New York University graduate student Marko Manriquez developed a hell of a thesis project for the school’s ITP program: A 3-D printer that assembles made-to-order burritos via a custom iPhone app. The project, dubbed Burritobot, is more than just a stunt novelty—it’s a sneak peak at the future of fast food.
The Burritobot exists at the fringes of 3-D printing. Unlike some 3-D printers which extrude layer upon layer of plastics (or other materials) to create a three dimensional object, the Burritobot extrudes customizable amounts of Mexican ingredients onto a pre-made tortilla to a user’s taste. A carousel contains caulking gun-like canisters of black beans, pinto beans, cheese, pico de gallo, cream, mild salsa, and hot salsa with the dispensers controlled via iOS app or a Ruby-based web app. The user then plays with sliding scales embedded in the app that allows them to calibrate the exact amount of each ingredient on the burrito.
Manriquez currently has the Burritobot in prototype mode. An early version of the burrito printer debuted at the ITP Spring Show. According to Manriquez, a variety of inspirations fueled the Burritobot—from Taco Bell, all the way to Hot Pockets:
Gastronomic questions come into play. How important is taste? Many people I speak to about the process, especially when I mention the canisters/air solenoids, recall Taco Bell and its sour cream gun. Does it need to taste good to be successful? How important is form? Is it still a burrito if its, for instance, square, like a Hot Pocket?
Although the Burritobot’s canisters make it a robot cousin to Taco Bell’s sour cream guns, the idea of using 3-D printers for food is not new at all. A growing movement of geeks, makers, academics, and startups have been playing with the idea of personal fabricators for home use. The Fab@home Project over at Cornell University has developed 3-D printers in conjunction with the French Culinary Institute that create a wide range of foods. Fast Company has previously written about Cornell’s 3-D printed scallop nuggets that resemble tiny space shuttles; other foods successfully created inside 3-D printers include cakes, cookies, ramen noodles, and beef patties. Various startups, such as Essential Dynamics, are also working on the technology. These printers all work by creating "inks" out of edible ingredients that can then be turned into real foods via a few hours in the 3-D printer.
However, Manriquez’s real genius is in streamlining—and automating—fast food assembly, and creating proof-of-concept for total lunch customization by the end user. The novelty of the Burritobot is besides the point; it also allows the eater to instruct a robot on how to create their meal in minute detail. Various fast food chains have played with the idea of letting users order by touch screen—the best known domestically is the beloved Pennsylvania-area convenience store chain Wawa. The web/iOS interface for Burritobot takes this to the next level by letting diners create their exact meal via proxy.
So how do the burritos taste? Here’s Manriquez again:
Any food that can be converted into paste form can be extruded and hence 3-D printed. That’s because the printer uses syringes to push/print the food material just like a normal printer uses ink cartridges. The main limitation in this design is that the ingredients have to have that paste-like (or Play Dough) consistency to go through the printer’s syringe. So unfortunately, ingredients like lettuce, or chunky bits of meat or salsa are not going to extrude out of a tiny 18 gauge syringe hole. You’re just not going to get that desired mouth feel of carne asada. [The burritos are] alright. More to the point is to deliver a conceptual burrito creating a dialogue about food issues. In terms of taste, more development and testing is required. Nothing replaces the human touch (apologies to my robot friends) of simple, unprocessed food, a few spices, and time.
The ultra-competitive fast food industry is always looking for ways to engage customers, reduce costs, and reduce wait times for food. Burritobot’s technology might become a perfect exemplar of this, to the point where it even removes the human from the equation. As smartphones become integrated even more deeply into everyday life and mobile payment solutions such as Square and Google Wallet gain widespread use, fast food chains will do the next obvious thing and enable ordering via smartphone. If it’s good enough for Seamless or Grubhub, it’s good enough for McDonald’s and Domino’s (who are already there). Prototype systems for hamburgerbots or pizzabots that run safely, efficiently, and quickly with minimal interaction are also completely feasible with the right R&D investment. That’s great news for fast food corporations and their shareholders, but the technology also has deep consequences for America’s service sector as it matures over the next decade. Products don’t develop in vacuums, and corporate labs are working on similar products to Manriquez’s quirky invention—only with a much deeper profit motive.
As for Manriquez, he’s starting a Kickstarter campaign in July to bring the Burritobot to full fruition.