Automation Comes To The Coffeehouse With Robotic Baristas

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It may not look like a barista is in this box, but Briggo's robot is inside prepping the next espresso shot.

Say goodbye to lattes with funky tastes or attitude from coffeehouse baristas. At the University of Texas, a startup called Briggo LLC has installed a coffee kiosk run by a robotic barista in the academic center, which is visited by 10,000 students a day. Designed by Deaton Engineering Inc., the kiosk is segmented into brewed coffee and espresso drinks, and the drinks can also be prepared according to customer milk, syrup, and sweetener preferences. According to founder and CTO Charles Studor, inside the kiosk is a "big industrial machine" with about 250 sensors that mirrors the physical motions of a human barista.

With this new "robista", as its called, Briggo aims to meet the two biggest needs of coffee drinkers: convenience and quality.

To get their java jolt, students submit an order online, via mobile, or at the kiosk, and can even receive a text or email when the drink is ready. The brewed coffees take 15-30 seconds to prepare while espresso drinks require about 2 minutes. So customers can easily submit an order and then head to the kiosk to pick up their coffee just as its completed. Each coffee is labeled with the customer's name and also displayed on the kiosk. Prices are cheaper than typical coffeehouse prices, and kiosk operators still oversee the flow and refill stock.

The touch menu offers a variety of coffee drinks with prices and prep times listed.

With patents pending, the robot remains behind closed doors, but according to Sprudge, an actual espresso machine is used with a real tamper and steam wind, along with a milk refrigerator. Since the espresso machine hasn't been re-engineered, in all likelihood Briggo's automation may be much closer to a "true" robot than what's going on inside a vending machine.

Still, the question that probably matters the most is, how does it perform? Feedback has been positive, with good reviews popping up in the press and even Wired. A YouTube video shows students talking about Briggo very positively:

The robot may not be able to prepare espresso that would impress coffee aficionados who pride themselves on perfect crema, but it seems that the 99% are satisfied with what they pay for. Perhaps that's because the Director of Coffee and Kiosk Operations is Patrick Pierce, an award winning barista. Briggo brought Pierce on as a consultant at first to understand exactly what Pierce does when he pulls espresso, so that an automated system could be designed to perform each step. Studor said, "We're taking a nationally recognized barista and mimicking what he's doing, consistently." The system is designed so that each variable that goes into the perfect coffee can be adjusted, just as in a manufacturing process. Along with former CEO of Dell Financial Services, Kevin Nater, and CIO John Craparo, who worked at GE, the Briggo team initially raised $5 million in funding and is using its connections in technology to prepare for expansion.

The Briggo logo is a reminder of the robotic love in each cup.

Besides the technology to prep great tasting coffee, the company clearly has incorporated key priorities that go hand-in-hand with the modern coffee culture. Briggo aims to be socially responsible by using only organic fair trade beans from a Peruvian collective of growers and compostable cups and lids. It utilizes social media heavily, with an active Twitter feed with coffee slogans, giveaways and specials as well as any service delays. Its hours of operation are convenient for students, operating until midnight M-Th (key study times) and 10 PM on the weekends. Patrons can also setup an account that will allow them to save their favorite drinks, and an app for Android is available. There's even a T-shirt for Briggo promoting the"coffee robot."

The startup has a vision to introduce robot kiosks into other universities as well as places with clientele similar to the up-all-night college students, such as convention centers, hospitals, courthouses, and transportation centers, like airports and train stations. In other words, primo real estate. They also are working on a smaller version, with the possibility of franchising to build the brand.

Now, maybe you're thinking: Sure coffee's a big deal, but "robotic manufacturing" big?

Even with all the coffee available through coffeehouses, kiosks, fast food places, convenience stores, vending machines, and home brewers, it's still easy to underestimate the size of the coffee industry. The world's most traded commodity is oil, but second is coffee. More than 400 million cups of coffee are consumed globally each day, and in the U.S, coffee is a $19 billion dollar a year industry, the eighth highest globally with the average American drinking 3 cups a day.

Coffee is about as big of a business as they come, so it's a perfect place for an innovative startup to bring the power of technology, and the reason is simple: it's what brought customers back to Starbucks.

