Makers follow passion pursuits. Coffee lovers chase the perfect cup. Between the two there’s not much difference when you hear the story of Mark Sibenac and Stuart Heys who, in their pursuit of great coffee, applied their engineering skills to build a coffee-making robot. And a great cup of coffee it makes!
Stuart and Mark had been friends since they were both studying at CMU. Stuart is a Mechanical Engineer and Mark is an Electrical Engineer, skill sets that nicely compliment each other for maker projects, and they enjoy working together. While by day they worked on mobile robots projects for Mars research, in their off hours they conspired on ideas of working on projects that got the public involved.
Their first collaboration was a bike light called Blink Steady. The electronics were built by Mark and the housing was machined by Stuart in his Brooklyn workshop. So far they’ve fulfilled their Kickstarter sales of 750 units and they’ve gone on to sell another 750 since the campaign ended. The point here is that they work together well, they compliment each other, and they have the talent to fabricate their hardware innovations here in the U.S.
Now let’s go back in time. After CMU, in 2004 Mark moved to San Francisco where he became a huge fan of coffee. Blue Bottle Coffee was becoming all the rage at that time and they use a pour-over technique, which Mark became a fan of. He learned their technique and went on to become a student of Local123′s pour-over technique as well. Both of these experiences would inform his eventual design of PourSteady, a pour-over automation system that he’d always wanted to build.
For years they’ve wanted to build a machine that would automate the pour-over process, incorporating the best practices they’d learned to produce consistently great cups of coffee. Then World Maker Faire New York entered their lives and they had a deadline.
Pour-over coffee is prepared in a filter-lined ceramic or plastic cone into which precisely-heated water is applied to freshly-ground beans with a certain technique at a particular rate. Sounds complicated, right? Well it is and that makes it just the type of thing that can be beautifully automated.
So how did they go about automating great technique? Using motion controllers of the sort they use in their high-end robotics projects they developed a two-axis control system to create the pour and spiral patterns they needed for applying water to ground coffee in filtered cones. One axis was a linear motion and the other axis controlled a tilt motion which together, with the using the right geometry, produced a smooth spiral throughout which hot water was applied to the grounds. Their industrial-quality motion controllers allow for high acceleration, precise control of their three phase brushless DC motors. Overseeing the timing of the whole process is a computer running Python.
So how was the debut of their first prototype? Amazingly, it performed flawlessly and there was great interest. A local roaster, Coffeed who partnered with them at the show, is interested in buying machines for their stores. BBC Business called PourSteady “The most interesting thing we’ve seen at the show.” Coffee shop entrepreneurs and businesses stopped by both days expressing interest in how to order the machine. If consumer demand is an indicator then they certainly had it with long lines all day, both days. Heck, even the Maker Media staff was enthralled with what was easily the best coffee of Maker Faire. They expressed this support by awarding PourSteady an Editor’s Pick award, five times.
What next? Well it seems obvious to Mark and Stuart that they have something special on their hands. However, while their first prototype performed flawlessly during Maker Faire there is much work to be done. They need to iterate to improve the design, make the machine presentable and appropriate for store/office environments, and they need to remove the laptop from the equation by substituting something like a RaspberryPi. They also need to make changes with a view toward scaling production. Furthermore, they need to work on the BOM to reduce costs. They have the experience of BlinkSteady to guide them and they’re smart enough to know that success has to be earned.
Finding a great cup of coffee has been hard.
Perhaps with their success it won’t be.
We certainly hope they succeed!