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The future of automation

UCC Coffee UK & Ireland has analysed the increasing role of automation in coffee and how consumers feel about it.

From self-driving cars to human-free production lines, automation is spreading across multiple industries and coffee is no exception.

As super-automatic espresso machines become more advanced, speculation continues to grow around the future role of the barista in coffee production. However, this customer-facing career is not the only link in the supply chain automation is impacting. Some farmers are using machines to harvest their crops and roasters are taking advantage of advanced equipment to repeat set profiles.

To understand how automation is changing the coffee industry and discover what groundwork has been laid for future technology, UCC Coffee UK & Ireland has conducted a study and released a comprehensive report titled The Future of Automation.

“Not many people in the coffee industry have looked at automation in a celebratory fashion or in terms of how good it can be,” says Phil Smith, Head of Category and Insight at UCC Coffee UK & Ireland.

“This paper let us explore how not only the coffee machine but how automation is changing the face of coffee.”

At the farm level, new technology is providing smallholder producers with greater access to information. According to the report, in Africa, drones gather farming data with 93 per cent accuracy, collecting the same amount of geographical information in 10 minutes that would take farmers eight hours on foot.

Automation has also been implemented in the production of coffee machines and equipment. Opening in 2020, Swiss manufacturer Thermoplan’s fully automated shuttle warehouse in Switzerland will ensure production parts automatically flow from the warehouse to assembly workstations around the site.

One hundred high-performance robots will work simultaneously to produce machines, covering approximately seven kilometres of automated conveyor technology within the warehouse and one kilometre outside.

Once the super-automatic machines like the Thermoplan Black&White4 are delivered to the coffeeshop, they provide their users with benefits including higher consistency and increased access to information.

“A challenge businesses face when they produce large amounts of coffee is achieving consistency time after time. With automatic coffee machines, you’re going to get that consistency,” Smith says. “You can then concentrate on selling the coffee rather than making it.”

The Future of Automation states advanced equipment can use telemetry systems to ease the day-to-day operation of coffee machines by collecting and utilising service operations data. This offers benefits such as preventative maintenance alerts, real-time performance analysis, remotely implemented system updates, and minimal wastage.

Gemma Andrew, Service Operations Manager at UCC Coffee UK & Ireland, says technology in service is only going to get smarter.

“Several new telemetry features are currently in testing stages, [to be] available in 2020,” Andrew says.

“Future telemetry will also be used as an engagement and marketing tool. From November 2019, operators [can] ‘push’ messages to consumers’ devices, such as targeted marketing, offers, and videos.”

Smith says although there is an idea that increased automation could have a negative effect on the customer experience, it actually provides benefits that can enhance it.

“Coffee is an experience, not a commodity. We need to be careful not to lose sight of that. Automation frees up staff to interact with customers, sell up wherever they can, and give a more human service than they would keeping their back to the customer while operating a traditional machine,” he says.

Super-automatic manufacturers are not the only ones in the industry introducing automation to their models. Nuova Simonelli in particular has introduced features to its machines that minimise human error and increase ease of use.

This includes automatic purging of the group head, a step the report states baristas often forget, and Easy Cream to ensure consistency of milk quality. Other equipment such as Puqpress’ automatic tamping device reduce variations and increase consistency in taste and quality.

“There’s always going to be a role for the barista, but it will become more about customer service and not just making coffee,” Smith says.

“Barista-style coffee shops are very different to places where coffee is really on the rise – pubs and bars, restaurants, fast food chains – where employing a barista solely to make coffee doesn’t fit in their wage costs. Consumers want a good cup of coffee, and automation will not only guarantee that, but can do it consistently wherever they are.”

Turning from the barista to the customer, the report states ordering and delivery are being reimagined to be more convenient than ever before. Coffee brands such as Dunkin’, Starbucks, and Luckin Coffee are exploring new delivery methods, and in 2018, IBM patented a drone to deliver coffee to offices. Smith says in the future, automated delivery could go beyond simply dropping off an order to include coffee cup recycling pickups or customer feedback via voice recordings.

“In the Asian markets, for example, delivery is really at the forefront of coffee service. The delivery side of automation is going to be critical going forward, whether that’s by drone or some method not even thought of yet,” he says.

To discover how customers perceive the role of automation in coffee, UCC Coffee surveyed 2000 UK consumers on what they expect when drinking coffee out of home.

The survey found that convenience and efficiency were the most important factors in the consumers’ coffee-buying practices. Eight in 10 consumers expect consistency across all sites of a coffee chain and 72 per cent expect to pay less than £2.99 (about US$3.90) for a good quality coffee.

Seeing a queue puts 68 per cent of people off ordering coffee and if a machine is out of order, 61 per cent are less likely to return to that venue in future.

The survey found half of its respondents would be happy to serve themselves from a bean-to-cup machine in a coffee shop, while 44 per cent would rather use a bean-to-cup machine than be served from a traditional machine if it meant they did not have to queue.

“Customers will only queue for about three minutes before they start getting grumbly or are not happy with the service,” Smith says. “They will use self-serve fully automatic machines to avoid queueing and it provides a second station where you can generate income in a high footfall location.”

With no shortage of coffee options, Smith says customers can afford to be selective, and automation can make it easier for operators to meet their demands with speed, consistency, and price.

“What the survey shows is that any kind of stigma over bean-to-cup machines from a consumer perspective really is something in the past,” Smith says.

“Consumers now fully understand that the coffee they get from an automatic machine is a good quality, and it’s almost like a seal of approval that automation can help businesses going forward.”

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