This is a Emperor's New Clothes situation. No one dares to say how dumb this is, in fear of passing for a Luddite
Maybe at the best end, a barista makes a better cuppa than a good machine but most of the places near where I am now wouldn't pass a blind test Vs the automated coffee machine at my office.
Automated coffee-making exist, and works just fine.
Still, €1 vending machines haven't killed the €3 coffee shops/stands/trucks. Empirically, people want the (subjective) experience, not cheap coffee.
This is a novel, theatrical way of doing the experience.
Besides those relatively banal points... it's kind of cool that they're putting robotic arms into public-facing consumer land. Not sure it leads anywhere, but I'd get a cuppa and watch it work as I sip.
I keep making the point every time it gets raised in a "the robots are coming for our jobs" thread, but we had the technology to vend fast food to people putting coins in slots before we had McDonalds etc, whose laser focus on margins proved the business case for counter staff and killed off most of the Automats. Needless to say, the perception of a pleasant coffee shop offering good service worth paying extra for and superior quality coffee is more intrinsically linked to its staff than the fast food industry.
In terms of theatrics and novelty this super-expensive machine is a massive improvement on the vending machine and can probably justify a $3 coffee instead of a $1 coffee, but it isn't going to kill the traditional coffee shop either, because the novelty is directly proportional to how rare they are....
McDonalds is returning to vending machines - not for the burger manufacturing, but for the order generation and payment:
I'm sure it can be done cheaper, but not $200 cheap.
The problem is that Nespresso already exists, and is good for 95% of the market. The rest of the 5% of espresso aficionados demand tons of features that are not cheap to produce, and the market is inherently not that big. There are machines like https://decentespresso.com/overview (I believe they picked up the IP of an infamously undelivered Kickstarter) and https://www.breville.com/us/en/products/espresso/bes980.html
It seems plausible, you know, that someone could make a machine like that, but at the end of the day it's all about the espresso head and quality of the build.
By the time they figured it out, I think, they were no better than well-established prosumer models in price and performance.
If you look into the audiophile community, there are people that have gone crazy spending absurd amounts of money on equipment that's basically a placebo. It fails on blind tests all the time.
I bet it's the same with this coffee.
Luckily, none of them involve spending thousands of dollars on ultra-premium equipment whose advantages are completely imaginary.
I understand how an espresso machine works. If somebody is charging you five figures for one, they're trying to pull a fast one.
These are not for your kitchen, they are machines for commercial use. Even the fully manual ones easily cost mid-thousands.
The question is, is the end result coming out of that machine measurably better than what comes out of a no-frills machine?
My bet is that it isn't.
It's not just the coffee that's "the end result."
Do you also go to museums and say "I could have done that" to every painting?
That doesn't really follow. If I think five-figure coffee makers that perform a rather simple mechanical function are overpriced, I should start selling them myself?
> Same with high-end audio gear.
I'm talking about equipment whose qualities cannot be measured nor perceived in a double-blind study. Pure make-belief:
"Audiophile publications frequently describe differences in quality which are not detected by standard audio system measurements and double blind testing, claiming that they perceive differences in audio quality which cannot be measured by current instrumentation, and cannot be detected by listeners if listening conditions are controlled, but without providing an explanation for those claims."
> Do you also go to museums and say "I could have done that" to every painting?
No, I've got better things to do. Having said that, modern art certainly is rife with pretense.
In the long run price difference is well worth it.
Same answer: People are desperate to be fooled.
When you start getting into the $1000+ range, it seems like you're mostly paying for the following:
1) more precise temperature control (PID control)
This is becoming less of an issue because the heat exchange systems on consumer devices are becoming a lot better. My machine is ready to go in under a minute, although they recommend you wait about 20 minutes for it to warm up. Some of the higher-end machines with a dual boiler even recommend a 45-minute warm-up time, though.
2) ability to steam milk and pull shots at the same time (double boiler)
This seems to be a big differentiator because then the dual boiler comes into play (dedicated boiler for espresso, dedicated boiler for steam wand). On my device, I simply pull my shot, then steam my milk after. This all happens in under 1.5 minutes. I simply don't need to do them at the same time, but I can understand why you would want this feature in a commercial machine where you need to be moving fast and serving a lot of customers at a business.
3) milk steamer is often quicker on $1000 machines (a few seconds instead of ~15-30 like on mine)
Again, we are talking about maybe 15 seconds of time saving here.
4) water-line hookup so you don't need to refill a water tank
My machine has a water tank, but I only need to refill it every two or three days. I usually have two or three double espressos each day, one or two of those are lattes. So the water hook-up is of no use to me.