Starbucks, once claimed #7 in 2008 on CNN Money's 100 Best Companies To Work For but dropped to #98 last year, in part because it lost some of its luster from years gone by. That's why the company has actively embraced technology, such as mobile payments and free Wi-Fi, in addition to social media. For all its increased efforts to be seen as a community-building, technology-embracing, environmentally-responsible, employee-supporting company, it is regarded by many as the McDonald's of coffeehouses. But Burger King, Wendy's, and a host of other fast food hamburger joints still get a piece of the pie, but strangely Starbucks stands head-and-shoulders about its coffee competitors.

And what has been Starbuck's traditional selling points? Convenience and quality, exactly what Briggo is aiming to perfect with the robot kiosk.

But the elephant in the room is the fear of humans losing jobs to robots. Because of the size of the coffee industry and the fact that coffeehouses have a strong "third place" social element to them that is hard to replicate at a kiosk, human baristas will be around for a while. However, a chain like Starbucks may not be able to remain 100 percent human forever.

Perhaps the 2035 logo will be a robotic eye as well?

Recently, Starbucks announced it is moving into single-cup brewing machines with its new Verismo line positioned to go up against the popular Keurig machines. So it's clear that the tried-and-true coffee merchant is open to ideas to expand its brand, and a robotic kiosk might just be the solution it needs to expand into even more locations while downsizing workforce overhead.

Briggo may be the first of its kind in the coffee world, but its a triple shot threat that may usher in a future "Battle of the Robistas." And, as a fair warning, if a robot ever learns to perfect the power-packed and highly addictive Café Cubano, we are all doomed.

[Media: AdWeek, Briggo, Sprudge]

[Sources: Austin Chronicle, Bizjournal, Briggo, Coffeemarvel, KEYE, Wired, YouTube]

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • swag May 9, 2012 on 7:22 pm

    All the best baristas regularly throw away sink shots. Until you can automate that, the sharted-out-of-a-can machine coffee ain’t gonna cut it for me.

  • digitalcole May 10, 2012 on 8:04 am

    I’d like to hear about how we (as a society) are planning for the eventual elimination of most if not all service class jobs. What are these people supposed to do, how will they make a living? I don’t see anyone confronting the elephant in the room other then the automatic “these people will go back to school and be retrained for twenty first century jobs” bull crap response.

    Are any .orgs or think-tanks taking up this matter and working on some sort of road-map so that we have a better understanding about how we plan to survive without work? I don’t see that at the moment. All I see is a “they’ll (the displaced workers) will figure it out” mentality and I think that attitude is risky at best.

    I’m all for the Singularity and I already consider myself an h+ being however, I don’t see any of us getting to that golden future if we have a large segment of the population starving in the streets because they can’t get work (because of automation) yet still have to pay for the basic necessities of life.

    • Corvinex digitalcole May 10, 2012 on 5:24 pm

      This has been addressed by the new idea of a Resource Based Economy rather than a Monetary Based Economy. Basically because automation is such an inevitability its time to recognize this and embrace it by making it happen in as many sectors as possible and creating a sustainable abundance of the goods people need not for price but because its autonomously possible.

      A simple example right now is a company pays for a robot once and is pure profit after its paid off. Instead in an RBE situation, the good is sold at its base cost, without the profit that goes to the company for no reason. That way those that are out of jobs don’t need a job because everything they need to survive is being produced with little to no cost thanks to automation abundance.

    • Danquebec digitalcole May 12, 2012 on 12:21 pm

      Read up about basic income. Lots of people supporting this idea at the moment, including economists.

      • Danquebec Danquebec May 12, 2012 on 12:21 pm

        orz wrong comment sorry

        • Danquebec Danquebec May 12, 2012 on 12:23 pm

          wait, orz, it’s actually correct. If an admin looks this page, I’d be pleased if you could delete this comment and this last one I posted.

    • deone digitalcole October 2, 2012 on 2:54 am

      What if you look at it this way; the end result of automation would be abundance of everything for everyone, whether they have work or not. Secondly, I’m of the opinion that every human would have to become some sort of superhuman – striving to develop skills that cannot be easily automated or automated at all – which is a good thing both in the long and short run. These skills are what have gotten us to where we are, and I think we have more than enough opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields to take as many as would like to work in them. The internet is the ultimate knowledge platform. The internet is the ultimate world-changing platform. Education is absolutely free now, we are inexcusable!

  • robobello December 6, 2012 on 8:00 am

    As a coffee addict, I really like the ‘robotic barista’ concept. I do have one suggestion. Hand the drink out to me instead of setting it on a tray. I saw a Cyton robotic arm made by Robai that could most likely do this. It could grip the coffee cup and hand it out to me as I passed by the kiosk.