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OM in the News: Machines are Making Your Sushi, and That’s Good

January 7, 2018

In the belly of a machine about the size of an office printer, a plastic roller presses sticky rice onto a bed of seaweed. The oxygen-to-grain ratio has been precisely calibrated with the aid of X-ray tests. A razor slices the sheet into a flawless rectangle, which plunks down onto a steel tray ready to be stuffed with ruby-red tuna or smoked eel.

The $14,000 robot can help a food prep worker churn out 200 sushi rolls an hour—up from the 50 or so a chef could make by hand, according to its maker, Autec USA. Autec says orders have quadrupled over 5 years amid rising sushi consumption and a growing chef shortage. Among its customers is Whole Foods.

Service industries have lagged other sectors in spending on labor-saving equipment during this economic expansion, because as long as workers were plentiful and wages stagnant, it made more sense to hire than to invest in automation. Services make up a growing share of the U.S. economy—64% of gross output last year, up from 40% in the 1950s—but their share of capital expenditures has been relatively flat over time.

“Now, many businesses are going beyond replacing old equipment,” writes Businessweek (Dec.25, 2017). They’re also pouring money into new technology, along with buildings and production equipment. For the first time since 2000, service sector investment in intellectual-property products (think software and R&D) has surpassed 4% of GDP.

Autec expects demand for its robots to stay strong. Its most popular machines are an example of the kind of automation that can make life easier for workers—rolling out rice over sheets of nori is one of the most difficult, and tedious, parts of sushi making—rather than make them obsolete. Customization—inserting different kinds of filling—still requires humans.

Classroom discussion questions:
1. Why did service sector investment lag behind the industrial sector?

2. Why is efficiency improvement important in the service sector?

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 12, 2018 5:48 am

    Currently, people look for better service, quickly and at low cost, and this type of technology will bring benefits to this sector; However the fate of the companies will be that it will replace the human capital by machines.

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