5) fancy styling / italian design & looks
I think my machine has decent styling, but it doesn't look nearly as high quality as something like the Rocket machines: https://rocket-espresso.com/.
I researched this heavily before buying, and watched a lot of videos here: https://www.youtube.com/user/SeattleCoffeeGear. I was very close to buying a Rocket machine and it would have set me back well over $1000. Anyway, that youtube channel sometimes does blind taste tests between hundred dollar machines and ones in the thousands of dollars. They often cannot tell the difference.
This is a great one: $300 vs $3000 machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuIOlsdDg_o
In my opinion, in order for robots to be mass profitable they either need to be faster, better or run longer. This machine seems to do none of those things. Novelty factor only has value whilst it's novel.
If it's the M class version then it's rated to IP67, and it can do all of the above while underwater or in a sandstorm.
In a controlled environment this is perfectly fine, where dust and moisture can be controlled - but we're talking about moisture from steam coming off of the coffee, the possibility of coffee spillage on the machine, organic dust from nearby humans, non-clean power supplies and loads which may fall outside of usage rating (i.e. obstacles or heavy loads or continued use close to its maximum).
Honestly I would be surprised if it's still working in a year in these kinds of conditions.
Another issue with smart motors that generally isn't discussed is that they wear out (can only handle lower loads) and lose accuracy. I've used magnetic encoded smart motors for a few projects and after two years you can't rely on them anymore - and this is easy work for the servos (occasional usage).
Agreed its probably a novelty though.
Also drive through includes multiple drinks and food items as well crammed into that 40 or so seconds.
When timing the serial steps of making a drink, it takes about a minute from start to finish, but their process is to batch and pipeline drinks so that they generally handle 3-5x drinks per batch in a pipeline (repeatable beverage routine), and this is for a lone barista pumping out hot beverages. The other 4-5 people are usually on cashier duty, and drive through duty.
I haven't been able to find any figures excluding queuing, but these figures would seem to cast doubt. Unless Dunkin Donuts are doing the same orders in <30s.
(In the Netherlands it's probably three cups an hour, with looking at the ceiling or the floor in between).
Espressos? probably. Large lattes? Not so much. Steaming the milk would kill the throughput too much.
I would guess that the Italian would do a much higher proportion of shorter and smaller drinks.
 "normal" bars in Italy only have two sizes of cups, one (smaller) for the espresso and one (larger) for the cappuccino (used also for tea, chocolate, ginseng, etc.).
Large mug-sized cups normally exists only in homes where traditionally you have a caffelatte with bread or biscuits at breakfast (or sometimes instead of dinner)
Somehow I imagined the robot going through the classic steps you might see a barista perform: grounding coffee and putting it in the portafilter, tamping, using the steam wand, etc. The things that might make the difference between a handmade coffee and one from a standard coffee machine.
It usually makes more sense to make a coffee machine that does those steps internally. It's easier in the controlled environment internal to a machine. A espresso coffee vending machine seems to be doing some of them already, like grinding the coffee.
All it's lacking is a cup transport system like a conveyor belt to put the cup in from a cup stockpile and to later serve it. You could even automate recovering the cup, cleaning it and restoking it.
Is there strong customer preference for a robot arm serving the cup rather than a conveyor belt ?
I'd guess for the wow effect. Such a system is much harder to calibrate and maintain than a regular automation line. But a lot sexier also. Maybe the perception and experience of getting the cup from a robotic arm is more appealing to customers than getting it from a conveyor belt?
Having watched this (https://www.businessinsider.com/robot-barista-reveals-danger...) I tend to agree with you. Coffee making is a business of diminishing returns and quickly rising costs. You can do an acceptable espresso with a $200 espresso machine. However to make an amazing cappuccino/latte you need to go to at least $5000-$6000 price point. Separate boilers, precise pressure monitoring and all that jazz. The reason for that is that steaming milk is not a very easy job for a robot.
Remember that a proper grinder is at least as important as a decent espresso machine. I've been through a few but have finally found the excellent Rancilio Rocky Doserless, which was also refurbished.
A few other accessories like a bottomless portafilter, a knock box, and a milk pitcher for steaming, some good beans and you're pretty much set.
I think my whole setup was less than $600 and I have never regretted it. It takes some time to dial in your grind but you'll be beating your local barista's shots within a few months (and at a significant discount).
I don't get the "they took our jobs" vibe from this video. Especially considering these things probably come with support contracts (and troubleshooting, maintenance, etc) that cost more than an employee, because it's specialized hardware.
