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Before we get to Starbucks’ automation talk, let’s nerd out a little on this Instagram video of the Artly coffee robot posted by SeattleFoodGeek (a.k.a. Sott Heimendinger, a.k.a. a helluva foodtech gent) earlier this week:
Since it didn’t show up on the embed, here’s what he wrote in that post (emphasis mine):
I just had my first robot latte! @artly.coffee just opened a location in Seattle and lattes + robots is a siren song if I've ever heard one.
The process took 4 minutes, including ordering time and the latte cost $6 with tip. (Always tip your barista, even if they're robotic)
I gotta say, it is very impressive to watch an automated robot arm pour latte art. Is their technique as good as a great Seattle barista? No. Is it better than 99% of humans? Definitely yes.
I also appreciate that they're using @lamarzocco espresso machines. Yes, I came for the spectacle of robot coffee, but if that arm had pushed the "brew" button on a Nespresso, it wouldn't be quite the same.
First, I’ve known Scott for a few years now and am infinitely disappointed that he is only now getting his first robot-made latte. Second, and more relevant for you, dear reader, is that the big hook with Artly’s (née Blue Hill Coffee) robot is its use of computer vision. Heimendinger says that the robot’s technique isn’t as good as a human — but that probably won’t be the case for long. As I wrote in January of this year:
Artly’s hook is that it uses a combo of computer vision and AI to help train its robots, and help robots better understand their environments. To train the robot, Artly’s technology “watches” videos of human baristas in action. In doing so, Artly’s robotic arm can recreate human barista movements, and even perform tasks like applying delicate latte art on top of coffee drinks.
But Artly’s computer vision also helps the robot navigate its setup. So Artly’s robot can recognize a “spoon” and “oat milk,” wherever they may be. You don’t have to set particular items in a designated spot. If the oat milk gets misplaced, or a coffee grinder is moved, the robot can still identify what it needs, wherever it is.
Now, why am I doing this long prologue that actually just cuts and pastes a bunch of other already-written material?
Because this week coffee giant Starbucks held a public meeting during which it talked about some of its plans to improve the chain’s business over the next three years. Plans that include automation. From a New York Times piece covering that meeting (more cutting and pasting!) (again, emphasis mine):
In recent months, Starbucks has seen a massive surge in revenues from younger customers ordering elaborate, cold, customized coffees, like venti caramel crunch frappuccinos. These cold drinks now make up 70 percent of Starbucks’ revenues. So-called modifiers of these drinks — think, a shot of espresso or three pumps of pumpkin sauce — now account for more than $1 billion in sales each year on their own.
But the complexity of the drinks, along with order surges at certain times of the day, have made barista jobs more demanding and can sometimes result in delays. To help address that, the company unveiled a new cold beverage system that reduces the number of steps needed to make the drinks, as well as the need for employees to repeatedly bend down and dig into buckets for ice. In a demonstration of the system, two Starbucks employees showed that it took 35 seconds to make a mocha frappuccino with whipped cream as opposed to 87 seconds now.
The kicker, however, is this quote:
“We will never replace our baristas,” said Deb Hall Lefevre, who joined Starbucks in May as its chief technology officer. “Rather, our job is to automate the work and simplify it so that their job is easier.”
Listen. Before you get all bent out of shape, I am NOT advocating for robots to take over a bunch of human jobs. I like talking with baristas and appreciate the human service touch!
But at some point the increasing capabilities of robot baristas (see: SeattleFoodGeek on Instagram) is going to meet up with the labor and cost realities for Starbucks. Why build out a full store in an airport or train station, when one from Crown Coffee or CafeX or Artly (or pick from OttOmate’s full guide to robo-baristas) will be able to operate around the clock?
Or, on a less robotic-y note, we saw Miso Robotics get into automating urn-based coffee service earlier this year. It’s not hard to imagine Starbucks implementing such a service when its coffee is used at convention centers, airport lounges and hotels.
In watching Heimendinger’s video, your first reaction might be look at how slow it is. That’s the first reaction most people have when first encountering a food or beverage robot. But the point isn’t speed at that moment, it’s the consistency and durability. A robot doesn’t need a break and can make coffees or pizza or chocolate chip cookies with the exact same amount of ingredients all day long. Fewer overages, longer uptime.
You get it.
The point is, Starbucks may be starting small with systems to speed up the making of your dragonfruit-rainbow-carmel-mochachino-frappe, but if those systems work, then expect scope creep. That’s just the nature of business. Automation will start working its way into other parts of Starbucks’ processes. And pretty soon you’ve got coffee robots that we can all (SeattleFood) geek out on and they aren’t novel enough to even post to the ‘gram.
Reminder: The most important person in the whole wide world is you.