Keith Tan, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Crown Digital, a robotics and coffee startup addressing F&B industry challenges, transitioned from the wealth management sector to pursue entrepreneurship at the age of 35. In 2016, he established Crown Coffee, driven by his passion for coffee and dedication to customers, yet faced obstacles scaling up due to labor shortages, high rents, and quality maintenance issues. An innovative spark ignited when Keith witnessed a robot arm serving croissants at a corporate innovation center, prompting him to embark on a journey of self-taught robotics expertise. By hiring a team of software developers, he founded Crown Digital in 2018, focusing on delivering autonomous, unmanned retail solutions to tackle workforce challenges and optimize F&B operations. Keith aptly named his robotic barista “Ella” and envisioned Ella’s potential to digitally transform F&B businesses, enabling scalability through an IoT ecosystem and engaging consumers through innovative digital touchpoints. Collaborating with his team of tech engineers and coffee enthusiasts.
Keith’s journey with Ella Coffee is a testament to innovative thinking and adaptability. In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, he embraced automation to overcome challenges, streamline operations, and deliver consistent quality. Ella Coffee’s success underscores the potential for technology to revolutionize even the most traditional industries.
CIO World Asia had the privilege of engaging in a conversation with Keith Tan to explore the influence of AI on businesses.
Transforming the F&B Landscape: AI-Driven Automation and Robotics in Action
- From Manual to Tech-Driven
Six years ago, Keith embarked on his journey in the F&B sector, armed with expertise in the FMV (Food, Manufacturing, and Value) domain. He observed that the F&B industry, much like others, heavily depended on manual processes, with automation still in its infancy and only a handful of operators exploring technological innovations. The industry primarily relied on traditional practices, with limited automation seen in self-ordering kiosks. However, Keith and his peers recognized the global imperative for automation due to labor shortages and an aging workforce, extending beyond Singapore and even regions with cheaper labor. They acknowledged that relying solely on inexpensive labor was not a sustainable solution, as managing and training large workforces incurred significant costs and complexities.
- Challenges in the F&B Industry
The journey towards integrating robots into F&B operations represented a monumental leap forward. While a strong desire for automation existed among established F&B operators, the hurdles of legacy processes and resistance to change loomed large. Large corporations attempting digital transformation found themselves ensnared by entrenched systems and management practices, often resulting in failed transformation endeavors. This predicament underscored the need for forward-thinking management.
Keith acknowledges that the F&B industry yearned for automation but grappled with the “how.” Many lacked the requisite long-term vision and investment commitment crucial for a successful transition. Early adopters of cutting-edge AI technology encountered their fair share of challenges, including technical issues and bugs, making the transformation journey a formidable one. The dilemma of whether to wait for technology maturation or embrace it in its infancy added complexity to the decision-making process.
In stark contrast, emerging companies that had already woven AI and robotics into their business fabric enjoyed a higher likelihood of success. They navigated fewer obstacles because they possessed a preexisting mindset attuned to transformative change. Their approach diverged significantly from the traditional operators who carried the heavy baggage of legacy systems.
Challenges and Breakthroughs in Infusing AI into ELLA Coffee
Keith delved into robot programming, an indispensable skill for his venture, as speed to market took precedence in the early stages. Collaborating with those possessing pre-existing solutions, they crafted a rudimentary system from diverse sources to launch their Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Resource constraints loomed large during these initial phases, and the absence of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) compounded the challenges. Keith and his nascent team made educated guesses to define their MVP, driven by the singular goal of delivering it to the world. Despite being relatively unknown as a Singaporean company and operating on a tight budget, they marked a pivotal moment with the formation of their first software engineering team.
As the product grew in strength, so did the demands and complexities. Security concerns emerged, and the responsibilities multiplied. Progress necessitated rapid ideation, testing, and adaptation, cementing a cycle of ideation, failure, and resolution with an unwavering focus on expeditiously overcoming challenges.
For Keith, the journey was especially demanding as a sole founder, requiring adept navigation through financial intricacies, market entry strategies, and team building amidst the ever-changing landscape of a startup. Like the evolution of an individual, ELLA Coffee matured and adapted over time, fostering stability in its direction and architecture.
