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Meet the new automated barista that can make 120 cups of coffee an hour

People who line up for their early morning coffee may soon be seeing a drastic change in their routine change with the arrival of the baristas at Cafe X. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t get your coffee – only, those from Cafe X can make it under two minutes.

They’re also robot arms.

Cafe X, which describes itself as a”robotic coffee bar,” currently operates in three locations in San Francisco. Stepping into one of its cafes is like going into a science fiction novel: Instead of people, customers are greeted by on-site kiosks where they place their coffee orders (they can also use their phone to order using an app). Their orders are then processed by a robotic arm, which brews and prepares the cup of coffee for pick-up – which it finishes by making a sweeping “ta-da” gesture.

The unit, a six-axis animatronic arm with a hefty $25,000 price tag, is already a fully operational café in itself: Customers are treated to beverage options that range from a standard latte to specialty single-origin blends, which can give some coffee bars a run for its money.

No more long lines?

For inventor Henry Hu, the idea for making Cafe X came to him after being stuck in line for too long to get some coffee. Looking at the bar, he observed that baristas acted similarly to factory workers. “They were moving cups around and pushing buttons,” he added. “[It] made me think, ‘I bet we can build a product that automates these boring tasks way more efficiently.” So, armed with funding from the Theil Fellowship, he and his two friends built the bar prototype from a garage in San Mateo, California. They were able to secure more funding, and after award-winning design group Ammunition was brought on board, something akin to a futuristic coffee maker was born – one that can churn 120 cups of joe in an hour.

The robotic coffee bars are planned on efficiency: Cashless transactions and reduced wait times ensure that a well-made cup of coffee is made quickly and consistently. What this means, according to investor Ben Ling, is that the Cafe X model solves the problem of ordering efficiently. “People, millennials, in particular, don’t want to wait in line,” he continued. “From a user perspective, it’s vastly superior.”

So far, it’s been a lucrative idea: Total funding, to date, is at $7 million. For Jason Calacanis, another investor in the project, having humans make coffee for 10 hours straight is as ludicrous as having a “tollbooth collector sitting in a metal box on a freeway.”

It’s also a way to improve consistency. “Baristas get orders wrong, drink quality is wildly inconsistent, and coffee places don’t keep a record of every customer’s past drink order — but you can do all this with robotics,” he added.

That human touch

From a business perspective, it’s also a great way to reduce cost. A cup of Cafe X sets a person back by only $2.95, which is far less than what he will pay for in other coffee shops that employ humans. One main factor for these prices is automation, Ling said. This allows for more affordable products and services.

However, the people behind Cafe X were quick to quash rumors that the robotic arms are out to replace human baristas. “We’re not trying to replace baristas or that relationship customers have with them,” explained Victoria Slaker, who oversaw the development of the project. She notes that if at all, Cafe X is designed to provide a more beautiful alternative to regular vending machines “that could also pour a mean cup of coffee.”

Besides, Cafe X isn’t bereft of humans: For each location, at least two product specialists are working with the machines and providing customer service. Since the process is already automated, this gives the specialists more time to interact with customers. Future versions of Cafe X, in particular, will carry what’s called a “collaborative mode,” where a specialist will start the order before instructing the robot to finish it.

Still, there’s something inherently facile with the model. For one, it eliminates the social aspect of a coffee shop – something that has been proven to cultivate brand loyalty and a strong clientele relationship. It’s also a new addition to a rapidly growing business model of restaurant automation, a move which could dramatically scale back the number of human workers needed. (Related: Robot replacement begins in fast food industry: Burger flipping robot set to replace humans next year in 50 California restaurants.)

It leaves to be seen whether Cafe X’s claim that their coffee bars are a revolution is the truth or just smokes and mirrors.

Be informed of the latest about the growing automation of the foodservice industry by heading to today.

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