July 22, 2021

How is automation shaping the coffee industry?


Third wave coffee culture has become synonymous with the craft of making coffee – phrases like “hand-roasted” or “brewed by hand” are commonly used to market coffee itself and café beverages.

As such, some might view the increasing presence of automation in the coffee industry to be at odds with the “art” of making coffee – whether that’s in production, processing, roasting, or brewing.

For many businesses, automation is inevitable. Today’s consumers demand efficiency and consistency in all walks of life, including in the food they eat and the coffee they drink. But which processes has the coffee sector automated? And what will this change for producers, roasters, baristas, and consumers? 

To learn more, I spoke with four coffee professionals across the supply chain. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article exploring automation in coffee roasting.

barista preparing coffee with batch brewers

Why is automation in coffee becoming so prevalent?

In 2019, UCC Coffee surveyed out-of-home coffee consumers in the UK and asked what they expected from coffee shops. Eight out of ten respondents told them consistency was the most important factor when visiting a café.

Across the coffee supply chain, from production and roasting to brewing, consistency has become more and more important over the years.

David Walsh is Head of Research & Development at Marco Beverage Systems, a company that designs, manufactures, and sells automated coffee brewing and water supply systems. 

“There’s an implicit (and sometimes explicit) promise with a manual pour over coffee offering,” he says. “It often promises quality, but when human error and consistency come into play, the result can sometimes be disappointing.

“In most culinary fields you create a recipe, refine it, perfect it; after that, you want to replicate it. Automation, to some degree, can take care of that part.”

When customers can pay anywhere around US $3 for a pour over coffee, for instance, consistent quality becomes key to consumer satisfaction.

Matthew Jones is the founder of Robo Esso, a contactless automated coffee shop in Colorado, which “employs” robot baristas.

“Tasks that are repetitive and demand consistency are ripe for automation,” he says. “Combine [that] with coffee’s popularity and you get to where we are now.”

But automation isn’t only growing in the café market. At the other end of the supply chain, coffee producers have started to adopt automation across the board. We can see this with mechanised harvesting in places like Brazil and Vietnam, but it goes much further than that.

Felipe Ayerbe is the CEO and founder of Demetria, an agritech start-up that is pioneering the world’s first AI-driven green coffee quality analysis system.

“Cupping is inaccessible to the vast majority of the 12.5 million smallholder farmers who produce 60% of the world’s coffee beans,” Felipe says. “This means they often cannot determine or manage the quality of their crop, and many are unable to earn a reliable living.

“Only later in the process, when beans pass through an extensive and complex supply chain that incorporates traders, processors and exporters, is quality determined. Consequently, farmers receive on average just 2.5% (US $0.07) from a cup of coffee retailing at US $2.80.”

WIth a system like Demetria’s, producers leverage automation to understand more about the quality of their crop, which in turn can help them improve the price they are paid for their beans.

marco sp9 preparing pour over coffee

Cafés, roasters & automation

Over the past few years, the coffee shop market has seen no shortage of automation. For the most part, this has been part of a push to improve consistency and minimise the amount of time baristas spend on manual tasks. 

However, it can also improve other aspects of a barista’s work, such as mitigating continuous movements that could cause repetitive strain injuries (RSI), for instance.

Automated tampers and steam wands (like PuqPress and Übermilk, respectively) don’t just eliminate the repetitive movements involved with tamping and steaming milk. They also improve consistency for espresso extraction and milk texturing. This can be especially helpful for new or less experienced baristas.

Furthermore, for more experienced baristas, automation can provide more time for customer interaction, a key part of the coffee shop experience, while still helping to deliver great-tasting coffee.

David tells me that this has been the driving force behind two Marco products: the SP9 precision coffee brewer, and the Ottomatic filter coffee maker.

“The SP9 allows baristas to focus on getting the recipes right and the coffee dialed in,” David says. “Instead of hand-pouring, they can interact with customers or perform other tasks.”

The single-serve pour over brewer requires minimal attention. Baristas turn the SP9 on, stir during the bloom, and are notified once extraction is complete. This gives them more time to focus on other tasks, which is especially useful during busy rushes.

“I’ve been to plenty of coffee shops who wouldn’t do pour overs for customers during peak times,” David says. “I think with the SP9, they could.”

Convenience and consistency isn’t just suitable for baristas, however; home consumers can also benefit. 

“Marco saw that a lot of the automatic filter coffee machines on the domestic market struggled with consistency,” David says. “It was usually either a case of too low a flow rate or a poor spray head design.

“The Ottomatic sought to address even wetting and turbulence within the filter coffee bed”. The automated brewer, designed in partnership with CHEMEX, allows home and office consumers to preset their brewing variables to produce high-quality coffee with minimal interaction.

For roasters, there is a similar focus on consistency. Often this comes in the form of increasing batch-to-batch consistency through replication and automation

But beyond batch consistency, AI and machine learning are also being leveraged by roasters. They can help them experiment and pinpoint a perfect roast profile.

In March 2021, for example, software developer Cropster announced AI-driven first crack prediction would be coming to their platform. This functionality allows roasters to better understand profile development to bring the best out of each batch.

using an app and smart device to measure green bean water content

How is automation changing things for coffee producers?