AI, IoT, and Their Impact on Customer Experiences and Scalability in Crown Digital’s Ecosystem
At the heart of ELLA’s capabilities resides its adaptable 6-axis robot, meticulously designed to prioritize flexibility and ease of reprogramming. Although ELLA’s initial focus centered on coffee and its related beverages, Keith emphasized the robot’s potential to broaden its menu offerings, potentially venturing into the realm of sandwich-making. This inherent adaptability ensures ELLA’s capacity to evolve in tandem with shifting customer preferences and demands.
Keith stressed the importance of not merely relying on the novelty of robotic coffee production but rather placing paramount importance on the quality of the end product. To enrich the user experience, ELLA incorporates a transparent OLED screen boasting 4K resolution, which showcases dynamic content and advertisements. This cutting-edge technology is seamlessly integrated with a content management system, thus providing engaging touchpoints for customers at various stages of their interaction.
The journey of integrating AI and IoT into ELLA’s retail experience was not devoid of challenges, notably in catering to a diverse customer base characterized by varying ages and levels of tech-savviness. Keith underscored the necessity of intuitive user interfaces, ensuring that customers could effortlessly navigate the ordering and customization process, even in the absence of human assistance.
The utilization of computer vision played a pivotal role in securing ELLA’s success, aiding in the detection of anomalies such as spillages and ensuring seamless, around-the-clock operational efficiency. Keith emphasized the critical role of training the vision system to identify irregularities, underscoring the indispensable AI component of their technological infrastructure.
Keith envisions ELLA Coffee as a platform centered on delivering a distinctive and personalized customer experience that fosters customer loyalty. He believes that while AI and IoT technologies are indispensable, their harmonious integration with the human touch is the key to creating a lasting and memorable impact.
Navigating the Dynamic AI Landscape
Amidst the rapidly evolving AI landscape, Keith, the driving force behind ELLA Coffee, is unwavering in his commitment to staying ahead of the curve. His strategy revolves around vigilance and adaptability. He not only acknowledges the constant need for process improvement and product refinement but also keeps a watchful eye on external developments.
As both the face and mind behind his business, Keith remains vigilant not only within but beyond his organization. He closely tracks consumer trends, competitor actions, and emerging technologies, understanding their potential impact on the future of Crown Digital.
Keith’s entrepreneurial journey resembles that of a dedicated researcher and problem solver. His innate curiosity drives him to explore the world, always searching for innovative solutions to the challenges at hand. When something piques his interest, he embarks on thorough research, engaging experts in meaningful dialogues to uncover practical applications.
Efficiency and smart solutions are at the core of Keith’s problem-solving philosophy. Actively seeking tools and emerging tech that expedite solutions, he aims to seamlessly integrate these innovations into ELLA Coffee’s architecture and product development roadmap.
To stay at the forefront of industry trends, Keith maintains a robust network of subscriptions focused on emerging technologies. Amidst the sea of information, he adeptly filters through the noise, identifying technologies and trends poised to reshape the industry..
Understanding AI Five to Ten Years From Now
Keith observed the growing excitement surrounding recent technological advancements, especially with the declining costs of technology, which is making AI-driven solutions more accessible. However, he emphasized that despite these advancements, the development of general AI, capable of autonomous human-like decision-making, remains a work in progress.
For example, in the realm of robot programming, Keith noted that it still involves a laborious process requiring human intervention. Nevertheless, Keith and his team are actively exploring AI-enhanced solutions like reinforcement training, inspired by NVIDIA’s approach. This method involves creating virtual environments where AI learns by navigating scenarios independently, optimizing robotic movements without the need for extensive manual programming.
While Keith acknowledged the promising nature of these AI-driven advancements, he acknowledged their limited adoption. Nevertheless, he anticipates their potential to revolutionize tasks currently reliant on human input, potentially transforming the role of robot engineers.
Yet, Keith stressed a significant challenge: human decision-making is intricate, driven by intuition and experience, which poses a formidable challenge in replicating it through robot coding. To illustrate this complexity, Keith provided examples where humans instinctively react to unexpected situations, a task AI currently struggles with.
Keith emphasized the vital role of humans as adept problem solvers who make real-time decisions, even in seemingly routine situations. He contrasted this innate human ability with AI’s reliance on rule-based approaches, highlighting the differences in adaptability and decision-making.