The 25K is likely just the robot arm itself, and not even the espresso machine, grinder, enclosure, payment system, and bean hopper/dispenser.
You need to keep the premium that Starbucks customers pay for and that is using traditional methods with lots of customization options. Making coffee at Starbucks is sort of a performance, and that is remaining because that is what people are paying for.
You are misunderstanding Starbuck and the premium coffee experience completely.
I think that something like this will succeed at the medium-high end. But "artisan" premium coffee that is hand made at an espresso machine will remain but it will likely get even more expensive.
Remember that we have already automated pretty fully the low end coffee market with Nespresso, Kurig, etc.
I think you are completely wrong, there is a market for this.
Not to make it equivalent but in Japan and other places people get their coffee from cans. All they want is a little pick me up routine in the morning or whenever.
I pay €29K (gotta love the exchange rate, right now) for a machine which will replace a worker that I probably pay for year the same service. Sure it's not "artisanal" but, given enough time to tweak the machine's behaviours, it could be.
For the lower-end markets, definitely, it would be a god-send (in the ROI sense); however, I think your arguments of dissuasion that Starbucks would never do this are akin to the arguments of high-end car manufacturers never moving to automation to build vehicles.
Put succinctly: If the end-goal of business is to increase the profit-marigin (which it is), then someone, somewhere will find a way to make that happen and this would be, in general, no exception to that rule. Eventually, they'll hit that sweet spot to make it work; even if it's slightly sub-par from the quality of today's product.
Starbucks really muddled the waters during their rapid expansion about which customer they‘re targeting, and at some point they will be forced to pick.
That’s a pretty bold assertion. It seems to be doing just fine without having been automated.
Then they decided that moving into every big box store and rest stop was important.
... and good luck to find a location that has customers needing 120 coffees/hout for 12 h each day of the year.
> Today, an industrial robotic arm can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $400,000. 
Anyway, Mitsubishi is well respected and this is a very good arm.
That's an annual salary of a coffee server
You could already have pure vending machines serve what baristas serve you at Starbucks, Costa, whatever, you would get exactly the same product and it's close to what happens in reality. But people want a coffee shop experience, not a vending machine experience so I think moving robots will be a thing (unless people really insist on interacting with humans)
Sometimes, the service is part of the coffeeshop/bar experience, but seeing stuff being done is a fairly minor part of that, at least for me. Instead, it’s a quick chat or a recommendation, neither of which a moving arm really provides. You might be right that the apparent labor, either by a human or moving arm, also masks the (large) margins on a coffee drink. I hadn’t really thought of that as “the experience” (vs comfy chairs, decent music, and a pleasant murmur of other conversations) but you might be onto something there.
However, I think the main reason vending machine coffee isn’t popular is because it’s historically been pretty bad. The newer ones (Nespresso, etc) do make decent coffe, but you can still get some vile sludge at hospitals and rest stops.
Employees do no more than employees at say, McDonald's. In fact probably less.
Push a button, right amount of coffee pours into cup. Move cup. Push button, right amount of milk pours into cup. Move cup.
Replacing people by robots will make no difference to the final product.
What we need to wait and see is whether consumers want to be served by a human or whether they don't care. We'll have an answer very soon because for fast food and coffee shops there's just a couple of years before humans become operationally optional.
Personally, in a high end place where staff adds value I will care, but I couldn't care less in a Costa Coffee or McDonald's.
I don't know what places you're talking about. Everywhere I've seen they use an espresso machine which isn't a case of 'push a button, right amount of coffee pours into cup', even places like Costa.
Even when they use en espresso machine (because perhaps you ordered an espresso), it makes no difference to the final product if that is automated entirely.
A standard espresso machine requires a human only because it cannot automatically reload coffee.
The simple fact is that at this point humans are really only there for the 'experience', not to create the final product.
(I can see you editing your comment out from underneath me by the way.)
Humans in Costa don't add any value to your cup.
They might make you feel better, though, so we'll see if people are fine with being served by a robot (as I already wrote).
But, please keep focusing on the literal.
When pointing at the Moon...
> In most of those chain coffee shops what you get is a coffee vending machine with a human arm to move the cup.
What I'm adding is that anyone with eyes can go to a chain coffee shop and see that they aren't using a vending machine.
You want the premium that a traditional expresso machine brings -- whose products are $3-$5/cup.
This will likely succeed, or a similar product.
