When you walk to the office of this Bengaluru-based startup, you shouldn’t be shocked to see machines hard at work, as they cook delicious Indian delicacies! We are talking about Mechanical Chef, a startup founded in 2017, which has taken on the challenge of developing cooking robots for the Indian market.
Started by Arpit Sharma, an IIT Kanpur graduate and Cohan Sujay Carlos, a machine learning researcher, the company has till now been able to accomplish a prototype which looks like a top-heavy bundle of bottles whirling, spinning and measuring the ingredients to create the perfect recipe. It is also open to the public to test the robot and provide feedback that will help them inculcate the necessary features.
Analytics India Magazine caught up with Arpit Sharma, who is the CTO of Mechanical Chef to know the inside-out of this interesting startup which may be the answer to millions of those struggling to put home-made dishes on their plate.
How Did The Makers Build An Automatic Cooking Robot For Indian Homes?
On being asked why they chose to work on such a project, Sharma shares that it all started with a conversation with a woman colleague, who quipped that if women didn’t have to do any cooking, it would have saved half a billion women in India three hours a day, every day of their lives.
Sharma also shares another interesting personal experience they faced at home, where they saw their working parents struggle with balancing work and putting hours of efforts in the kitchen. Also, having lived away from home and cooking for themselves, they could relate to the problem quite easily.
Taking an inspiration from these instances, they started putting things in place to turn the idea of creating mechanical chef into reality.
“The first design of mechanical chef turned out to be too expensive and complicated to be sold to Indian customers. We had to do everything possible to cut costs, as Indians are very price-conscious buyers”, said Sharma. And the way out was altering physics and mechanical design.
The first thing they did was to eliminate all vertical movements against the force of gravity. Even this turned out to be insufficiently optimal and they re-designed it to replace all linear movements with rotary movements. The resulting third design was turned into a working prototype for user testing with the help of a grant from the Department of Science and Technology in 2017.
How Does The Mechanical Chef Work?
The product is still a prototype but it can cook Indian dishes perfectly without human interventions. It can cook three dishes for a family of three on three heathers using the following operations:
- Dropping the ingredients into the dish
- Heating the dish and
- Stirring the contents
The machine comes loaded with all the spices that are needed for cooking (stored permanently in spice boxes), and the user can add vegetables needed for cooking, and the machine then takes over. It can currently cook around 30 Indian dishes, which the team is trying to increase every day. Some of these are matar paneer, bisi bele bath, rice, dal tadka, chhole, rasam, sambhar, upma, poha, capsicum sabji, among others. “We are aiming at 150+ dishes in the final version”, said Sharma.
The Mechanical Chef is designed to ensure that it saves the user time and adds no Inconvenience. When the user selects what they want to cook (the machine can also suggest things based on what vegetables are available), the machine guides them through what vegetables they need to prepare and cut, in the quantities they need. It then guides them through the loading of the vegetables into the machine. The vessels that hold the vegetables and any part of the machine that comes into contact with the food can be snapped on and off, and is therefore easy to clean. The number of such parts to clean is also minimised to keep it easy.
What Makes It Relevant Today?
Sharma is quick to add that Internet of Things (IoT) and AI have been making a lot of news lately. “Internet-enabled and connected devices are expected to become ubiquitous in smart homes and smart kitchens. Well, it doesn’t get any smarter than this”, says Sharma.
A cooking robot straddles the worlds of connected devices and intelligent machines, and can save its owner a lot of time and effort twice or thrice a day.
To make this a reality, they are using analytics and artificial intelligence to analyse the spice content being put in the food, monitoring the number of ingredients, deciding on an ingredient that can help balance diet for people, among others.
“But the underlying principle of designing it is to use physics than to use sophisticated hardware or tools. Our team ensures to put enough physics fundamentals before adding any component to the machine which is enabling us to keep the cost low”, shares Sharma.
Keeping Up With the Neck-To-Neck Competition
Sharma shares that India has had a long history of innovation in consumer electronics and electrical products, starting with wet grinders that were invented in India to Rotimatic, which was developed by an Indian couple living in Singapore. Being in the field of robotic cooking, they face competition from companies such as Spyce, Nymble and Moley.
Explaining the key differentiator from their competitors, Sharma shares that the Mechanical Chef is the first cooking robot for homes to be demonstrated to the public and the size is such that can fit into homes (others have developed machines that are too large to fit in homes). They are also working up to keep the cost affordable, unlike other players.
Keeping Up With The Challenges
Sharma says that poor manufacturing options make it difficult for a hardware company to grow in India. However, they are in talks with different manufacturing partners for manufacturing different components which are not being manufactured in India right now.
“The other challenge is that investors remain wary of investments in hardware and manufacturing firms in India because they are capital intensive and mistakes can be costly and the possibilities are not yet as well-understood as in the case of software”, added Sharma.
Hence they rely on user studies. According to Sharma, it can give both participants and entrepreneurs a window into each other’s world, and an understanding of the market they are catering to.
The Mechanical Chef team is ambitious to make money through sales or leasing the machine. “We expect the market to be between 1 and 2 billion USD initially and grow by at
least 10 percent each year”, said Sharma.
They also have plans to raise a seed round of around $120,000 and are in talks with angel investors and firms in the consumer products space. Sharma shares their plan of spending about 50 percent of the money on hiring tech employees for product development in Bengaluru.
“We are aiming to bring more functional and improved prototype by end of this year which will be close to the production level”, he said.
On A Concluding Note
While Mechanical Chef has created a lot of buzz, can it replace human cook? Sharma says that there are certain cooking chores it cannot perform. “Given the state of the art in AI today, it is still not a simple matter to build cutting machines that are also easy to clean. So, a human would be needed to do the cutting and peeling”, he said.
Despite these shortcomings, they are convinced that there is a market for invention in India and that it would prove revolutionary for women in nuclear families, single men and women living by themselves.
The makers hope to see the production of cooking robots one-and-a-half years from now, as they also aim to work on other automated products in the kitchen.