Automation in the coffee industry is generally associated with cafés and consumers. But what about coffee production?

Well, automation is by no means a novel concept for coffee producers. Farmers in Brazil adopted mechanical harvesting techniques as far back as the 1960s to better cope with rising levels of production.

Paulo Siqueira is the co-owner of Fazenda Terra Alta in Minas Gerais, Brazil, which produces around 11,000 60kg bags every year.

“We use a lot of mechanisation [on] the farm today, in almost all activities,” he says. “Some of the machines, like the mechanical harvesters, have a lot of on-board electronics (arrays of cameras, GPS, harvest monitoring systems, [for example]) and some tasks can be fully automated, like irrigation.

“We currently use [machines] to apply fertilisers, electronic sorters to identify and remove defective beans before export, automated irrigation control systems, weather stations, mechanical dryer temperature control, and fermentation temperature control. We’ve also been working on our coffee turning robot, but that’s still in [the] early prototype phase.”

In coffee production, automation is broadly used to reduce labour costs and provide producers with more time during harvesting and processing. However, AI technology can also help farmers understand more about the quality of their coffee.

“We use near infrared (NIR) sensors to read the spectral fingerprint of green coffee beans,” Felipe explains. “The different colours and wavelengths of the light spectrum react differently to each organic compound in the coffee.

“With all the data gathered from the NIR readings, plus the cupping data, we can calibrate the AI to match a specific spectral fingerprint to a clear taste profile.”

This technology can give smallholder farmers with limited access to cupping equipment more quantifiable insights into their coffee quality, potentially helping them receive higher prices.

robotic arm alongside a superautomatic coffee machine

What does this mean for the coffee sector workforce?

“Technology has allowed us to increase productivity, reduce costs, produce better coffee, and move from mostly manual to more skilled [and] better paid labour,” Paulo says. 

Despite his high praise, however, there is a widely-held belief that with increased automation comes widespread job losses. If manual labourers can be replaced by robots and machines that can carry tasks out more efficiently, then there is naturally a concern about the future of the coffee sector’s workforce.

In 2017, a report by McKinsey found that just under 5% of all global occupations have the capacity to become fully automated. Together, they encompass some 15% of all global activities carried out in every industry.

There’s no doubt that increasing automation would certainly have its effects on the coffee sector. However, this would more translate to a change in job descriptions and day-to-day tasks.

Felipe says: “Demetria means better use of cuppers’ time and skills, saving them for high value tasks, [such as] identifying high quality coffee.”

For the café market, Matthew believes that baristas would also have a lot to gain from increased automation, as opposed to being replaced by robots that can also easily make coffee:

“You’ll have higher wages and better benefits. I can see automation ending the tipping culture and pay starting [for] baristas [at] US $20 to $25 an hour, for instance. 

“Automation allows baristas to be more human, do what they do best, and build relationships with customers while the robot does the work.”

Finally, David notes that the barista’s intuition still remains a critical factor for the consumer experience.

“It remains the responsibility of the barista to choose the right bean, the grind, the brew time and so on,” he says

marco ottomatic brewer alongside a chemex

Embracing the future of automation

Despite the uncertainty that automation and AI might create for the human-driven aspects of the coffee industry, there is no doubt that a more automated future is inevitable in the coffee sector.

“AI drives transparency and efficiency across the coffee value chain,” Felipe says. “It benefits all players. It is needed to ensure the sustainability of farmers’ livelihoods and we believe it will also play a role in incentivising continuity for the next generation of farmers.”

An example of this is using drones to map climatic data on coffee farms. Reports have shown that in 10 minutes, drones can gather this data with a 93% accuracy rate, whereas farmers would have to spend hours gathering similar data on foot.

“I believe automation is a way [to] bring better jobs to the farm and provide a better future for coffee growing families,” Paulo says.

He also notes that more higher-quality training will support coffee professionals to work better with technology.

“Humans need training and education to fully benefit from automation,” he says. “I’ve seen many growers jump to adopt some solution they don’t fully understand, just to find out they are locked in a contract with a product that doesn’t deliver what they expected.”

Matthew, however, thinks we already have the ability to easily embrace and collaborate with automation and AI. “Coffee professionals can learn that robots don’t replace us,” he says. “Instead, they help us deliver a better product.”

Rather than meaning we lose the human elements of coffee brewing, roasting, and growing, he says automation can help us improve our skills and knowledge to drive the sector forward.

David concludes by saying: “The appreciation and proliferation of specialty coffee is the genesis of it all. The availability and understanding of great coffee has never been better.”

measuring moisture content in green coffee

In today’s world, technological change is inevitable. While automation might mean some manual tasks are taken away from human workers, many believe that it should be accepted, rather than met with concern and trepidation. It will undoubtedly mean that jobs in the coffee sector will change, but it’s likely that it will make them easier, rather than obsolete.

Ultimately, automation and AI can help stakeholders across the industry maximise coffee quality, perform their jobs more easily, and drive a more sustainable future.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how espresso machines have changed in the 21st century.

Photo credits: Marco Beverage Systems, Robo Esso, Demetria

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Marco Beverage Systems is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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