick. That allows chefs to focus on creating new dishes, plating them perfectly, and seasoning them.
Man-machine interaction can take many different forms. Are the Rational selection knob’s days numbered?
That knob is one of the characteristic design features of our brand. Of course, over time, the controls on our units will have to change. Augmented reality, voice controls, motion sensors – there are a lot of possibilities. But it has to be appropriate for kitchens. It has to hold up to heat, steam, grease, and noise. As you would expect from Rational, we do not, of course, bring anything to the market, but only those innovations that work and bring benefits to our customers.
Thanks very much for talking to us, Mr. Stadelmann!