The story of Zume, a Silicon Valley company that earned international media coverage in 2017 when it launched a pizza kitchen manned partially by robots, seemed to have an unhappy ending: Zume started backing away from its pizza-making robot model in late 2019 and laid off most of its staff in 2020. Anti-tech scoffers snickered, and the media suddenly forgot the company’s existence.
But Zume’s robots haven’t ended up in some futuristic landfill. According to CNBC, the tech company has “recommissioned” its fleet of robots to make sustainable packaging, including takeout containers for restaurants. And considering that the sustainable packaging industry is projected to grow to $413.8 billion by 2027, that might have been a smart move.
There’s little doubt Zume was a tech innovator. In addition to its pizza-making robots, the company developed predictive software that forecast what kinds of pizzas would be ordered on any given day, enabling the company to prepare a daily inventory using its robotic assembly line. The robots stretched dough balls into 14” discs and squirted and spread sauce over each dough skin. Human employees then added the toppings, and another robot removed the pie from the make line and into a double-decker oven for par-baking. Zume also equipped a fleet of delivery trucks with computer-operated ovens, which were used to finish the bake on the pizzas en route to the delivery customer’s doorstep. By the time the truck arrived, the pizza had usually just come out of the oven.
This so-called “cobot culture” model was so revolutionary that Zume attracted $375 million in investment dollars from SoftBank in late 2018. But a year later, things started going awry. “One of the problems that we encountered in pizza was, our beautiful pizza—with no stabilizers in it—in a traditional box declined in quality from the time you cooked it until the time it was delivered, to the point that we didn’t think it was good enough,” Zume Chairman and CEO Alex Garden told CNBC.
Fortunately, all that cutting-edge technology has been put to a new use to help the environment. Zume’s pizza-making robots are now being used to press and mold agricultural waste into sustainable containers to help leading brands in their mission to eliminate plastic. Corporate giants like PepsiCo and Unilever, long under fire for using plastics that are bad for the environment, have set a goal to design 100% of their packaging to be reusable, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025.
Zume now operates a compostable packaging facility in Camarillo, California. On its website, the company says it’s dedicated to “replacing single-use plastics with 100% compostable, plant fiber-based products.” These products can be used in foodservice, healthcare and cosmetics as well as consumer goods.
Zume products designed for the foodservice industry include meal boxes, bowls and beverage cups. They’re made of moldable fibers like sugarcane, bamboo, wheat and blends of various grass fibers.
“When you look at what you want your food containers to do, it’s not an exhaustive list: prevent leaks, water-proof, leak-proof, and with snap-tight container closure,” writes Vaibhav Goel in a blog on Zume’s website. He adds that, with Zume’s products, “all of these qualities are available in a cost-effective and ethically manufactured solution.”
This article has been edited from the original version appearing at PMQ.com and is republished here with permission.