Former financier builds barista robot Ella in Singapore


Long black. Flat white. Iced latte. No matter how you pick up your coffee, Ella – Singapore’s first fully self-sufficient coffee barista – has you covered.

Ella is the multi-million dollar idea of ​​Keith Tan, 41, a former wealth manager who left the daily grind in 2015 to start his own chain of cafes.

“I was 35, in finance, and I was like, ‘This is my chance.’ I have to do something, build something for myself, ”Tan told CNBC Make It.

“It will grow, it will grow more than that!” So I decided it was time to really take a look at the technology.

Keith tan

Founder and CEO, Crown Digital

But soon after he launched the coffee joint, he began to discover labor issues in the food and beverage industry.

“We had four stores facing a labor shortage and I said to myself: ‘I just invested in this company, it will grow, it will grow more than that! “So I decided it was time to really take a look at the technology,” said Tan, Founder and CEO of Crown Digital.

Invigorating Foods and Drinks

With this, the idea of ​​Crown Digital was born: an Internet of Things start-up aimed at solving the difficulties of the F&B sector.

Ella is the company’s first product – an automated robot designed to mimic the work of a human cafe waiter.

Created in 2018 after years of experimentation, the robotic barista features a self-contained arm, produced by robotics company Techman Robot, which sits inside a transparent five-square-meter kiosk.

Singapore’s first robotic barista, Ella, is created by Internet of Things start-up Crown Digital.

Digital crown

The machine operates 24 hours a day and can be used up to 200 cups of coffee per hour – four times more than a typical human barista.

Its ingredients – fresh milk and beans – only need to be refilled after 360 servings, which is done by the delivery drivers who monitor Ella through an app. Crown Digital’s in-house control center allows Ella to remotely detect and resolve spills or machine failures.

Tan said the technology is designed specifically for high-density and on-the-go environments like airports, transportation hubs and offices, where speed is everything.

“There are opportunities where you just want speed, consistency, and ease of control, and that’s where robotics can really come in,” Tan said.

Robots on the rise

This efficiency means that the cost savings can also be passed on to consumers. For example, a latte from Ella costs around $ 3, while a typical barista coffee in Singapore costs around $ 4.50.

But Ella is not the only coffee robot in the area.

In 2015, the Swiss engineering company ABB unveiled YuMi, a versatile robot capable of performing a variety of tasks, including signing its name, solving a Rubik’s Cube, and even accompanying Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli to conduct an orchestra.

We’ll definitely see some in front of the house … but we’ll also see a lot of robots actually in warehousing, transportation, distribution.

Chris Holmes

Managing Director, IDC Insights Asia-Pacific

More and more robot cafes have sprung up in recent times, such as Cafe X in San Francisco and B; eat at Incheon Airport in South Korea.

“Looking ahead, we expect tremendous growth,” said Chris Holmes, Managing Director of IDC Insights Asia Pacific, of the automation and robotics industry.

In the next two years alone, the market information company said it expects half of all food, beverage and retail outlets to employ some form of robotic.

“We will definitely see some in front of the house,” he said. “But we’ll also see a lot of robots in warehousing, transportation, distribution.”

Accelerated by the Covid

The Covid has only increased this demand.

As more people became aware of hygiene during the pandemic, Tan secured Ella’s first permanent retail space in one of the malls in central Singapore in 2020.

Ella’s coffee is available to consumers at transportation hubs in Japan and Singapore.

Digital crown

Crown Digital has since signed agreements to deploy its robot baristas at certain stops on the East Japan Railway Company’s network of 1,657 stations and at 30 metro stations. stations in Singapore operated by SMRT.

This will make Ella’s take-out coffee available to a total of 18 million daily commuters.

“We are reinventing the way coffee can be served to consumers through digital touchpoints,” Tan said.

The two transport operators also invested in Crown Digital, bringing its total funding to $ 3.1 million and valuing it at over $ 35 million.

Impact of automation

Not everyone is excited about the boom in robots, however.

“There is a lot of concern in terms of robots taking over people’s jobs,” said IDC’s Holmes, adding that physical and software robots are changing the employment landscape.

The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, automation will displace some 85 million jobs. However, he adds that the robot revolution will create an additional 97 million jobs over the same period.

We start with coffee, but we don’t end with that … Ella will continue to make food, for example, delivery.

Keith tan

Founder and CEO, Crown Digital

Tan argues that robots like Ella are simply making way for more skilled human jobs.

“Eventually, automation will come for the bread and butter, and then you will have the human experience where you can better pay for them, keep them, and build that human experience,” he said.

For him, his robot barista is only scratching the surface, and he has plans for more robots to help us in our day to day lives.

“We start with coffee, but we don’t end with it,” he said. “Ella will continue to do food, for example, delivery. There will be many different verticals where Ella could be deployed.”

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