Singapore-made robot Ella serves up coffee at Tokyo, Yokohama train stations

Ella the robot barista at Tokyo station on Dec 8, 2021. It can brew as many as 200 cups an hour. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

TOKYO - A robot developed by Singapore start-up Crown Digital is now brewing gourmet coffee at two of the busiest railway hubs in Japan, a world leader in robotics technology.

Ella, as the robot barista is known, was launched on Wednesday (Dec 8) at Tokyo and Yokohama stations, which are managed by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East).

JR East is a major investor in Crown Digital, which has its roots as a brick-and-mortar coffee shop founded in 2016 by chief executive officer Keith Tan, 41, before he chose to innovate due to high turnover and manpower costs.

Japan is the first overseas market for the company, and Wednesday's launch comes even ahead of plans to roll out Ella at 30 MRT stations in Singapore.

"We are continuously on the lookout for good innovation both in Japan and around the world," Mr Teruyuki Omote, managing executive officer of JR East, told The Straits Times. "The robotics hardware is one thing, but Keith's unique experience in managing a cafe adds to the appeal of working with Crown Digital."

Ella is undergoing a "test marketing" phase until Feb 28 at both Tokyo and Yokohama stations, after which a decision on market expansion will be made.

Customers order their coffee via a custom-made application and then pick it up by scanning a QR code. A cup of coffee costs from 260 yen (S$3.10) for an Americano, and can be customised with flavourings such as caramel and macadamia nuts.

Ella was conceptualised from a vision to "reinvent lifestyle experiences and add value to our communities through the power of artificial intelligence and robotics", said Mr Tan.

Mr Omote added that the vision dovetails with what JR East hopes to achieve by building "stations for the future" that embrace digital transformation.

"From the point of order to pick-up, the process is fully automated," he said. "With labour costs and manpower shortage a problem, especially in Tokyo station where few employees live nearby, this can resolve a lot of issues."

Mr Tan, who arrived in Japan just before the country effectively shut its borders to non-resident foreigners due to the Omicron coronavirus variant, said he aims to roll out Ella, which can brew as many as 200 cups an hour, to at least 600 places worldwide over the next three years.

He also told ST that proof-of-concept trials should begin next month at Osaka station, run by JR East's sister company JR West.

Ella is undergoing a "test marketing" phase until Feb 28, after which a decision on market expansion will be made. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

He said the start-up had to overcome immense regulatory hurdles to launch in Japan, including stringent stress tests for the Suica mobile payment system. Crown Digital is the first foreign company to have passed such tests.

Mr Tan said Crown Digital is now seeking Series A investor funding, and aiming for an initial public offering around 2024.

He noted the firm's long journey from a humble cafe to a "fully-stack start-up" involved in all aspects of the business from product design to app development to coffee sales.

Notwithstanding its ambitious growth plans, the company continues to wrestle with issues such as attrition, with the start-up culture not for everyone, said Mr Tan.

Singapore's tight labour market has meant that he has had to pay top dollar to keep talent from being prised away by larger conglomerates with deeper pockets, he said.

Mr Tan, who now manages a team of about 30 people including food scientists and tech engineers, said Ella could be refitted to serve cocktails or even dish up ramen.

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