TOKYO -- Japan's popular and fun conveyor-belt sushi restaurants would probably not be the success story they are without the "rice ball robot," which turns out a steady stream of small, compact rice blocks that form the base of individual sushi servings.
The company that makes the robot, Suzumo Machinery, thinks it now has a new hit product on its hands -- a robot that serves rice in just the right portions for a range of meals, from curries to rice bowl dishes.
Introduced in 2016, the GST-HMA robotic server is popular with restaurant chains, including those serving gyudon -- rice bowls topped with strips of beef -- as well as curry, set meals, and those served at family restaurants.
Sales of the machine have been surging because of its ability to serve predetermined portions of rice with greater speed and precision than human workers, helping the restaurant industry address a labor shortage through automation.
To use the machine, all one does is put in some cooked rice and press a button, and voila! -- the rice is served on a plate. It takes five seconds to serve 250 grams, and users can register eight different serving sizes up to 999 grams.
The machine maintains the consistency of the rice by using small amounts of steam to infuse it with moisture. The machine keeps the rice inside it warm, even while it is not operating.
A robot with the steam feature is priced at 1.28 million yen ($11,980).
Suzumo controls at least a 90% of the market for rice-serving robots, according to the company. It does not disclose the number of such robots it sells, but says unit sales for the year ended March 2017 jumped 150% from a year earlier.
Yoshinoya Holdings, which operates the Yoshinoya chain of beef-bowl restaurants, has the machine at 90% of its restaurants across Japan.
"Technology is needed to serve a predetermined amount quickly and softly," said a Yoshinoya official. "By introducing the rice-serving robot, we could slash the time needed to educate our staff."
Suzumo's sales have also been buoyed by demand for ready-made meals, keeping operating margins at about 15%. It forecasts 9.6 billion yen in consolidated sales for the year ending March 2018, up 2% from the previous year.
Suzumo also hopes the product will catch on at hotels and nursing homes. Suzumo has strong business ties with the restaurant industry, and exhibited the robot at the International Hotel & Restaurant Show at Tokyo Big Sight convention center in an event that ran through Feb. 23.
Because many hotel guests take rice from the same container in buffet dining areas, repeatedly opening and closing the lid brings the risk of contamination from hair and other substances. This is something that the robot eliminates, making it more hygienic, according to Mitsunori Kobayashi, a manager of sales for the rice-serving robot.
He also says the robot would be well-suited for nursing homes and hospitals, which would benefit from the machine's ability to adjust serving sizes.
Suzumo started out making machines to fill confectionery products with cream, introducing its first sushi robot in the 1980s, partly out of the founder's desire to support Japan's rice-eating culture.
Per capita consumption of rice in Japan was down by more than half in the fiscal year ended in March 2017, from a peak of 118kg in the year through March 1963.