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Ella, Singapore’s AI-powered robotic barista, reports for duty at Crown Coffee

Crown Digital CEO and founder Keith Tan: “The world was talking about digital transformation, so I thought the industry needs to reinvent itself.”

Ella, Singapore’s AI-powered robotic barista, reports for duty at Crown Coffee
Crown Digital

Ella can prepare 200 cups of coffee an hour, but she isn’t exactly employee of the month. She’s Crown Coffee’s robotic barista, which can work four times faster than a human.

Launched recently by Crown Digital, the contactless, fully autonomous cafe may seem, at first glance, unnecessarily complicated a system for retailing beverages, but the technology employed and its applications hold promise. 

For one, Ella isn’t just an articulated arm that whisks cups from coffee dispenser to coffee consumer with flourish; the system comprises those dispensers, as well as the accompanying ordering system, mobile app and e-wallet. Instead of powdered premixes, Ella stores roasted beans and milk to prepare coffee fresh. If users link their social media account to the mobile app, Ella can remember their drink preferences and announce their order by name. And when drinks are ready for collection, scanning the QR code on the order slip ensures only a specific pigeonhole opens, doing away with order mix-ups. 

Crown Digital

“This system came from our pain points, and it is an end-to-end solution, handling ordering and preparation and delivery,” says Crown Digital CEO and founder Keith Tan. “We already use a fully automated coffee machine in the shop (Crown Coffee’s non-robotic cafe, on the same premises) … What we’ve done is integrate that with a payments system and a robot, and we created Ella. She fulfills that grab-and-go market, which is relatively untapped.” The company designed Ella to be deployed at busy locations where speed, coffee quality, convenience and cost are valued — airports, transportation hubs, convention venues and more. 

With its name possibly inspired by the hook of Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Umbrella” — “I wanted a name that’s easy for anyone around the world to recognize, something two-syllable and hip, and it came to me: Ella. Maybe because the Rihanna song was ringing,” Tan recounts — the system has taken about $4 million and six iterations to develop. By now, it has served coffee at more than 40 international events, travelled to Sydney and New York, and poured teh tarik at the Asean summit in November 2018. 

  • Crown Digital
  • Crown Digital

Formerly an independent asset manager, Tan left the finance industry four years ago and launched Crown Coffee. That’s when he learned about problems the F&B industry face: rental, labor costs, cost of training and upskilling, and consistency of the product when there’s a high turnover of staff. 

“I was from a different industry when I came in, and I thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this,” Tan says. “Through coffee I met a lot of tech guys (whose offices were located nearby). The world was talking about digital transformation, so I thought the industry needs to reinvent itself, and I wondered, can I leverage on AI and robotics and data to digitize this business?”

Read on for Tan’s take on the possibilities Ella represents.

Keith TanCrown Digital

What’s the benefit of including an articulated arm, instead of letting customers access the drink dispensers themselves? 

If you ordered an iced caramel latte, you would have to pick up a cup, fill it with ice, and add the caramel syrup followed by the latte. Allowing end users to sort that out themselves will be a mess, and if they touch the machines, sanitation becomes an issue. With Ella, all that takes place within the system. And when you consider the speed at which mobile orders are coming in, this system won’t mix up the orders. 

Ella’s capabilities can further be developed, beyond just coffee and tea. We’ve built the foundation — the payments system, mobile app, POS system, ordering system — and with an articulated arm she can be repurposed for other use cases. Eventually, with more R&D, we’ll look into other types of food, for example, such as teas and soft serve ice cream. 

Will Ella be used in applications beyond food?

Absolutely. With just coffee, tea and fast food in food service, that market is huge. And since Ella is interactive with the end users, you never know, it could go into health in the future, because through dealing with food, we will gain experience in the human–robot interface. So I think Crown Digital will evolve. 

Now that Crown Group has the digital division and it has also ventured into e-commerce, are there plans to expand these pillars as standalone businesses under the group, independent of F&B applications? 

We are already working on cross-selling lifestyle products, such as financial products, and that will be unveiled soon. We have partnerships with Standard Chartered Bank, so when consumers top up their e-wallets, they get extra bonus points and credits, and this is where our system will be able to do onboarding of credit card users. We could explore insurance too. Suppose you buy coffee from Ella at an airport before a trip and you haven’t gotten your travel insurance, we could onboard you on the spot. It’s like Grab: through mobility, it went into insurance and financial services. Coffee and tea are “sticky” — you drink them every day — so there are cross-selling opportunities, and that’s how we envision the app ecosystem will continue to evolve. 

Crown Digital

How has working in finance benefited your move into F&B and tech? 

I jumped into the coffee business and I realised its challenges, and thank goodness I had been from a different industry, so I could look at it through another lens. I thought I had missed the boat on technology: I hadn’t studied coding in school and I had no experience in the field, while the world was going digital and developing AI. I told myself that if I had a chance to get into technology, I’d do it in a heartbeat. 

What I bring to the table is probably the will to solve the industry problem. First of all, you need a concept and a viable business model, and that’s something I’m strong in. I identified the problems and the solutions for them, and I got the team to solve them. On some level, I do understand [how the technology can be pieced together], and that may be related to an engineering mindset, because my passion and hobby is to build and tweak car engines. 

What’s a challenge that Ella still faces?

For a startup in Singapore, funding is tough. I’ve taken a crazy huge risk to put this together. We’re in our funding round, and I think we’ve shown the world what we can do, so we need support to scale this out of Singapore. The addressable market here is small, but it’s a great place as a proof of concept, to show what can be done here, and then replicate it around the world.

Find Ella at #01-25 CT Hub 2, 114 Lavender St

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