“Dinner is served!” sings a mother to her son.
“But, mum, you only started preparing about two minutes ago!” exclaims the son. “Don’t tell me — we are eating canned beans, again?” he droops his shoulders crestfallenly.
“No, son! This is freshly cooked! Fresh roti, which is a healthy yet delicious flat Indian bread!” says the woman, reassuringly. “Try it!”
Her son bites into it, and instantly, all hints of disappointment evaporate in an instant, replaced with overt-jubilance.
“Mommy! Mommy! Make me more!” The boy jumps up and down excitedly — hamming it up for the camera.
“Of course, little one! Come, you can even do yourself. Just press this button on the Rotimatic machine and wait for two minutes” the mum gestures her son to a machine no bigger than a regular rice cooker.
We then see a stopwatch counting down two minutes in fast forward, and a fresh roti emerging from the Rotimatic machine like paper from a printer.
The scene fades into a blur and a tagline pops up saying “Rotimatic. Fresh, healthy, bread in two minutes. No sorcery.”
This could very well be a commercial (cheesy) for Singapore-based robotics startup Zimplistic’s roti-making Rotimatic device. It is a product that sells itself easily. Who wouldn’t want fresh bread in minutes?
Also Read: IoT: First the hype, then the plumbing
For the uninitiated, roti is the most common form of Indian flat bread. And, it packs many health benefits. Its glycemic-index (GI) is only 45; white rice has twice that amount. This means people who want to keep their blood sugar down should adopt roti as their staple diet.
It is also low in calories — perfect for the gym rats or other health conscious folks.
Making the roti
Billions of Indians consume roti every day. Most still make it from scratch, which is time-consuming and messy; others — for example, Indians living in the US — purchase roti ready made from supermarkets, but they are not as fresh or contain a lot of preservatives.
It is clear this pain point needs to be addressed. Although, it is a mammoth task.
Making a roti is a complex process. The time Rotimatic was in development — eight years — is a testament to that fact.
“There are so many steps involved in making roti; from measuring the ingredients, to mixing it, to kneading it, making it into a dough ball, flattening into a flat bread, then roasting the roti in a pan. And, this is just for one roti,” says Rishi Israni, Co-founder and CEO of Zimplistic to e27.
Translating those steps into tech form proved to be gruelling.
“From the beginning, there were three major challenges: First, it has to be one touch, fully automatic; second, it has to be compact so it can fit into kitchen shelf; and third, it has to be affordable,” says Israni.
Various prototypes were created to tackle each phase of roti-making. For example, there was a prototype built to perfect the kneading process, and a prototype made to perfect the moulding process.
Israni stresses that each components dimensions have to be perfect and fit together. They also have to be easily removable and cleanable.
In addition, There were challenges sourcing for the right manufacturers.
“The tools [used to make Rotimatic] are huge and complex. To give you a perspective, the tool used to make the front casing weighs more than a car, and it costs US$100,000. The tooling cost us US$1 million in total. It is a huge investment,” says Israni.
Each prototype also costs around US$15,000 to make.
Then there’s the software aspect.
“We used machine learning to help maintain consistency of the bread. It’s very complex. The device needs to know how to make good dough ball through the right mix of flour and water. You also can’t knead it for too long. The size and temperature is important, as well.”
To illustrate the amount of precision needed, Israni says that a roti of 1.6 mm is good, while another with just 0.4mm of extra thickness, is a bad roti.
“The humidity in the air, the type of flour, the pan, all needs to be tweaked differently to each user to cater to their environment. This is why an optimised software with machine learning is needed,” he streseses.
Hiring was tricky as well. Israni says the Zimplistic team cycled through several project managers because of the complexity of the product.
But, eventually, the Zimplistic team managed to nail down the design of all of its crucial components, including making sure the Rotimatic’s design allows it to be used and cleaned easily.
The process of using Rotimatic is quite simple: Put flour and water — and flavourings too if desired — into its containers, press a button, and the device’s 10 motors, 15 sensors and close to 300 motors will be set in motion to produce one puffy and round roti within two minutes.
Each batch can produce 15 rotis. Israni estimates that the cost to make each roti in Singapore, if electricity and ingredients are all factored in, is S$0.05 (US$0.04).
Although the price of Rotimatic is slightly steep – US$999, market reception to it has been overwhelming. In its first week of pre-orders in 2014, Rotimatic bagged US$5 million worth of sales in the US and Singapore.
Today, all of its preorders in Singapore has been fulfilled. Plans to ship to the US by end of this year are currently underway. It is also expecting to take another round of orders from Singapore soon.
When asked why Rotimatic is still not available in the country it is needed the most — India, Israni says, “India is very vast geographically, and 50 per cent of our wait list, which has a total book value of US$115 million, comes from there. But the distribution channels is a bit complex to navigate. The online channels may be growing fast in India but right now it is still a moderate mix between offline and online.”
“And, in offline channels you need to go more indepth operationally. You have to have retail partnership, service centres and distribution centres,” he adds.
Israni estimates that in India there are at least 26-30 million households who would be able to afford Rotimatic’s price tag.
In July last year, Zimplistic received a US$11.5 million Series B investment from NSI Ventures and the VC arm of Robert Bosch GMbH.
Now, all Zimplistic needs are more partnerships in India to bring roti-making innovation back to the food’s birthplace.
Image Credit: Zimplistic