The future truly is now.
but it really pains me to only see headlines like "automation is killing jobs" from the west.
meanwhile in japan they have a long tradition of replacing jobs with robots. their society is very happy about it, which lead to massive industries focusing mainly/only on automation.
so my multi-part question is: why is the west scared of automation? does it have to do with a lack of knowledge, or is it because of a different attitude towards jobs than in japan? why does it seem like western societies care more about truck drivers and baristas than providing better jobs?
1. Japan has an ageing population  which means a declining working population. That means job losses don't convert into increased unemployment.
2. Some say Japan relatively prefers robots to immigrants  due to "traditional xenophobia".
3. Some people think [3,4] it's due to indigenous religions; that the Christian tradition says only God can create life and any human with the hubris to play god will inevitably be punished, possibly at the hands of their own creation; whereas Shinto says there are hidden spirits in things like trees, rocks, rivers, mountains and so on.
4. Or maybe it's just because their media is full of heroic friendly robots and cyborgs.
Of course, the business value of strapping a robot arm to a bean-to-cup coffee vending machine is another matter...
My explanation is probably not completely accurate (non-native english speaker so it's hard for me to get to the point), but it's important to understand the difference in culture.
so any retail or food service job replaced by a robot means one fewer job for someone who might need it. in a just world that would be great, the whole point of doing work should be so that we have to do less work, but that's not how society is structured now. an american barista who loses their job to a robot has more or less no safety net at this point. the only benefit in this story is more profit for whoever no longer has to pay a human when they can pay a robot less for the same job
I can't speak for "the west", but in the US, very important things are tied to employment like health insurance & retirement benefits and others. So, if a robot takes your job, then you (or even your kids) are on average likely to be one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.
- want to have a job
- don't want to pay to retrain
- don't want to become unemployed (and then have to compete for another job)
It is not a gimmick, from the POV of a business looking to cut labour costs, as alluded to in the article. However, it is disingenuous on their part to suggest that they are forced towards automation due to government policies or worker apathy. The real reasons might be that a robot (arm) is not subject to any employment rights, does not need breaks, goes off sick, refuses to work extra hours, requires various other perks like holidays, paternity/maternity leave, no promotion - unless it is a firmware upgrade etc.
Uber would bite that arm off, if they could remove the 'labour' element tomorrow, as they frequently clash with unions and governments around the world. Nonetheless, they are already moving towards the goal of autonomous vehicles.
I can only speculate, Japan has had a traditional job-for-life ethos, removing any anxiety. It also has a different set of socio-economic issues to deal with. One of them would be an ageing population, low influx of immigrant workers - which might cement the robot culture even more.
but Japan's automation efforts started half a century ago:
all societies have issues.
Does everything have to come with gratuitous surveillance?
Nosey and caring is the same thing when it comes to how much information you need to posess. The difference is how you use it.
When your a regular at a coffee shop and the Barista knows your name, your dogs name and your regular order, that’s nice.
When the robot does the same thing, it tends to come out creepy and annoying.
BUT.... there will always be a need for quality service and people will pay extra for that.
Robots for the quick, fast food/drink. People for the more relaxed service - which of course will cost more.
Ultimately there is no need for most of what we work on. Once our basic needs and comfort are covered it's a boundless quest for economical growth and a sense of "fulfilment". Low skilled repetitive jobs are needed if we continue on our current economical path.
A lot of jobs could already be automated, we could probably work half of what we do now and keep 90% of our comfort. The issue isn't technical it's political / societal. People have been talking about automation for 70+ years , we're still more or less at the same stage as back then. We replaced factory workers by machines, great, but this didn't deliver them from work, it just made them shift to other low skilled dead end jobs.
Fast food is a good example, they are more and more automated in Europe but in the US it won't happen because many students / people with low education rely on these jobs to survive. Same for walmart, &c ...
These jobs aren't a means to an end, they're here to keep low skilled people busy. We sent people to the moon in the 60s, does anyone really believe we can't make a machine that flip patties and make fries (it would be much more efficient and cost a fraction of the employees it would replace) ?
What would be the end goal ? Efficiency for efficiency's sake ? Seems like the most efficient scenario would be to end up in a Matrix kind of world.
Anecdote: I ofter talk to the barista working for my company's internal coffee shop, he said he'd never change job because he likes human contact and relaxed working hours/conditions. Everything doesn't to be about efficiency / automation.
"His technological optimism (Le Grand Espoir du xxe siècle, PUF 1949; Machinism et Bien-Être, Ed Minuit 1951; Les 40000 heures, 1965) led him to announce the 30-hour week and an active life span of about 35 years, and to predict that society would evolve relentlessly towards a tertiary type of civilisation, dominated by services"
But do all the people he serves like human contact? In some cases it might be a one-way thing where the server thrives off the human contact, but the customer finds it bothersome. One of the great things about the automation that has come along already, like self-service supermarket checkouts and ticket vending machines, is that people who don’t like interacting with strangers can get the everyday services they need in peace and solitude.
