Automation and coffee packaging: A match made in heaven? 

Janice Kanniah
December 18, 2023
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Third wave coffee culture has become synonymous with the craft of making coffee. Phrases such as “hand-roasted” or “brewed by hand” are often used to market coffee and café beverages. As such, some might view the increasing presence of automation in the industry to be at odds with the “art” of making coffee, whether that’s in production, processing,roasting, brewing, or coffee packaging.

That said, automation has high appeal for most of the food and beverage industry supply chain. For instance, food automation equipment can integrate control systems, sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Beyond this, it can encompass processing, packaging, and sorting. 

Automation can help businesses improve efficiency and quality control while ensuring they remain compliant with rapidly developing health and safety regulations. Furthermore, they can help create a more sustainable and traceable product, particularly when combined with sustainable coffee packaging. It’s unsurprising, then, that the food automation market is set to reach nearly $20.5 billion by 2029.

The specialty coffee supply chain is notoriously longer and more complex than many other beverages, making it ripe for innovation through automation. To find out more about what this could look like, we spoke to Neil Maree, the CEO and Founder of Genio Roasters in South Africa. 

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A brief history of specialty coffee and automation 

To be classified as ‘specialty’, coffee beans must meet a set of highly specific quality standards that machines are yet to detect automatically. Additionally, specialty coffee is often harvested in small lots – situations where it would be uneconomical to involve costly machinery. As a result, the majority of specialty coffee production and processing remains manual. 

Once producers harvest, sort, process, and sell green beans, they are roasted. In the past, coffee roasters relied on manual cylindrical roasters. As industrialisation, technology, and equipment developed, fluid bed and drum roasters became the equipment of choice. 

Today, many coffee roasters use equipment powered by electricity as it produces fewer emissions and allows for more control over roasting variables. These machines also typically feature advanced heat management systems that allow users to adjust convection, radiation, and conduction to ensure stability and develop specific roast profiles. 

Notably, some already include some form of automation. Neil, who has worked in the coffee roasting industry for over 10 years, explains that, in the past, being able to open and close the roaster door at the touch of a button counted as automation. Now, it’s viewed as a mechanism. 

He defines automation as “assisting the operator by sequencing various systems to open or close, and actuate and modulate various systems at the same time.” 

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How automation impacts roasting and packaging

“When I started my career in coffee roaster design in 2010, automation was a luxury that few could afford,” Neil explains. “Thirteen years later, it’s a part of everyday life and has become more accessible and affordable. Automation is now an expectation, and even a requirement – not a luxury.”

He explains that automated models like the Genio Evolution “take the mental load off of the operator, allowing them to focus on roast parameters instead of physically operating the machine. 

“This isn’t a nice-to-have either,” he is quick to add. “As operators delve more into the finer points of roasting- and heat-transfer science, they seek more data into the roast.” The machine also allows for multiple simultaneous actions which would have had to be done manually. 

For example, Neil explains that at the end of the roast, the machine can now automatically open the drop door, start the cooling fan, and measure the temperature of the coffee. Beyond this, it can drop the beans into a receptacle when it reaches an appropriate temperature for weighing, and close the drop door. Finally, it will log the roast’s final temperature and weight, and upload that information to the cloud. 

Once this is done, it brings itself back up to the appropriate temperature to prepare for the next batch of coffee. Furthermore, it presents all the necessary information to the operator using lights, sounds, and on-screen displays.

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Why introduce automation into your roasting and coffee packaging process? 

Coffee roasters who are on the fence about introducing more automation into their roasting processes or upgrading their equipment may be wondering exactly what benefits it offers over their current setup. Some feel that automation contradicts specialty coffee production’s founding principles of artisanry and craftsmanship, which provide a personal and humanised touch to the process. 

Neil says with automation, “the operator makes fewer mistakes. The focus is on the roast profile instead of the operation of the machine, and roasteries can collect more consistent roasting data without human error. Overall, it’s better for consistency.”

However, he cautions that there can be drawbacks. “There are disadvantages to automation too,” he says. “This includes higher maintenance costs and more complex machinery. Automating the operation of the machine also forces the operator to follow certain procedures. These can be good for the business, but may frustrate the user if they want to do something out of sequence.”

He also admits he wishes “we had incorporated these systems from the beginning instead of implementing them at a later stage. Software is only as good as your team’s adoption thereof. You may have the best systems in place, but if no one uses them, they quickly become expensive white elephants.”

Experts agree that automation can help produce more accurate sample roasts to help coffee roasters assess a coffee’s characteristics and defects without investing in an entire roast.  

Once a roast profile has been finalised, automation can also help coffee roasters improve their roast consistency, which is helpful when roasting across several locations or supplying many customers or coffee shop branches with coffee. Finally, those wanting to scale up a batch of coffee can do so with more assurance of the result’s quality. 

Automation can also make packaging the final product easier, more efficient, and much faster. By filling coffee bags faster, brands can fill orders swiftly and be prepared for large volumes. 

It’s undeniable that today’s specialty coffee audience demands that brands prioritise speed and consistency without compromising on quality or a personal touch. 

Neil recommends that coffee roasters familiarise themselves with automation. Furthermore, he says they “shouldn’t be scared of letting go of some parts of your process as you will soon find that you can now focus on more important things. Automation is here to stay, and the next step is AI.”

Regardless of whether full roasting automation is currently feasible for your operations, you can always start small by automating your packaging processes and allowing MTPak Coffee to manage it from beginning to end for you.

Contact us for more information on how to automate your coffee packaging process. 

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