When Automation Meets Art: How to Find the Right Blend for Your Coffee Roasting Business
If you’re in the business of roasting coffee, then you’re probably used to the subject of automation cropping up every so often. With today’s ever-evolving technology, the idea of automating some part of your coffee business is pretty unavoidable. It’s a somewhat debated topic in the coffee world, so the questions you might get about it from well-meaning friends and customers can feel equally unavoidable. Do any of these inquiries ring a bell?
(Translation: Do you use software to help create your roasting profiles?)
Even though automation in the coffee industry has been around for a good decade, it’s a buzzword that’s getting a fair amount of airplay again. Perfect Daily Grind has covered the topic twice this summer in two well-written and informative articles. In June 2020, roasting software platform Cropster announced their new “Bean Curve Prediction” functionality on their Roasting Intelligence tool. And, showing no signs of slowing down, in March of this year they added AI-driven first crack prediction.
Roaster manufacturers also have skin in the game. Global Coffee Report wrote about automation’s increased interest this time last year, citing Bühler’s pioneering strides with their AI-driven InfinityRoast machines, and Daily Coffee News recently reported that Probat’s new P-III series models will come factory-equipped with full Cropster integration allowing users to monitor and control roasts by plugging in a single cable.
So, why the increased mentions of automation now? An exact explanation may be hard to pinpoint but the interplay of two factors comes to mind:
Machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are always evolving, and the coffee industry is not exempt from these offerings to improve every aspect of your business. If you’re striving to improve efficiencies, streamline operations, or create a consistent product, chances are there’s an automated solution to help.
- Unknowns abound in the continued global pandemic, resulting in a tendency by any business owner to control what you can in your own environment. Just look at the booming business of home organizing over the past year for evidence of how we seek to gain control of our immediate worlds in the midst of uncertainty. For the coffee businesses that have been able to survive the pandemic, it’s definitely been a time of getting one’s house in order.
When you combine these two factors, it’s easy to see why automation has once again bubbled to the surface as a conversation starter — and an opinion divider, depending on who you ask.
At CoffeeTec, we’ve watched over the years how automation in its many forms has impacted the coffee industry, from crop to consumer. And, as we work hard to match sellers’ used roasters to new buyers (with many of you in small- to mid-sized shops), we know that automated functionality may not be your first requirement in a used roaster purchase from CoffeeTec.
Still, since we bring a consultative approach to every client interaction, we want to share our insights on the subject of automation so that you can make informed decisions about how to apply it to your business processes. We’ll take a quick look what automation means, review a few benefits and implications, and suggest how you can best decide what kind (if any) of automation is best for you and your coffee roasting business.
What Exactly Is Automation in the Coffee Roasting Industry?
In simple terms, automation is a term for technology applications where human input is minimized. In your own home, think of TV remotes, smart plugs, and Alexa.
In the business of consumer goods and customer service (and coffee has its foot in both), automated processes allow for producers to create a consistent, repeatable, scalable product more efficiently and economically. Consumers demand efficiency and consistency, and it benefits a company’s branding and bottom line.
The concept sounds like a good thing to most people, and if you run a coffee business, it’s likely you’ve adopted automated processes at various levels in your shop — from inventory management, to order tracking, payment processing, storage solutions, and more.
There’s no denying that machine learning and AI aspects of automation provide access to data, and analyzing data points across various segments of your business can help you create more accurate and effective solutions.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for coffee roasteries and cafes to harness this data to automate as many business processes as possible in order to free up time to focus on the highly manual art and craft of roasting.
But with automation’s increasing presence in the coffee industry, opportunities abound to integrate automation into the more “artful” aspects of your coffee business, including automated solutions for coffee production, processing, roasting, and brewing. And, this automation usually falls into one of two camps: mechanical automation, and software and profiling automation.
Mechanical automation refers to the logistical processes involved in coffee roasting. This can include green bean loading, cooling, discharging, destoning, conveying, packaging, and other functions. It logically follows that the larger the shop, the more reliant it will be on automated, digitally controlled processes to keep up with production volume.
Software and profiling automation is an altogether different animal, and this is where most opinions about automation’s role in coffee come into play — and for good reason, because this speaks to the heart and soul of coffee production.
Software profiling systems like Cropster or Artisan may come to mind, and the former has had an influential impact on the art of coffee making going all the way back to the farm. If you’ve been in the coffee business long enough, then you’re probably aware that Cropster’s first product back in 2009 was a data-management app for farmers to track everything from soil nutrients to bean harvesting and processing.
Over time, Cropster started to build tools for other parts of the coffee supply chain, including an app for importers and exporters to manage inventories and monitor bean quality, a “hub” to connect traders with farmers, and eventually roast profiling software to help roasters manage everything from temperature and timing of the roast to assessing and cataloging flavor profiles.
In the name of continuous improvement (and competition), roaster manufacturers have started building more automated functionality into their machines, resulting in more options, but also more complexity. This two-minute video showing Loring’s automated features is a fun watch that demonstrates just how slick the end-to-end process can be — if that’s what you’re aiming for.
