The robots are coming for your franchise
Most franchises are based on work that is relatively easy to replicate and systemise. As it happens, this is exactly the kind of work that more and more machines and robots are being built for. So should you be worried about the future of your franchise?
News of an all-robot McDonald’s restaurant opening in the United States no doubt added fuel to the $15 minimum wage furore there, but the story turned out to be fake. McRobots are not coming to a McDonald’s near you just yet, according to Steve Easterbrook, the company’s chief executive officer.
But if you still think robots are only the stuff of sci-fi movies, Jetsons reruns and spoofs, consider this – robots built your car, put the cap on your beer bottle, make your toast and coffee and already make many products and provide many services we take for granted.
But within the next ten years a robot revolution is predicted, one that could have a dramatic impact on franchising. Until now, robots have been little more than machines, great at performing precise, repetitive tasks but really as dumb as rocks. The revolution has been sparked by advances in artificial intelligence which have given robots for the first time the ability to adapt to new tasks and situations. In other words, to think and learn for themselves.
This robot, PR2, is learning to prepare pancakes and pizzas by carefully reading through WikiHow’s written directions. It’s part of a European project called RoboHow, which is exploring ways of teaching robots to understand language. Instead of programming a robot to do things, the goal is for people to tell PR2 what they want done and for the robot to figure out for itself how do those things. An intelligent robot, in other words. You can see how that could be useful in all kinds of fields such as food preparation and even serving customers.
You may already have a robotic vacuum cleaner like this one, but your stupid M&Ms-gobbling machine is no match for the new Eye from Dyson. After more than 10 years in development, this amazing gadget is a true robot in that it can think and make decisions for itself. The Eye has 360-degree camera that creates a live map of the room you want cleaned, then figures out the most efficient way to clean it without going over the same area twice.
“When you go into a room, you see there’s a corner of the table you might bump into and you know roughly how far away you are, and you can judge from it,” says legendary inventor Sir James Dyson. “I’m talking about the decisions you make from what you see and what you’re able to gauge. That’s precisely what our robot does with its 360-degree camera.”
This is the Eye’s big brother, Intellibot. This commercial cleaning machine can scrub as well as vacuum floors and is equally at home on carpet as hard floors. You’ll find Intellibots in operation at Changi Airport in Singapore, Sydney University in Australia and Mayo Clinic in the US.
There are two ways of looking at the increasing use of robots in commercial cleaning – as a threat to your existing franchise, or an opportunity to increase your business efficiency.
It seems Domino’s will latch on to almost anything that offers an advantage in its highly competitive market. Lately they’ve been experimenting with delivery technology to replace those poor students that currently bring pizza to your door. Here in New Zealand, we’re told we may have the privilege of being first in the world to trial this driverless pizza delivery unit. It’s known as DRU, but we’re going to call it EVE because we reckon it’s modelled on the cute little robot from the Wall-E movie.
Another Domino’s innovation is the Domicopter, the drone seen here airlifting emergency supplies of pizza to a home in England.
Such is Domino’s commitment to innovation that in February 2016 the company’s own Innovation Hub was opened by CEO Don Meij and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in Brisbane, Australia.
"We're moving now into the space of robotics, in artificial intelligence, we're talking about the future of food," Meij said at the launch.
Domino’s isn’t the only franchise taking advantage of the robotics revolution. Reis and Irvy has just launched what it calls “the world’s first frozen yoghurt robot”. The “robot” is designed to be placed in high-traffic areas, using a touch screen to enable customers to create their own froyo concoctions by controlling a robotic arm.
So should you be worried about the future of your franchise? Let’s take a look at the imminent threats – and opportunities – facing some of the main franchise categories.
Being the big fan of lawnmowing that I am, I got rid of my lawn completely – but if I had one, I would certainly get one of the lawnmowing franchises in to keep the old estate looking trim. However, I see that everyone from Husqvarna and Bosch to John Deere and Honda is producing robotic mowers, and they’re predicted to be the largest-growing sector in the British lawnmower market this year. If I owned a lawnmowing franchise, I’d make the most of the robotic revolution, using robots to do the boring work while I focused on doing a magnificent job of the weedeating and edge trimming.
The revolution is already well under way here, with 24/7 access to centres and machines that not only monitor your heartrate and performance level, but can actively put together a complete fitness programme for you. As a result, the new breed of fitness franchise – think Jetts, Anytime and Snap – have provided some of the best returns on investment around, although the market has become extremely competitive.
If robots can build a car, they can certainly build a burger or pizza, but I’m not sure about robot servers or that fellow leaning out of the drive-through window in the photo above. McDonald’s may have ruled out replacing their customer-facing people with machines, but in a sense they already have – with those touch-screen kiosks you’re now confronted with before you reach the counter. They insist that the kiosks were conceived well before the minimum-wage protests in the United States, designed instead to make it easier for customers to customise their own burgers.
You’d think that this traditionally labour-intensive industry would be one of the last industries to feel the cold finger of robotics on its shoulder, but the machines have been taking over for years – in the form of factory-built framing and increasingly-elaborate measuring instruments and power tools. Watch out in the near future for 3D printing and robots used to lay bricks, drill, dig, paint, you name it.
But in the meantime, the real potential in the building industry is at the front-end – in the all-important concept and design stage, where sophisticated design programmes make it possible to experience your new home before the foundations are even laid, thanks to photo-realistic 3D design and flythroughs. Even if you have no architectural experience at all, you can go online and design your own home from the ground up.
Despite dire predictions of retailing’s doom, the industry is still with us, and smart retailers are combining their physical and online presences to create a new kind of customer experience that can’t be duplicated by a purely online store. Superstores such as Lowes and Bossa Nova are using robots to guide customers to the products they want and supermarkets are using self-service checkouts to shorten waiting times and optimise staff requirements.
Could you learn to love the bot? Like Jimmy Fallon, you may not have a choice as your competitors bring in AI and robotics to systemise their services and take cost out of their franchisees' businesses.
I'm working with more and more franchisors to predict future trends in their industry and help them shape the business models and technologies that are changing the world around their businesses. I find that as an independent consultant, I can offer fresh insights and apply innovation from outside their industry. For a free initial consultation, contact me now.