coffee work

(Source – Crown Digital)

Getting coffee for work made faster with Ella, the robot barista

  • Ella can brew 200 cups of coffee an hour and works for 23 hours per day while performing deep learning and predictive analysis.
  • Crown Digital plans to raise Series A capital in the first quarter of 2023 and conduct an initial public offering in 2027.

Many employees drink coffee to maintain productivity at work. While some organizations have invested in coffee machines for the workplace, making coffee in-office remains time consuming.

Hence, some choose to buy coffee on their way to work. Instead of queuing at a café to get their coffee, most coffee lovers now order their coffee online and collect it on their way to work. Even this can’t mitigate the potential for wasted time.

This is where robot-baristas come in.

In Southeast Asia, Singaporean start-up Crown Digital has created Singapore’s first fully autonomous robotic barista. Called Ella, the fully autonomous AI-powered robot barista can brew 200 cups of coffee each hour using more than 300 different coffee mixes. The robot can also make suggestions and keep track of a user’s preferred coffee.

To understand more about Ella, Tech Wire Asia had the pleasure of speaking with Keith Tan, CEO & Founder of Crown Digital. Tan also shared his vision of providing unmanned retail solutions to digitally transform F&B businesses, allowing them to scale their businesses through an IoT ecosystem.

How did the concept for Ella, an unmanned retail solution, come about?

It all began when I entered the F&B industry through launching my very own café, Crown Coffee, in 2016, offering Italian coffee and panini sandwiches.

I faced several challenges as I attempted to scale up the business. These challenges are still faced by my fellow business owners across the F&B industry today, including manpower shortages, high labor turnover and the lack of local labor force willing to join the industry. It is hard to ensure consistency of the quality of food and beverages served. Another challenge is steep overhead costs such as rental rates and rising labor costs and inflation. For me, these resulted in tight margins and made it difficult for the business to expand.

I was still very determined to find a solution to solve all these challenges so that I could scale up my business. One day, while experimenting with a robot arm serving croissants, the idea of an autonomous robot barista hit me. I began to learn robotics from scratch, did endless rounds of prototyping, and eventually gathered a team of technologists and baristas. Together, we were able to create an unmanned retail solution: Ella the robot barista. She is programmed to execute repetitive, manual tasks perfectly, which eases the pressure of finding and retaining skilled baristas, ensuring that the coffee is always efficiently served, and consistently of good quality.

Keith Tan, CEO & Founder of Crown Digital

Is it an expensive technology? What skills are required to run it?

Ella is a result of three specialist companies fused into one – a software company with an end-to-end operating system, a robotic automation company that designed a functional unmanned retail hardware solution, and a coffee company, roasting and retailing our artisan coffee with premium Roasted Coffee beans from Italy.

Hence, we have recruited experts in these three fields who work in synergy to continuously find ways to improve our system and software, robotic barista hardware, and to brew consistently good cups of coffee at a reasonable price.

When looking at capital expenditure, Ella will indeed be more expensive than a café buying a coffee machine. However, Ella is an upfront investment which will significantly reduce the recurring operational overheads such as labor and rental costs in the long run. When analyzing a five-year profit and loss projection, Ella is many times cheaper than running a retail shop with traditional operational overheads.

Ella is unparalleled in her efficiency, consistency, and efficacy. She can make 200 cups of coffee per hour and operates for 23 hours daily. She also engages in deep learning and predictive analysis, enabling us to ensure that stock levels are always sufficient to fulfil orders.

Ella is a new generation retail solution that is fully digitized, from cashless payments, hyper-personalized mobile app ordering, to production with robotic automation and allowing customers to pick up their drinks without human supervision. This level of autonomy has resulted in significant amounts of raw data points for optimization and analysis.

In order to analyze and make actionable improvements, the business entity running it must be structured to work with a data-led mindset. Promotions, user acquisition, and retention strategies are also different. The emphasis is now channelled into user engagement, hyper personalization and enhancing UI/UX for the everyday user.

Businesses that are looking at Ella’s new retail model must first be data-led and internet-first companies.

What were some of the challenges you encountered while founding an IoT startup without any prior experience with robotics or AI?

The first challenge was to evaluate the most suitable type of robotics and automation for my coffee business. This required significant amounts of research, as well as learning about robotics and automation as an ‘outsider’.

However, being an ‘outsider’ looking into robotics with a ‘café operator’s’ insider perspective made a key difference in the way we approached the problem. Solving it from an ‘operator’s’ perspective really defined our position as domain experts in this field.

The next step was to build the prototype and get it tested in the field. This required investment into research and development to build prototypes, before heading out for events to stress test the prototypes with end users, allowing us to observe their reactions, experiences, and feedback on the quality of coffee.