And therein lies the question: What exactly are you aiming for? Just how much automation do you really need to keep your coffee business running the way you want it to? Let’s take a look at a few benefits and implications to help you make that decision.Coffee Roasting Automation: Benefits and Implications
With the inevitability of human error, manual batch roasting makes it challenging to recreate and repeat profiles to get the same flavor from the bean each time. With both mechanical and software automation, the number of variables that can affect the quality of roasted coffee can be minimized.
Capability to Multi-Task
Removing some of the steps in the production process can free up time, space, and sometimes even money, allowing you the opportunity to switch your focus to other perhaps overlooked parts of the business. This can include getting on top of your administrative processes, creating a new inventory control plan, launching a new staff or barista training program, and other tasks.
Automation can help you save time that might allow you to invest in customer engagement and satisfaction, whether that’s increasing your marketing efforts to attract new customers, creating a customer recognition and retention program, or even just engaging customers who visit your space. When you have a strong automation process that you trust in place, you gain some freedom to take a bit more time to chat with your customers and give them your undivided attention.
We’ll address this in more detail in the next section, but the fact that automation may not be readily embraced by the coffee roasting community can be viewed as a good thing — and an even-handed assessment can help.
The topic of how automation is impacting the service industry is a big one. After all, automating some functions might come at the expense of job losses or adjustments for staff — and only you can determine your comfort level with that based on your business mission, goals, and priorities.
Looking beyond your specific business processes to the industry as a whole, it’s no easy task to predict how automation will impact the business and art of roasting coffee of the next decade or more. At any rate, it’s clear that we’ll have more data available to us than ever before, either leaving you free to diversify, or allowing you to choose just how much to keep things the same.
Coffee Roasting Automation: What’s Best For You?
We’ve laid out some simple facts for you about what automation is, why it’s being talked about more, and called out some benefits and implications. Now, let’s address what you do with this information as it applies to influencing the art, science, and craft of your roasting business.
Because we do believe that roasting coffee is an art, it might help to consider how technology has impacted the life of a graphic or visual artist. Over the past 30 years (as a reference point, Adobe Photoshop was created in 1987), technology has helped to broaden the horizons of an artist’s creativity while also limiting the problems or limitations they might encounter. Technology and automated processes have made art production a lot less demanding, giving artists more time to contemplate and expand their creativity. And, when placed in the hands of a talented and capable artist, this is a serious win for art.
This same line of thought can make technology and automation a win for the art (and science) of coffee roasting — when placed in the hands of a talented and capable roastmaster.
We called on CoffeeTec’s VP of Engineering, Nick Holman, to weigh in on this topic:
“More than anything, it’s important to assess your business needs when deciding how far to go with automation, particularly when considering the roasting process. Some roasters are designed to be operated manually and rely on the roastmaster’s skill-based upon the senses and experience. Any variations in the green bean input (moisture, etc.) are taken care of by minute adjustments to temperature, airflow, roast time, and so forth.”
“Many of the world’s best-recognized roastmasters will tell you that ‘The Bean is King.’ Nevertheless, automation has a big role to play. A correctly designed and set-up system enables good repeatability between batches and different operators. It can reduce or completely obviate the need for a skilled operator. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning eventually come at a price. While new and advanced roasting machines come armed with many sensors and actuators in order to be able to perform automated functions, the complexity of the machine increases.
In situations where it is desired to make a consistent product day in day out, year in year out, then automation is most desirable. Still, only you can decide how you implement automation into your roasting processes, especially if you’re a smaller coffee roastery or cafe operation.”
To wrap things up, we turn to another analogy. As we all know, the pharmaceutical industry requires an incredibly high level of quality control, including FDA approval, absolute consistency, and zero room for discrepancy. Automation is essential to remove any form of human error when dealing with mass-produced medications on a global level.
But outside of large-scale industrial coffee production, this is not how most of the coffee roasting industry works. Yes, you can put a pharma-grade control system on a coffee roaster or plant. And, yes, this would ensure 100% repeatability.
The coffee business deals with a natural product, and the variation that ensues from roasting all the glorious incarnations and varietals of it is what makes it fun. Still, as our own Nick Holman points out, there is a place for automation to the extent that it benefits your business and your coffee product(s).
How CoffeeTec Can Help
So, where are we landing with this? At the end of the day, we view the use of automation as a both/and versus an either/or approach. In the right roaster’s hands, it can completely transform your business for the better. But deciding what this looks like can be a challenge, so we’re here to help.
While we may be “the largest online coffee equipment marketplace since 1972,” our main priority is to empower, educate, and equip you with the tools you need to build the roastery or coffee business of your dreams. So, if you’re wondering how to implement automation in your coffee roastery, cafe, or business, please contact us for a consultation.
We’ve always got a rotating selection of used and new equipment, and we take time to understand what you’re looking for to keep your roastery running. We can also advise on your roastery plans and logistics in light of pandemic supply chain disruptions. Or, perhaps you’re looking to sell and move into some different equipment.
We also offer financing through our competitive Roaster’s Choice Lending Program. Finally, feel free to explore our FAQs, and if you still don’t have answers to your questions, contact us. Let’s help you build the coffee roastery of your dreams — and with just the right level of automation that’s right for you.