Keith Tan is the founder and CEO of Crown Digital, creators of the robotic barista, tells Elsie Clark about the product and the potential importance of robotics in the foodservice industry
What inspired you to found Crown Digital and create the Ella robot?
We started out as a café operator, Crown Coffee, back in 2016. Due to the shortage of labor, I decided to pivot into technology and develop Ella from the ground up to solve our challenges. Eventually, Ella became a whole new business model that required a completely new approach, with massive development in its technology stack to create the new ‘unmanned retail’ model. Today we are part of Crown Technologies Holding company, which owns both Crown Coffee (F&B operator and brand) and Crown Digital (R&D tech company).
How does the robot work – what is the technology behind it?
Ella the robot barista is our fully unmanned retail solution, comprising a six-axis robot arm. The robot is integrated with Eversys coffee machines, fridges, water pumps, filters and a pigeonhole system for customers to pick up their drinks. The entire system has gone through many iterations and field testing to reach the commercially viable state where the compact footprint brings real estate savings. Ella also has the capacity to produce 300 cups per top-up and has a peak production rate of 200 cups per hour.
Ella must be washed daily and replenished as soon as the cups, coffee, and milk run out. There must be a team and remote management in place to ensure all our Ellas are topped up, quality checked and cleaned efficiently. We’ve created a system to manage our fulfilment process, which we are now integrating with our ERP [enterprise resource planning] to ensure total management of our supply chain.
Almost all – 95% – of our customers are ordering, customizing, and paying for their coffee via our mobile app that is developed in-house. Through it, users can pre-order their coffees before arriving. Within the app we also have loyalty programs where customers can top up money into their ‘Ella Wallet’ for further discounts or join our subscription service.
What does Ella offer that a traditional coffee shop or barista does not?
Speed, consistency, quality, lower price, and availability 24/7. She’s at the train station at 6am when you take the morning shift. She’s available at 10pm if you’re pulling an overtime shift and need the coffee to perk you up. You can order from your app and be notified when it’s ready, then just pick and go without waiting. It’s simple, fast and always great quality.
Where has Ella already been implemented successfully?
We have been very successful at exhibition events. We recently served over 1,000 cups in a day at the World Cities Summit in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. We’ve also successfully installed Ella in shopping malls, Raffles Place MRT station, and corporate offices. We’ve also tested Ella in Japan, with JR East in Tokyo and Yokohama train stations, and have been given permission to scale up Ella in their 1,700 train stations.
What changes have you seen in the industry since the introduction of Ella?
The pandemic has caused significant damage to the F&B industry. Two years of lockdown saw a shift towards contactless retail and digitization. Users are now happy to download apps, scan QR codes and observe safe distancing – all these are exactly the benefits of Ella’s solution, which is no longer alien to users.
What are your plans for further growth and expansion? How do you want to shape the F&B industry moving forward?
We will be massively scaling Ella into different markets globally and have started on industrialization for mass production and cost down efforts. Securing and working with the best suppliers, as well as avoiding supply chain issues, are mounting challenges currently. In order to scale to new markets, we will be identifying the right partners to scale up with us in their home markets and we’ll form joint ventures to collectively invest and grow the business together.
While we are full on with software and robot development, at the core of our product offering is the amazing cup of coffee. We are constantly developing new products, such as new milk options with our dairy supplier, including oat milk. We are working with our upstream suppliers on sustainable packaging, on new ways of packing for our unmanned systems, and on offering seasonal specials to keep our customer base engaged. On the robotic side, we are always upgrading our software, firmware and mobile app improvements where we have biweekly sprints and updates to improve user experience.
Ella was initially conceptualized to solve our own pain points as a café operator. She is now a full-fledged unmanned system and has given industry players a look at what’s possible with automation. We’ve received significant interest from larger chain operators asking for a white label solution for their businesses. We see huge opportunities in providing these enterprise solutions and we are happy to support and solve problems for others and help proliferate automation in the F&B sector.
Where do you see the F&B sector heading overall? Are automation and robotics the future?
F&B has faced unprecedented challenges from Covid-19. As the world emerges from the pandemic, many F&B operators have closed their operations and my heart goes out to them. For those who survived, it is important they look at digitizing their businesses and embracing technologies to protect them. Are they ready for the next pandemic lockdown?
Automation and robotics are the future, but it takes a whole new approach to make it work. It is complex and challenging, and often F&B operators aren’t equipped to take on those challenges. The bold and the resilient will make it eventually. Crown Digital will be around to help if needed.