One look in the building's kitchen facility belies its benign facade: Instead of chefs tossing dough and slopping sauce, the company has installed a human-robot hybrid workforce that can crank out as many as 400 pizzas an hour and can reportedly have them to your door in a fraction of the time (and price) as the competition.
"One of the things that we have always focused on is how to create a system that works for both parties," Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins, told Engadget. "How do we create a system that's stable and predictable, which are great conditions for machines, but flexible and collaborative, which are great conditions for human beings?"
Zume does not operate like conventional delivery services. Rather, it has sought to achieve a productive balance between its meaty and metallic employees, enabling each to better support the other. "Human beings are better at taste-testing," Collins said. "Human beings are better at recipe development, produce selection. Robots are great at repetitive tasks -- like moving pizza in and out of an 800-degree oven 1,000 times a day -- so the goal is not end-to-end automation because that's not what's going to create better food for the customer."
The robotic pizza-making process mirrors the traditional method, albeit with a few high-tech twists. Rather than hand-toss dough balls into their circular pizza shape, which can be tiresome and mind-numbingly repetitive for human chefs, a customized hydraulic press, dubbed Doughbot, smashes the ball into shape. The pizza crust then travels down a conveyor belt to the saucing station, where a pair of extruders named Pepe and Giorgio slather the dough with marinara or alfredo sauce. From there, a fourth robot named Marta uses a multi-axis arm to evenly spread the sauce. The pizza then continues along the conveyor to the topping station -- one of the few steps in this process where human hands are involved.
"We actually looked initially at having robots do that task," Collins said. "Then as we moved into the engineering work and the design involved realized we're going really far down a rabbit hole that wasn't necessarily going to create more value for our customers or a safer job for our employees. ... [But] something like toppings has a lot of diversity; there's a lot of joy in sort of dressing up a pizza. If it's not better for our workers and it doesn't create more value for the customer, then, really, what's the point?"
Once the pizza has been properly prepared, it is picked up by a modified six-axis robotic arm named Bruno (originally designed to stack pallets), and set into an oven for what the company calls the "par-bake" or partial baking. The pizza isn't fully cooked to start, a la Papa Murphy's, and for good reason: Par-baking essentially freezes the dough-rising process as the pizza is delivered. "Bouncing around the [uncooked] yeast will actually deactivate it, and then you'll be cooking a tortilla," Collins said. Once the pie comes out of the oven, Leonardo, the chopping bot, will slice it into eight even pieces using a 200 psi cutting press and it will be loaded into one of the company's delivery vehicles.
But these aren't run-of-the-mill delivery vehicles. Each is roughly the size of a FedEx van, their interiors lined with as many as 56 miniature ovens. Using a GPS-based predictive algorithm, each oven will turn on and fire the partially cooked pizzas for the final four minutes before the truck arrives at the drop point.
Once the pizza is ready, it ejects from the oven like a CD from a car stereo, into a waiting box (itself made from sugar-cane fiber and specially designed to ensure the crust stays crunchy) for the trip to the front door.
This leads to some tricky logistical challenges because demand for pizza tends to be really spikey. Roughly 50 percent of Zume's order volume occurs between 5PM and 8PM, Collins told Engadget, and there are a number of factors that will affect demand. "We're looking at past order data. We're also looking at season, time of day and any cultural events that might be happening that could lead to a spike in sales like maybe the Silicon Valley premiere or the Game of Thrones premiere."