Ella, Robot Barista, Singapore

Hurrairah bin Sohail discovers how Ella, a robot barista, is leading the digital transformation of Crown Digital.

Like it or not, we are all in the technology business. It is just a matter of how we are leveraging technology to provide the service we want to. Crown Digital’s Ella, a robot barista, is an excellent illustration of this point.

Keith Tan, founder and CEO of Crown Digital, says: “Ella started off as a way for us to solve a problem. Crown Digital has been around for five years, and we are a coffee shop. We didn’t start as a technology company. As we grew, we realised that we were facing challenges with manpower. It was hard for us to find talented, dedicated individuals who we could invest in and train to work at Crown Digital. About two and half years ago, I decided we need to find a way to digitise our business, and this is where the story of Ella starts. At first it was just a simple robot and it evolved into the product that we have today.”

So how did a coffee company build its own robot? Tan details: “I created the first prototype of Ella on my own and learned how to program her. Intel’s office is next door to us, and they came to our café. We started talking about my project and they decided to assist on the development and that was the beginning. In January 2019, Ella had been developed to the point where it made sense to have a technical team work on her. Beyond just the robot moving and making coffee, we had the idea to develop a mobile app which could serve as the portal for interaction with users. And now I believe that Ella is the catalyst for the next step of Crown Digital’s journey.”

Tan gives details about Ella’s latest deployment: “The launch of Ella at Plaza Singapura [a popular mall in Singapore] seems like a coming of age for the technology. We have reached a point where the technology and the platform are stable and are able to function autonomously. We’re out in the wild now, serving real customers outside of a controlled environment.”

How does Ella work in action? Tan says: “Ella is contactless, it is essentially a café that has been compressed into a six square metre box. So, we save on rental, and we save on manpower because it is automated. Ella can run 24/7 and at Plaza Singapura she has been operating for the past six months. The entire user experience has been digitised. Users can download an app which they can use to order. They can actually order ahead of time to not queue up, Ella prepares the coffee, they receive an alert notifying them that their order is ready, they accept the order and off they go.”

Building a stable platform and a functioning robot to serve customers was one half of the equation for Crown Digital. The other half was ‘experience’. Tan says: “If there is just a robot at the coffee shop, there are no humans. That raises the question of how do you get the messages across to the customers and build that user experience. In a café, the barista would just communicate these verbally. But with Ella, we had to get creative.”

He continues: “Ella might be a robot barista, but we built the technology stack from a customer-centric point of view. It is more accurately a combination, with a lot of digital content being a core part of it and that is what differentiates us from other competitors. We’re not really aiming to solve a robotics problem, we’re looking to solve a hospitality problem with robotics. We knew we needed a display but there would be a lot of content on it, and it would need a lot of flexibility to showcase the information. And on top of just making sure our customers got the right cues, telling them when their coffee is ready, we wanted to delight them.”

The search for the right display was difficult as Tan elaborates: “We started off looking at transparent LCDs and did a lot of testing with these products. The transparency was important to us because we wanted customers to be able to see the robot serving them. We also looked at transparent LEDs but these got hot after usage. And eventually I came across LG’s transparent OLED displays and that was when I knew that was the solution I was looking for.”

He continues: “I put the call in to LG in Singapore and expressed my interest in the transparent OLED display and was told that the product does not exist! After a few more conversations and explaining the use case for the product I got a call from Jackie. He told me the product was still in the testing phase and not commercially available, but he could secure some units for us, and the rest is history.”

Jackie Jeong, B2B information display product director at LG Electronics Singapore, adds: “This was one of the first applications of LG’s transparent OLED display in the Asian region. The products that we were able to secure for Crown Digital, actually came directly from our R&D centre. The reason LG was willing to go the extra mile for Crown Digital was the fact that the usage is really unique. It is an application that would not be possible without the transparent display. There was also the fact that we had the option of working together to develop something completely new. With this, I was able to persuade HQ to give the greenlight.”

The LG transparent OLED displays have worked like a charm. Tan says: “The display is a central focal point for the experience. Your name and order number are displayed on it and it shows where it is in queue. When the order is ready, it indicates that to the customer. The screen is really evergreen and always in use. To be honest, the robot is a novelty factor. Once you’ve seen it, it starts to get boring. The LG transparent OLED screens and the content they display are really what keep our customers engaged. We’re really using the transparent OLED displays to their full capabilities. The transparency allows people to see the robot in the background, preparing the coffee and moving around. But we can also use it as a traditional display, showcasing information, content or paid advertising and building the user experience.”

Commenting on Crown Digital’s ingenuity, Jeong says: “On LG’s side, when we came up with the idea of the transparent OLED, we were targeting high-end, premium luxury retail. But Crown Digital’s application of it with Ella really showcases the versatility of the product. As a manufacturer, LG’s job is to develop new technology and put it out into the market. And once that is done, the creativity and people is what takes it to the next level.”

Ella is not only serving customers, but she is also having the transformative effect that Tan had aimed for. He concludes: “Ella is really the springboard for the next phase of Crown Digital’s journey. We’re having conversations around ‘commuter coffee’, with transportation companies around the world, and have recently started working with JR East in Japan and Stellar Lifestyle in Singapore. The ability to order in advance and pick up your fresh coffee from Ella and go is something that would work amazingly in Singapore’s MRT system. There are even conversations for using Ella in healthcare. With hospitals having high demand and also stringent health guidelines, having a robot barista that does not tire, can serve coffee 24/7 could be an answer to many challenges.”

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