Technology Trends 2023: Slow Lurch Towards Smart Kitchens, As Appliances Are Increasingly Robotic And App-Based
Market watchers report India is among top four countries in Asia that propel smart kitchen appliance business.
Robotic roti makers, dosa ‘printers’ and smart cookers hit the market.
Prototype Idli ‘ATM’ is installed in Bengaluru; set for franchising this year.
Internet of Things promises ‘connected kitchen’.
Two years of intermittent Covid lockdowns and almost continuous Work From Home (WFH) for lakhs of professionals in India has had an interesting side effect.
Many employed women discovered that with Zoom or Webex calls taking up so much of their time, the demands of the kitchen came under increasing pressure and cooking became a challenging chore.
And for young families where at least one partner was a tech professional, the solution was a no-brainer: get smart — appliance-wise.
Coincidentally the market saw a sharp rise in the availability of kitchen appliances which promised to cut the hassle of cooking, sharply reducing the time it takes to rustle up a meal — or two.
In a late 2021 survey, Gurugram-based market analyst Ken Research released a report on the Global Smart Kitchen Market, which concluded: “Effective growth in consumer disposable income and growing technological trends such as internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled devices are fostering the smart kitchen appliances market growth.”
Among the top manufacturing players in the smart kitchen products business that the report identified, many already had plants in India: Samsung, Whirlpool, LG , Bosch, Panasonic, Haier and Philips.
So, it was not surprising that the study found: “India, China, Japan, and South Korea are some of the foremost countries that propel the market around the Asia Pacific region.” (Read overview of report here.)
In the West, smart kitchens have come to mean remote control of a variety of kitchen gadgets and fixtures — ovens, microwaves, refrigerators, chimneys, water purifiers — enabling owners to remotely control these appliances from a smartphone.
Smart refrigerators like the range popularised by Samsung and others, have cameras inside, that check on stock levels, expiry dates and to generate shopping lists — even placing orders and displaying them on an LED screen.
Sales suggest Indians who may find value in such connected kitchens are in a small minority — as yet. For most of them true value lies in technology that leads to palpable labour saving.
For many cooking-averse professionals, the low hanging fruit as far as smart kitchen appliances was the smart cooker. The electric rice cooker has been around for a long time — India and China are the two largest markets. So has the pressure cooker — another appliance that has been a perennial big seller in India for decades.
Smart Electric Pressure Cooker
What makes a cooker smart? It is essentially a combo of pressure cooker and electric rice cooker, with some brains.
Thanks to a built-in microcomputer, it can work as a warmer or a slow cooker or as an air fryer; it can sauté or steam, or make dahi especially in winter. You can select the cooking temperature or pressure. Or if that is too much effort you can, in some models, use one of the presets for pulao, biryani, chole, khichdi, vegetable curry, rajma chole, dal, chicken curry….
And a timer lets you preset to start the cooking at any time.
Mr Butler RoboChef, InstaPot, Wonderchef Nutripot, and Aufla are some of the brands that pop up in a search on Amazon, Croma, Reliance Digital and other online sites. They are priced from Rs 7,000 and Rs 10,000 and are typically of 6 litres capacity.
Robotic roti maker
In recent weeks, if you are on Facebook, chances are you have been flooded with sponsored ads for the Wonderchef Roti-Magic Rotimaker.
Chuck in atta, water and some salt to taste and the appliance, kneads the dough, and rolls out rotis — up to 15 within the first 13 minutes. You can set the quality, soft, medium or ‘kadak’ to make anything from chapatis to rotis to phulkas and all textures in between.
Converting atta to dough is a messy process — especially cumbersome if you need to serve 4-5 family members. Many mixer-grinders now come with dough making attachment. But rolling the roti and then roasting it on a thava is another time-consuming task.
The roti maker automates all three tasks and there could be many takes for the value proposition — if they think the convenience is worth the asking price of Rs 79,999. “They” will also include many bachelors sharing an apartment, for whom it may pay for itself fairly soon when compared to the option of “outsourcing” the task.
The Wonderchef Roti-Magic roti maker is made in China. But though it is the first such appliance widely marketed in India; it is not in fact the first to be launched.
Around 2008, a husband and wife team of Pune-born Pranoti Nagarkar and Rishi Israni from Lucknow — both alumni of the National University Singapore (NUS), co-founded a company, Zimplistic, to commercialize an idea: automate the making of rotis.
They incubated the business in Singapore and set up the company in the US. After almost 8 years, and having obtained multiple patents, they had Rotimatic in the market in 2016. It sold for the equivalent of US $999 — then around Rs 60,000.
They seem to have consciously avoided the Indian market and concentrated on Australia, New Zealand, UK and the Middle East and are said to have sold the entire first batch of 8,500 machines in a matter of weeks. In the first year, the duo announced a revenue of $20 million.
For those who followed the news of Rotimatic — there was zero publicity in India — it has been available here from online portals like IndiaMart, but at an inexplicably huge markup.
Even today their India website prices it at around Rs 1,32,500. A few years ago, it was available on Amazon for about Rs 90,000 but is no longer on sale there.
It would appear that the inventors of the robotic roti maker are not keen on the India market. It is difficult to judge how it compares with the Wonderchef Rotimaker or why its asking price in India is so high even factoring the import duties.
Three years ago, at the Maker Village, the hardware park of the Kerala StartUp Mission (KSUM), I saw a product very similar in function to the Rotimatic — and even enjoyed a hot chapati, after having observed the entire making process.
The start-up was extremely cagey about providing any details or even allowing me to take a photograph: they were afraid that someone would clone their design and hit the market before they had protected their Intellectual Property.
Nothing has been heard of since — but all this suggests that fairly soon, robotic roti makers will proliferate — and in the process may bring down the asking price.
Smart Dosa Maker
The year gone by has seen the South’s answer to the roti maker — a smart dosa maker.
A Chennai-based company, Evochef has launched an automatic dosa maker that looks and works very much like an A4-sized computer printer. You fill the dosa mix into a canister and switch on the machine and within minutes a crisp dosa comes out — yes, it is so like a printer that it is square shaped.
Evochef founder VML Senthilnathan, worked for 15 years in the research department of the well-known kitchen appliance maker Butterfly, before starting his own company.
The “World’s first” smart dosa maker, the Evochef EC Flip, takes about 700 ml of batter for 10 dosas. You can make a variety — plain, ragi, moong dal, pudina dosa or even the thicker utthappam.
Since dosa batter is easily available these days, the makers saw no point in creating a machine to do that. The dosa maker is currently available at the company’s website at a discounted price of Rs 13,999.
World’s First Idlibot
Admittedly this is not a smart kitchen appliance — yet. But the recent news that a Bengaluru company had set up what the media called the first ever Idli “ATM” — an automated vending machine rolling out steaming idlis to order, opens up a lot of possibilities.
The company — Freshot — has set up an “experience centre” at Vijaya Complex, Bilekahalli in Bengaluru, where one can see the “Idlibot” or robot idli maker in action.
Under a glass front one can see the batter turned into plain, millet, carrot or palak idlis even as you place your order using a phone app and after making the online payment, flash a QR code for the machine to read your order.
The idlis come hygienically packed and one can also place a side order for sambar, chutney or vada, which are brought to the dispense, pre-made. The makers say they will be encouraging third parties to set up idli ATMs all over the city and progressively across India, starting in March this year.
The technology to automate the making of idlis is here. Will it transit from a mass dispenser to an appliance for the kitchen. Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure. Indian cuisine is seeing a new wave of computer-based innovation that may turn the art of cooking into an exact science!
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