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You could get your coffee from robot baristas at 30 MRT stations soon

Could the future of artisanal coffee be robotic?

There’s no lack of buzz around artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in the last decade. The genre has played an extremely important role in improving the back-end of restaurants and hotels, but an increasing number of establishments are making use technology to simplify pretty much everything. In the past few years alone, we’ve seen everything from robotic waiters and even receptionists being deployed.

robotic coffee
Keith Tan, CEO of Crown Group (Image credit: Crown Group)

Now, a new player has entered the scene. Crown Coffee has relinquished the old cafe formula with the help of Ella, Singapore’s first fully autonomous robotic barista.

ELLA was borne from a very real problem and necessity when we first started Crown Coffee in 2017. Shortage of labour and inconsistencies in quality led to subpar experiences that didn’t have the potential to scale. We created the first prototype with the intention to solve those problems
Keith Tan, CEO of Crown Group

Retail management company Stellar Lifestyle has also collaborated with Crown Digital to provide commuters at 30 MRT stations around Singapore their cuppa by the end of 2022. Those always on-the-go may find this incredibly useful — they’ll be able to order their coffee in advance with the Crown Digital app, which will allow them to collect their drinks once they arrive at the MRT station.

“Today, the pandemic has revealed and accelerated even more systemic challenges that have long plagued the food and beverage sector—from high rents to thin margins—and new ones arising from health and safety concerns,” he continued.

It’s intriguing to say the least. We’ve seen robot bartenders on board the Royal Caribbean who can muddle, stir, shake and strain cocktails, but cafe-style artisanal coffee? Here’s how it works.

How does Ella work?

robotic coffee
(Image credit: Crown Group)

How different is Ella from your regular, vending machine coffee or capsule gadgets you can find at home?

For starters, the whole setup comes with two coffee machines, a robotic arm, syrup and cup dispensers, rotating drink collection points and speakers. Unlike your vending and capsule machines, Ella doesn’t use pre-made espressos or pre-ground beans to create your coffee.

After you key in your order from the app or the interactive panel, Ella’s six-axis robot arm uses high-quality, ground-to-order Buscaglione beans and freshly frothed milk to create tasty cups of barista-styled coffee for each diner. The robotic arm will transfer the cups to the machine, then to the drink collection points.

Crown Group is currently working on upgrading the machine with new sequences that will allow customisation of milk and syrup alternatives, but until then, diners can fall back on the basic latte, cappuccino and espresso.

robotic coffee
(Image credit: Crown Group)

In a city where efficiency is key and manpower costs, i.e. employment, training and staff retainment, is a massive issue, robots like Ella are a springboard to solving a large chunk of these issues. After all, only one human employee has to refill the coffee beans and the milk when needed.

The contactless operation also comes in handy during times of social distancing — all you have to do is send in your order and scan your QR code to collect it when it’s ready, sans the human interaction and potential exposure to bacteria.

robotic coffee
(Image credit: Crown Group)

Ella takes up less than six square metres of space and has the ability to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can produce up to 200 cups of coffee an hour, which is four times the number an average barista can handle.

So could the future of artisanal coffee be robotic? That depends on how you’d prefer your cup of joe. If you’re reliant on quick coffees that still taste good, then robotic coffee might just be the solution.

Aficionados who head to cafes for a relaxing cup of java, where sometimes, the relationship with a barista is essential to foster a sense of community might beg to differ. In those cases, nothing quite replaces the human touch.

You could get your coffee from robot baristas at 30 MRT stations soon

Jocelyn Tan

Senior Writer

Jocelyn Tan is a travel, food and design writer who loves to explore lesser-known cities abroad and chat with locals about their favourite eats in town. When she's not writing, she's probably indulging in serial killer podcasts or reading one too many books on East Asian history.

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