In 2017, Keith Tan, 40, had four Crown Coffee cafes and was running into all the challenges endemic to the F&B industry – high rent, manpower shortages, the high cost of training and retaining staff as well as difficulties in ensuring consistency. “So I wondered if I could leverage on AI and robotics to solve these problems.” Intel helped him turn his problem statement into a proof of concept and by the end of 2017, a working version of ELLA, Singapore’s first robot barista, materialised.
That first iteration was simple. ELLA’s arm had a camera – linked to a vision system – that helped her move the empty and full
cups at the right time, as well as a stylus so she could place the orders through a basic POS system. Today, Ella is in her very sophisticated sixth iteration. “She’s mature enough to be introduced to the public and is packed with a lot of advanced
technology.” This includes a transparent OLED screen for a personalised experience (your name appears on your order and ELLA
even calls it out when your drink is ready) and facial recognition (she knows her regular customers).
With this first commercial launch, we can expect to see as many as 40 ELLAs over the next 12 months in coffee kiosks all around the island. There are also plans for a regional roll-out, notably for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
Globally, ELLA is not the only robot barista out there. “However, she is the fastest,” Tan says, noting that she is four times quicker than a human barista and can serve 200 cups an hour. Having travelled around the world and participated in over 40 international exhibitions and trade shows, ELLA has also forged a reputation for consistent excellence. “We’ve had feedback that her coffee is the best.” Although Tan has grand plans for ELLA, foreseeing that she will graduate to making bubble tea and eventually food, his vision of the future will always include real chefs. “She will never replace the restaurant experience. Dining will always require that human touch.”