Modular, Fully Automated Makeline for Foodservice Set to Disrupt Restaurant Industry
PC-based automation and EtherCAT technologies from Beckhoff help the new system from Hyphen make 350 meals per hour with an order accuracy of 99%
Hyphens provide a necessary connection between separate words to create greater meaning. Likewise, food services innovator Hyphen uses its technology and industry prowess to connect restaurants facing labor shortages to back-of-house production systems and Bay Area software innovation to rugged automation technology. The San Jose, California, company bridges these gaps using flexible, scalable controls and networking technologies. Hyphen’s modular automated makeline is a perfect example.
“Hyphen’s goal is to put foodservice operations on autopilot,” says Daniel Fukuba, Co-Founder and CTO of Hyphen. “We founded the business in July 2018 to leverage automation technology in modern restaurants. Shortly thereafter, we built the first completely automated food truck, from restaurant concept to integration in a matter of months. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we pivoted and designed our new Makeline system. This provides restaurants – whether they’re established chains, foodservice providers or ghost kitchens – with the infrastructure to modernize business models, adapt toward digital-first ordering and be more resilient to the constant change we see today.”
The Hyphen Makeline assembles salads and other menu items served in a bowl, handling hundreds of ingredients at various temperatures. The system connects to Hyphen’s cloud services to route digital orders via MQTT. After receiving an order, the Makeline activates dispensers developed by Hyphen to fill the bowls, conveying them through connected modules inside the enclosure. The machine also controls food safety and provides data insights about peak ordering times and customer habits. From the outside, it looks like a traditional makeline, and restaurant staff can still load in ingredients and serve customers who prefer to order in person.
“People have a strong connection with food brands by interacting with the staff,” Fukuba says. “The Makeline removes robotic tasks from the staff, allowing them to prioritize that front-of-house customer interaction and culinary innovation.”
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Clean control architecture eliminates messy situations
Hyphen wanted the Makeline to fit into existing restaurant facilities, adding tomorrow’s technology to today’s kitchens. That meant designing a new system to fill a gap, as Fukuba explains: “You can already buy mature industrial equipment off the shelf to process 300,000 pounds of salad per day. On the other end of the continuum, there are vending machines with prepackaged goods. In between, there is no automation to handle the capacities and product variety for restaurant-based food service.” One reason why is that from a technical standpoint, it’s very difficult to balance the necessary capabilities and flexibility in a form factor small enough for standard kitchens.
The Makeline must fit more than 70 actuators, plus the cloud-connected controls and I/O, into what is essentially a restaurant-grade kitchen appliance. In addition to minimizing footprint, the system needed to meet hygienic standards, and Hyphen also wanted it to provide process controls, time and temperature holding information and the ability to audit and log the food storage environment. The machines would need to accommodate 500 different ingredients, which all interact differently depending on the menu item. Hyphen wanted to solve these material handling challenges while avoiding an excess of instrumentation to control the process, as this could become very messy.
In early 2020, the Hyphen controls engineering team started to explore EtherCAT and PC-based control technologies from Beckhoff Automation. “The Makeline’s requirements called for vendor agnostic, easy-to-interface systems,” says Bradley Hwang, Controls Engineer at Hyphen. “Beckhoff made it easy to enable seamless communication interfaces from the PLC runtime up to the cloud. So our software team can develop a completely new layer between that and third-party services.” Hyphen engineers and the Beckhoff sales and application engineering team at the nearby Silicon Valley Technical Center collaborated to create a solution that would meet the Makeline’s technical and form factor requirements.
EtherCAT and I/O: more than a slice
The EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system proved indispensable for Hyphen. The speed and modularity of EtherCAT helped optimize system communication, and the network does not require switches, which reduced cost and space requirements. Each Makeline module features pluggable EJ series EtherCAT I/O technology for functional safety, which mount to a custom-design PCB board. These pluggable TwinSAFE terminals are roughly 50% smaller than traditionally wired I/O slices and reduce potential wiring errors.