A society of pure production/consumption without human contacts, man if that's what we're heading to we're in for a wild ride.
> everyday services they need in peace and solitude.
Move out of the city and you get all the peace and solitude you'll ever need. When you move to a tech hot spot to milk the sweet sweet IT money you kind of sign the social agreement of interacting with other human beings. That's the whole point of societies in the first place; people interacting and exchanging goods and services while living on a shared territory. If human interactions make someone sick to the point of actively avoiding them I think we should stop for a bit and start asking the right questions.
Someone who doesn’t like customer service interactions isn’t necessarily a loner with no human contact in his/her life. The person may be a keen member of clubs, meet people through social networks and then transition to IRL meetups, etc. The difference is that there, people bond over a shared interest, they feel something in common. In a customer-service interaction, there is no common bond, just a transaction, and so the interaction is not cherished human contact.
From the shop clerk’s side, it is extremely common to hear complaints about the effort involved in feigning politeness, smiling, etc. Why are you so shocked if some customers feel the same way?
> When you move to a tech hot spot to milk the sweet sweet IT money
Not everyone on HN is employed in tech.
But let's say for the sake of argument that we do replace all these bs jobs. What happens when you go to a bank for a mortgage and the AI doesn't agree with your conditions ? It's the same problem with autonomous cars, it works good when the conditions are absolutely perfect, the second a problem arise it becomes useless. You end up needing redundant people to watch over machines, just like what happens in factories, but these are job for skilled workers. What happens to all the unskilled workers you replaced ? They find other bs jobs.
There are many automated coffee machine in my office, they cost thousand of euros each, every few weeks we have to call the company's technicians to come and fix them because there is always 1 or 2 of them which stop working. What do you think will happen for that $33k robot arm ?
We’ve had coffee machines for decades. A robotic arm to serve them is not useful for us.
The generic robot arm is generic but expensive.
I saw this with incredibly expensive robotic arms on a recent cruise. It was actually very very flexible -- all options were external to the arm, and cheap:
It was a very popular bar on the cruise ship in terms of drinks sold -- but it was also in a prime location. The cruise ship properly understood that these "bionic bar" robots were a performance.
I like the idea, but that's a lot of up-front expense and still requires humans, electricity, repair, and lacks customizability and speed. If they can bring the cost down it seems like a viable option. Except... how do you not serve people who are already intoxicated? How do you check id (make sure they aren't scanning a friends)? And I guess you aren't building loyalty, which bartenders often do.
This is not just vending machine coffee.
A real barista does not only make a basic product for 10hours.
And if it does there are already machines that can replace him immediately without an overly expensive robot.
Heck you can have a fully automatic super espresso machine for a fraction of cost of this "robot".
Example - You're walking to work or your next meeting in SF. Cafe X is on the way. Two blocks ahead, you order your drink. As you walk by, you punch in your code and go on with your day.
The interaction is seamless and simple.
That is their differentiator. There is tons of ways they could have automated that but they haven't because they need that performance, it is partially what you are paying for. If you disagree, you are misunderstanding the reason Starbucks had succeeded.
Also it's cool to look at, so you might get some initial extra revenue in that.
Full disclosure: I'm a Finn.
There are alternatives like ordering on a tablet, but would get convoluted and awkward fast.
The problem I see with this is more the alcohol related ones like inability to ID or to cut off someone who's had too much.
> "It's also torture for the customer. Baristas get orders wrong, drink quality is wildly inconsistent, and coffee places don't keep a record of every customer's past drink order — but you can do all this with robotics."
A while back I went to one of those restaurants where you order off a touch screen and then the food gets brought out to you. You barely interact with the server. I hated it.
Maybe I’m a sentimental old fool, but when I’m going out to eat, I do not welcome our new robot overlords. :-(
p.s. And I say all this as someone who’s been called a misanthrope.
This just makes me sad.
It really is better. Espressi are never sour, while they usually are in Germany. I don't understand it either. Maybe there are some things capitalism can't fix, one of those is culture.
This robot arm is nothing more than a gimmick, it simply moves a cup from under the actual coffee machine to the customer.
Ah, bless his heart, he's doing people a favor by freeing them from not having a job.
Would have been possible to have more options for the coffee with even better theatre.
Surely the headline would be less catchy if it says "trendy coffee shops to replace baristas with vending machines"
That went without saying