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I'm currently at a McDonald's in Norway (so, not a country where labour is dirt cheap, even for relatively unqualified jobs), and I'm struck by how manual every process is, from cooking the meat to assembling burgers to serving. The fries-making process is particularly baffling. It goes like this:

  1. An employee pours frozen fries in a basket and dunks it in oil
  2. After a while, an alarm rings and an employee has to come to manually raise the basket from the oil
  3. An employee put the fries in a bin and salt them with a handheld salt shaker
  4. The employee shovels the fries into little bags that are brought to the trays

It seems like it would be trivial to automate away the second step here (for example by having the basket rise by itself after a set time), and not that hard to have the rest done by a machine either.

Other industries employing unqualified labour, like groceries stores, have spent considerably more money and effort into automating their checkout lines, for example. Why hasn't the fast food industry followed suit?

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    $\begingroup$ McDonalds focused on its supply chain in terms of mechanisation. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Russell Feb 3 '19 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ Is this even true? In my experience McDonald's is full of computers. Computers for taking orders (customer kiosks), computers for entering orders (employee kiosks), computers for displaying which orders are ready and which are delayed, computers that display the menu (with different items highlighted based on time of day), and probably lots of computers you can't see for payroll, inventory, and other operations. $\endgroup$ – BKay Apr 5 '19 at 19:20
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In Norway the average McDonalds employee makes $16 an hour.

Lets estimate that the average McDonalds store makes 50 baskets of fries every day. Lets estimate that it takes on average 30 seconds to pour fries into the fryer. 30 seconds to remove the fries from the fryer. 30 seconds to pour salt on the fries and 30 seconds pour the fries into the paper bags.

This means that on average McDonald's spends 100 min worth of labor (30 sec * 4 times * 50 baskets) a day on making fries, which costs them $26.66 per day. Now on top of making fries this employee can also help customers, clean up the store, and perform other tasks as well when they're not making fries.

Lets imagine the alternative, some automated machine that makes fries automatically. You'd need some contraption where you load it up with frozen fries (requires a human paid minimum wage to load it), it has to have some really fancy software that detects when fries are running low so that it can start the frying process at the right time, has to salt the fries, and then place them in a bag. If this complicated machine breaks you have to hire a very expensive repairman to fix it and you still need to hire some employee making $16 an hour to load the machine and interact with customers.

The cost to maintain this machine would far outweigh the relatively minor cost in labor with the status quo, not to mention the fact that you're going to need an employee either way unless you can fully automate all operations of the store.

All things considered, for how amazingly useful people are, they're fairly cheap to hire as compared to some over-engineered solution.

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Automation would increase the upfront cost of opening a McDonald restaurant. Which wouldn't be a good thing for its franchise business. Also, you have to take into account that by automating its store McDonald's will drastically increase its electricity consumption (which will not only increase its costs overall but might impact its brand image in terms of global warming). So in other words, automation wouldn't be such a cheap alternative.

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