June 19, 2012 at 2:54 PM ET
Marko Manriquez, a grad student at NYU, has chosen a topic for his Masters thesis that many wish they could have investigated more thoroughly in school: Burritos. Burrito assembly, to be specific. He's adapted an iPhone-controlled 3-D printing platform to dispense ingredients into tortillas, and he calls it Burritobot.
It's not quite ready to deploy worldwide and put thousands of young Taco Bell workers out of their jobs, but the concept is more or less functional and may in fact represent the future of on-location food delivery. Just last week we saw that Italy's Let's Pizza automatic pizza-making machine was coming to the U.S., so can it really be long before other popular food items get the robot treatment?
Manriquez's machine is based loosely on a type of 3-D printer that fires out a fast-setting material in tiny threads, slowly building up a desired shape. But if the nozzles were to fire guacamole and sour cream instead of plastic, and the base were a burrito instead of a metal plate, that would more or less describe the Burritobot.
The volume of various ingredients can be controlled via an iPhone or web app, so you don't have to rely on a chef's intuition as to how much salsa is just right for you. Unfortunately, at the moment the nozzles are so small that very little texture can make it through, making the consistency a little pasty — and then there's the whole problem of cooking items to order, folding and packaging the burrito, and so on.
But it's not meant to be a final product, just an idea translated to reality. As Manriquez tells FastCo Design:
More to the point is to deliver a conceptual burrito creating a dialogue about food issues. In terms of taste, more development and testing is required. Nothing replaces the human touch (apologies to my robot friends) of simple, unprocessed food, a few spices, and time.
Fans of Mexican food will agree, though automation has produced good results in other areas where hand-crafting used to be the norm. It's largely an engineering problem, which means it's just a matter of time before your burrito, quesadilla, wrap, or panini is handed to you by a robot's pincer or delivered in a chute rather than by the hand of a fellow human.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.