Meet Penny: The Futuristic Food Service Robot

An overview on futuristic food service robot Penny

November 17, 2019

We’re examining all things automation this month at Whipsaw, so we’ve chosen “Penny” as our spotlight design. When Bear Robotics challenged us to redesign their food service robot, we viewed it as a unique opportunity to bring an upgraded futuristic design to the mainstream. We knew Penny also had the potential to completely transform the dining experience. Well, the results are in…people love Penny.

Spotlight Design

PENNY: Bear Robotics Food Service Robot

Spotlight Designers

Akifusa Nakazawa

Cheng-Fu Hsieh

Who exactly is Penny?

Penny is a high tech food service robot that flawlessly integrates with restaurant workflow. Penny tackles the dirty work. She takes customers’ orders and relays them to the kitchen, delivers and clears food from tables, maps out restaurant layouts for easy navigation, and uses sensors to maneuver around gracefully. She also compliments the dining experience with her warm voice and pleasing gestures.

Penny’s custom design factored in every type of restaurant: bustling diners, cramped bistros, large banquet halls, you name it. Rather than getting in the way, Penny expertly balances items on her trays while quietly moving around. She’s a great help to servers who rely on her to swiftly handle undesirable tasks. She’s also totally washable.

Penny Food Service Robot

5 Questions with Penny Designers, Akifusa and Cheng-Fu

Whelan: The use of food service robots has been building momentum in China, but they’re still a novel experience for us here. How did you approach this project?

Hsieh: We initially went through a research phase by studying the market and the technologies behind the current food service robot in other countries. That gave us a sense of what worked and what could be improved. We then opted to get the full user experience by dining at one of the restaurants using the previous version of Penny. While we observed her, we quickly noticed there were several areas that could be upgraded, so we started there.

Nakazawa: When we set out to prototype our redesigned version, we used modular thinking. The previous version only carried one tray. We realized our redesign could also utilize Penny’s “belly” area as another module for carrying and clearing items.

Whelan: Did you encounter any problems during the redesign process?

Hsieh: We were given some size requirements that were a little challenging. If we wanted to add more trays, for example, one would usually build upwards, but we faced a height requirement because the taller Penny gets, the more she risks losing the stability of her top trays during food runs. We also had to keep Penny’s waist trim, if you will, as her diameter couldn’t exceed 20 inches. She would otherwise risk getting in the way or bumping into things while maneuvering around a restaurant.

Nakazawa: These requirements are another reason taking advantage of the empty space in Penny’s belly area worked out so well. We designed a bucket area there for clearing used plates. We also added drink cup holders so she could drop off drinks without spilling a drop. The new modules give Penny the ability to carry more items in an organized way and to clear tables more effectively. Each restaurant also has the flexibility to customize and swap Penny’s modules and decide what should go where according to their specific needs.

There was another interesting request from Bear. They didn’t want Penny to look like an industrial machine, and they also didn’t want her to be too “cute.” (They were concerned kids would attempt to play with her during the dining experience, which could create issues.) We therefore had to make Penny plain enough to blend into her surroundings and avoid giving her character or emotional elements. We ended up with a design that offered a touch of softness to her form and function.

Whelan: Does Penny have what it takes to get to tables in a timely and efficient manner during peak restaurant hours?

Nakazawa: Penny mainly relies on sensors and motors. She has the ability to map out and remember her surroundings—similar to how a vacuum robot maps a room while cleaning. The server just has to enter the table number that needs assistance, and Penny will head there automatically. After attending to the table, she then returns to her default resting area to await her next order.

Hsieh: You also need to remember that customers really enjoy interacting with Penny. She delivers their food, and then they take it off her trays while communicating in a fun way. There’s an interaction between robot and customer that’s really fascinating. She immediately senses when you’ve gotten the food off her tray and is then ready for the next task.

Whelan: Do you feel Penny will threaten jobs within the service industry in the coming years?

Nakazawa: Penny is intended to function as a companion server rather than a replacement one. Bear and Whipsaw shared the same goal of helping restaurants deliver a better service experience by adding Penny as an attraction. She is also a particularly good option for restaurants that need additional support for their current wait staff but can’t afford to hire another full-time employee. Also, remember that robots don’t really take jobs, they just change them. There’s also a great deal that goes into producing robots. Robots need imagination, development, manufacturing, and service—a.k.a., they create jobs.

Whelan: What’s the coolest thing about Penny?

Hsieh: Most people don’t expect a robot to take their order. Nor did they expect this to happen in their lifetime. The whole thing is an exciting experience for many customers because it brings back that childlike sense of wonder about what the future might hold.

On a final note, I reached out to Adan Aquino, manager of the popular restaurant, Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria in Mountain View, California, and he confirmed Penny has been doing a stellar job at not only assisting his staff, but also pulling in customers. Says Aquino, “Penny’s been well-received by our customers and some guests come in just to see her. Children love interacting with Penny, so she continues to attract families to the restaurant. She’s also unexpectedly drawn in elderly customers who can’t get enough of Penny’s futuristic presence.”

Share this article