Ever gone to a fast food restaurant and had to wait for your food for more time than can be considered "fast?" Ordered a burger without pickles in vain? Dove into your fries to discover that they were long cold? Some McDonald's restaurants in the local western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio region are starting to fix these common problems, thanks to a trio of Carnegie Mellon alumni.
"Everybody eats at these restaurants, especially in college," said alumnus and HyperActive Technologies Vice-President R. Craig Coulter about quick service restaurants.
Coulter believes that by improving fast food restaurants, HyperActive Technologies can help the majority of Americans eat better food. The company's major product is a computer system that can count cars coming into a parking lot and determine how many components of a fast food meal – such as burger patties, french fries, and chicken nuggets – need to be made to accommodate the likely number of incoming customers. This system is in the process of revolutionizing the fast food industry.
The idea for HyperActive Bob, the computer system that Coulter casually refers to as "Bob," came from Kerien Fitzpatrick, now president of HyperActive Technologies, after one visit to a quick service restaurant that resulted in an order that was incorrect, cold, and slow.
Originally, fast food chains increased profits by building new restaurants and having a constant supply of food ready to serve, essentially putting quantity before quality. In the 1990s, however, "fast casual" restaurants like Boston Market and Panera Bread put pressure on the fast food industry to improve the quality of their food. Consequently, quick service restaurants began making food to order, which in turn caused a significant loss of revenue and sent McDonald's, for one, into a stock market crash.
By then, HyperActive Technologies was already creating "Bob" by devising complex algorithms and researching how quick service restaurants work. To get a feel for the fast food industry, Coulter spent six months working in the kitchen of a local McDonald's restaurant. Because of Coulter's Ph.D. in Robotics, the manager offered him a starting wage of $6.50 instead of the standard $6.25.
"A CMU education is worth an extra 25 cents an hour," Coulter joked.
The time Coulter spent in the fast food business allowed HyperActive Technologies to understand which aspects of quick service restaurants needed to be improved. Based on this research, HyperActive Bob allows quick service restaurants to handle three major problems: shortening wait time, improving quality, and reducing waste. By predicting the necessary meal components as cars pull into the parking lots of the test restaurants, the wait time in the drive-thru has been reduced on average by 60 seconds, burger patties are only left on the grill for approximately 3 to 5 minutes, down from nearly 20 minutes, and waste due to spoiled food has been virtually eliminated.
Each unit is tailored to its specific restaurant. After a two-week "learning" period, HyperActive Bob can predict the typical type and number of orders that come in at an individual restaurant. When a change in the menu occurs – such as a special offer of two quarter pounders for $2 – HyperActive Bob quickly adapts to the change in typical food order.
Equipped restaurants are also much quieter because employees no longer have to yell out incoming orders. HyperActive Bob sends that sort of information to a color-coded, easy-to-read computer screen: green means no new food is needed, yellow means it's time to fire up the grill, and red means that food components are drastically low. Overall, "Bob" reduces employees' stress, which in turn reduces mistakes in filling orders.
"Bob" also eliminates the need to train employees to estimate how much food to make. This is important because McDonald's restaurants have a yearly turnover rate of around 200 percent, and while it typically takes very little time to train a new employee how to use the cooking utilities, it often takes months for an employee to accurately judge the amount of food to cook by the number of people entering the restaurant. Furthermore,HyperActive Bob keeps track of how long it takes employees to respond to its cooking recommendations, giving managers objective information about the quality of their workforce.
"It's gone beyond well," Coulter said of HyperActive Bob's success. "It's stunning."
When HyperActive Bob's results first appeared, many corporate customers doubted their legitimacy because they seemed too unbelievable. Coulter said business for the product really picked up after a "mystery shopper" at their initial test restaurant discovered, to his surprise, that the burger he purchased through the drive-thru was still steaming when he took it out of its wrapper. Although "Bob" is currently only in McDonald's restaurants, HyperActive Technologies is negotiating installing "Bob" into restaurants under other fast food corporations.
HyperActive Bob's ability to differentiate between type of car or age of passengers will likely be added to the next upgrade of the technology. Coulter said the updated system will be able to understand the differences in orders between adults and children and among cars, such as mini-vans or oupes. He explained that the reason that they haven't added these features yet is because it almost doesn't seem necessary, given how well the system already works. HyperActive Technologies also plans to make "Bob" capable of recommending entire meals, instead of only the component parts.
HyperActive Technologies is a company with many roots at Carnegie Mellon. Coulter co-founded the company in 2000 with two of his peers, Fitzpatrick and Henning Pengels. They met through the Robotics department. Mark DeSantis, the fourth member of the management team, is an adjunct professor in the Heinz School, and Coulter estimates that two thirds of the programming staff comes from Carnegie Mellon. He plans to have a recruiting session later this month at the University. He is looking for students with computer science and engineering backgrounds, particularly those with experience in robotics, for both internships and full-time positions.
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