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January 4, 2021

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Robot chef a treat for city school’s students

WHEN I look back on my middle school days, about 10 years ago, lunch was not anything extraordinary.

Ayi (domestic helper) would deliver plastic lunchboxes to the classrooms for us to eat at our desks. We didn’t have a choice of courses.

But things are different today as I learned that a robotic chef is starting to take over in a Shanghai school’s canteens.

A robot has been in use at the Experimental School Affiliated to Minhang High School, a new public facility with about 200 students, since October, a month after it opened.

Song Weijie, the school’s vice president, said that due to the pandemic, sanitation during lunch preparation was particularly under pressure. “The robot can avoid human contact with food, and that’s why we’ve adopted it,” said Song.

According to Song, the school is the first of its kind in China to apply this new technology.

Introduced by local Yikang Technology Co, the robot is said to be capable of preparing food for 1,000 people in just 90 minutes.

The company said it first developed the robot to see how much complicated Chinese food it could make, but was glad to know that it can also be a safer option.

Apart from the early preparation of ingredients, everything including stewing, blending, dividing and reheating is done by the machine.

Ingredients are usually prepared a week ahead according to the robot system’s menu with over 1,000 dishes such as braised pork and vegetable stir-fry.

Lunch preparation begins every morning at around 7:30am, when workers first unpack fresh ready-cut food from vacuum bags and put them into separate pieces of ovenware.

Shen Wei is one of the four workers helping with the robot’s operation.

I saw him carrying a tray laden with green beans onto carousels to pass to the robot.

The robot then used its arm to pick up the tray and place it into a mega oven. After about eight minutes, it was taken out by the robot and put into a blender with previously ready corn and diced chicken meat. The whole process was controlled by the robot.

Through standardization of menu selection and cooking by computer systems, the traditional cooking process can be much simplified, said Shen. “The robot can significantly improve efficiency, cutting the required personnel from seven to two.”

The division of ready-cooked dishes is still performed manually as the dividing machine is currently under test.

At around 11:40am, students begin to enjoy their meal.

The canteen is not very spacious, but cozy and bright. Behind a glass window separating the canteen and kitchen, the 3-meter-tall yellow robot places each course on a foil plate on a carousel for students to choose.

About 30 teachers use the neighboring canteen, which is operated in the traditional way, but also sharing several dishes made by the robot.

The school currently offers students a 15-yuan (US$2.3) lunch every day from which they are required to choose three courses out of six.

Special treats that are beyond the robot’s capacity, such as noodles and dumplings, are offered at another window once in a while.

Song said that after enrolling more students in the future, they will consider allowing students to choose their courses freely.

“Once there’s a larger scale of students, it’s easier to control the cost,” said Song. “For some girls with a small appetite, they can choose less, while for boys they can choose more.”

Instead of handing in a lunch fee once a month, students will be able to pay for their meals every time using cards.

According to feedback from the students, the robot chef outscores traditional staff in its controlling of flavors.

“The robot-made meals are very tasty,” one girl said. “Compared with the lunchboxes in September, we have more dishes to choose from and can also refill our plate if we want more.”

“I prefer meat cooked by the robot,” said a boy. “It tastes even better than my grandma’s.”

He said that he was so excited the first time seeing the robot that he and his friends went up to the window to have a closer look at how it worked.

Song said he felt pleased that the introduction of the robot could pique students’ interest in advanced technologies.

“Artificial intelligence is shifting the development of our society,” said Song. “We hope our students can have a first bite of it in the canteen.”

The school is to launch more cutting-edge scientific programs and classes in terms of AI and computer programming, some of which will take place in four innovative labs at Minhang High School and in collaboration with Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Students will be encouraged to grow crops by themselves in future through smart agricultural methods such as using unmanned aerial vehicles.


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