The challenge surrounding deploying robots into our daily lives, serving food and interfacing with consumers from all walks of life is that the environment is more dynamic, as opposed to testing a robot in the factory where conditions are fixed, and outcomes are predicted.

Another challenge that I am still tackling today is finding the best way to combine the UI, UX, speed, quality, and safety for our end consumers. We desire to make the experience as intuitive as possible for consumers from all walks of life, providing a user journey instinctive enough for everyone, from young tech-savvy teenagers to even tech-averse elderly, to purchase their coffee without aid.

Besides designing the user journey for consumers, we are also designing Ella for our operational staff who do the daily maintenance. From an operator’s perspective, we see them as our customers too, and their user journey is important to us. Hence, a challenge I face is how to optimize the user journeys from an operator, consumer, and business model perspective to make this a sustainably expanding business in the long run.

As we grew and tested Ella at over 50 international events, our accumulated experiences allowed us to constantly explore different iterations surrounding the physical design of Ella and rapid software upgrades. We have gone through hundreds of design changes and are now embarking on the next stage of developing high availability systems which require embedded firmware development and more specialist skillsets.

We have been focused on solving real world problems with robotics for the commercial space, which requires a different approach and company structure to execute and deliver a commercially viable product that meets expectations. Hence, we kept to our roots and became a 3-in-1 company: a coffee business with an ability to develop and enhance software, and experts in robotic automation. All these verticals are done in-house, as in the long run, it’s just not possible to outsource these to third parties.

work coffee

(Source – Crown Digital)

How can unmanned retail solutions from Crown Digital help companies in scaling?

Crown Digital is exploring white labelling to support large operators with their digitalization efforts through providing unmanned retail solutions – Ella’s hardware, software, and backend integration.

Ella is contactless, fully autonomous and functioning independently, resolving the need for physical staff to be present throughout operating hours, providing a solution for shortage of labor and significantly reducing manpower costs. Eliminating concerns surrounding inconsistencies in quality, Ella is meticulously programmed for speed and consistency and aided by an artificial intelligence-enabled vision system which keeps an eye on operations round-the-clock to spot abnormalities such as spillage.

Through the white labelling model, Crown Digital will provide a complete end-to-end unmanned retail solution for traditional operators to digitalize their F&B operations, helping them to increase operational efficiency and margins, giving them a better chance to scale their business.

How perceptive is Ella in processing customers’ orders, assuming people want different things in their coffee?

Ella’s mobile app offers a hyper-personalized coffee experience. This includes customization to the user’s liking and the ability to save customized drinks as favorites that can be ordered again at the click of a button. This enables Ella to serve customers their coffee just as they like it – no surprises, only consistently good coffee that brings comfort every single day. The plan is to replicate an experience of the same quality around the globe for travelling customers.

What future plans does Crown Digital have after establishing a presence in Singapore and Japan?

Currently, we’re aiming to secure Series A funding in the first quarter of 2023, and we are working towards an initial public offering in 2027. Right now, while we have a presence in Singapore and Japan, Ella is poised to be a global brand. We are constantly talking to potential partners for new markets and will pace ourselves as we navigate our global expansion in a sustainable way.

Our go-to-market strategy is to be extremely dominant in each vertical where we bring the most value to our customers.

We have since established three key verticals where we could bring the most value and scalability. They are:

  • Office Coffee Service – We have successfully secured strong entry into offices, with several deployments of our coffee service in tier 1 offices such as SAP, Standard Chartered Bank, and Cisco Systems with more in the pipeline.
  • Transport Hubs and Commercial Spaces – Our strategic partnerships with railway companies and airports will bring Ella to high traffic transport hubs around the globe. Apart from our ongoing partnerships with SMRT Singapore and East Japan Railway Company, we are also talking to potential travel retail operators serving different global market segments for future growth.
  • Leading Coffee Solution for Exhibitions and Events – Being the leading coffee solution for over 50 global events and counting, Ella has become the go-to mobile robot coffee kiosk that is recognized for her ability to deploy in an hour, serving over 1000 cups of coffee around the world. We are rapidly becoming the coffee caterer of choice for event organizers around the world who are looking for the next-generation coffee experience.

Eventually, in the long run, I hope for Ella to be all around the world in corporate offices, malls, train stations, and more. That said, my goal is to establish a strong, unparalleled presence for Ella in our existing markets first, before scaling to other markets.

Our team of food scientists and tech engineers are also exploring how Ella can be refitted for any F&B task that is manual, such as serving fresh juices or maybe even whipping up a bowl of ramen. Do look out for updates.