“Most industrial electrical cabinets with this amount of I/O are massive, but that wasn’t an option for this product. With the EJ safety modules, we could connectorize communication, power supply and more together on a space-saving circuit board that offers easier, more repeatable assembly,” Hwang explains. “Also, as a member of the EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG), Hyphen took advantage of the openness of the EtherCAT technology to create our own secondary nodes. So not only can we select from the massive number of EtherCAT devices on the market, but we can also build exactly what we need for the Makeline when needed.”
Using TwinSAFE functional safety technology from Beckhoff allowed the engineers to apply safety devices for doors, other openings and potential hazards in a simple, programmable way, without the hardwiring required by traditional safety systems. TwinSAFE uses the Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE) protocol to communicate via a “black channel” approach. “With TwinSAFE, we appreciated that programming was in the standard TwinCAT environment, and there are premade, certified function blocks to meet important safety ratings,” Hwang adds.
Control software and hardware serve up performance
TwinCAT 3 automation software provided a comprehensive engineering and runtime platform for the Makeline. TwinCAT supports a variety of programming methods – from the object-oriented extensions of IEC 61131-3 to premade and custom function blocks up to computer science standards in Microsoft Visual Studio. This made it easier for Hyphen to bridge the gap between its controls and app-development technologies.
“We want to be able to scale the Makeline from 10 units to 10,000 without having to scale our workforce proportionally,” Hwang says. “TwinCAT allows us to use Structured Text, collaborate with version control and leverage software-oriented processes like GitHub. These features were important in the development stage, and they will be critical in the future.”
The Makeline relies on one ultra-compact C6030 Industrial PC (IPC) for all operations. TwinCAT offers core-isolation capabilities to enhance system performance by designating individual processes in the quad-core CPU, such as PLC or IoT, to one specific core in the IPC. The C6030 is ideal as an IoT gateway as well as machine controller. “A Mosquitto broker on the IPC connects to the TwinCAT MQTT libraries, which talk to our local Electron applications,” Fukuba says. “Our software team can develop applications with modern software design patterns, but now we can interact with the machine control hardware through MQTT and AWS IoT Core. This increases our agility without having traditional ‘walled gardens’ with proprietary tools.”
The C6030 resides in a base cell with a CP3924 multi-touch Control Panel. The 24-inch, pole-mounted display provides a premium user interface for the environment, according to Fukuba: “We develop our HMI screens like modern web apps, so the multi-touch capabilities and display fidelity give us the responsiveness that we want in our UI. This user-friendliness means any restaurant employee can operate the Makeline – you don’t have to be a trained machine operator.” The IP65-rated aluminum housing shows Hyphen’s branding on the standard model, but some larger customers have already requested the ability to use their own logo instead. This is easy to change with customizable Beckhoff Control Panels, which helps the Makeline meet more unique requirements for the foodservice industry.
A recipe for disruption
Hyphen began conceptualizing the Makeline in mid-2020, and its first units will arrive at customers by the end of 2021. The machines can produce 350 meals per hour with 99% accuracy, and it improves portioning precision from the industry average of +/-15% down to +/-2%. “Having the wrong ingredients in an order is annoying at best but life threatening at worst considering food allergies and cross-contamination, so those are critical benefits,” Fukuba says.
The control hardware, IoT and networking technologies from Beckhoff helped Hyphen deliver the technical capabilities while meeting footprint requirements. The engineering team plans to continue working with Beckhoff sales and support to add more automation technologies in the future and is already testing TwinCAT Vision as a solution for greater quality control and inspection. Overall, Beckhoff supplied a flexible, industrial-hardened platform to expand the Makeline reliably into the future. This is important, according to Fukuba, because demand for the system will only increase.
“We believe the Makeline will disrupt the industry. It increases the capacity of restaurants’ current staff by a factor of 17, which fundamentally changes how they meet their demand and how they can increase their capacity to sell more,” Fukuba explains. “If large restaurants increase their EBITDA just a couple points, that's a game-changer. Any more than that is world-changing, and this is what Hyphen can help them achieve. On the other hand, small influencers can use our Makeline to create repeatable processes with high consistency and quality. So they can scale restaurant brands across the U.S. in ghost kitchens. By effectively digitizing food, it’s possible to fill in the gaps for the entire industry and be ready for whatever comes next.”
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James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist for Beckhoff Automation LLC.
Note: A version of this article appeared in Design World.