Supercon 2023: Reverse Engineering Commercial Coffee Machines

There was a time when a coffee vending machine was a relatively straightforward affair, with a basic microcontroller doing not much more than the mechanical sequencer it replaced. A modern machine by contrast has 21st century computing power, with touch screens, a full-fat operating system, and a touch screen interface. At Hackaday Supercon 2023, [Kuba Tyszko] shared his adventures in the world of coffee, after reverse engineering a couple of high-end dispensing machines. Sadly he doesn’t reveal the manufacturer, but we’re sure readers will be able to fill in the gaps.

Under the hood is a PC running a Linux distro from a CF card. Surprisingly the distros in question were Slax and Lubuntu, and could quite easily be investigated. The coffee machine software was a Java app, which seems to us strangely appropriate, and it communicated to the coffee machine hardware via a serial port. It’s a tale of relatively straightforward PC reverse engineering, during which he found that the machine isn’t a coffee spy as its only communication with its mothership is an XML status report.

In a way what seems almost surprising is how relatively straightforward and ordinary this machine is. We’re used to quirky embedded platforms with everything far more locked down than this. Meanwhile if hacking vending machines is your thing, you can find a few previous stories on the topic.

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Kaffa Roastery founder Svante Hampf shows a bag of their AI-conic coffee blend.

AI-Created Coffee Blend Isn’t Terrible

Weren’t we just talking about coffee-based sacrilege the other day? Here’s something to make the single-origin bean snobs chew their espresso cups: an artisan roastery in Helsinki is offering a coffee blend created by artificial intelligence called AI-conic. The idea, of course, is that technology will lighten the workload needed to produce coffee.

This is an interesting development because Finland consumes the most coffee in the world, according to the International Coffee Organization. Coffee roasting is a highly-valued traditional artisan profession there, so it stands to reason that they might turn to technology for help.

Just like with scotch whisky, there’s nothing wrong with coffee blends outright. Bean blends are good for consistency, when you want every cup to taste pretty much exactly the same. Single-origin beans, though, are traceable to one location, and as a result, they usually have a distinct flavor based on the climate they’re grown in.

If you’re new to coffee, blends are a nice, safe way to start out. And, interestingly, the AI chose to make the blend out of four different types of beans instead of the usual two or three, despite being tasked with creating a blend that would suit the palates of coffee enthusiasts. But the coffee experts agreed that the AI blend was “perfect” and needed no human intervention. We probably won’t be getting to Finland anytime soon, so if you try it, let us know how it tastes!

Do you like cold brew? How would you like to be able to brew some in just three minutes?

Much Faster Cold Brew Through Cavitation

Some coffee snobs might call this sacrilege. Cold brew is supposed to take a long time — that’s part of how it gets its characteristic smoothness. But a group of engineers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) have figured out a way to cut the time down from several hours to a mere three minutes, using ultrasonic waves.

Diagram showing the parts of the faster cold brew system -- the portafilter of a Breville espresso machine, plus a transducer and horn.Typically, the cold brew coffee process takes between 12 and 24 hours. Enough time to steep the grounds and extract the flavors without the benefit of hot water. This is how it differs from iced coffee, which is brewed hot and poured over ice.

Interestingly, the UNSW Sydney engineers’ process uses a typical prosumer-grade espresso machine and involves blasting the portafilter with a transducer and a horn. This transforms the coffee basket into a sonoreactor. Sound waves at a frequency of 38.8 kHz are injected at multiple points through the walls, generating acoustic cavitation within. You can read all about it in Ultrasonics Sonochemistry.

That’s not even the most exciting part. The study found that this arrangement is capable of doubling both the extraction yield and caffeine concentration, compared with non-soundblasted samples. The team sent samples of the coffee off to be evaluated on aroma, texture, flavor, and aftertaste. Although the one-minute extraction samples received similar ratings to a 24-hour brew in terms of flavor and aftertaste, they lacked the intensity and dark chocolate aroma of the longer brew. But the three-minute extraction samples scored quite highly in all areas, suggesting that the average cold brew drinker wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Would you like to roast your own beans at home? You can use a popcorn popper, but you might get tired of semi-uneven roasts and upgrade to a DIY wobble disk roaster.

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Smart Coffee Replaces Espresso Machine Controller With Arduino, Sensors

A common hacker upgrade to an espresso machine is to improve stability and performance with a better temperature controller, but [Schematix]’s Smart Coffee project doesn’t stop there. It entirely replaces the machine’s controller and provides an optional array of improvements for a variety of single-boiler machines (which is most of them).

Smart Coffee isn’t free, it costs 16 NZD (about 10 USD) but there is a free demo version. There is no official support, but there are wiring guides and sources aplenty from which to purchase the various optional parts. It runs on an Arduino MEGA 2560 PRO (or similar microcontroller) and supports a wide array of additional hardware including pressure transducer, water level sensor, flow meter, OLED display, and more.

Modification of one’s espresso machine is a rewarding endeavor, but the Smart Coffee project provides a way for one to get straight to the hacking and function modifying, instead of figuring out the wiring hardware interfacing from scratch.

We’ve seen [Schematix]’s work before with a DIY induction heater which showed off thoughtful design, and it’s clear he takes his coffee at least as seriously. Check out the highly comprehensive overview and installation video for Smart Coffee, embedded just below the page break.

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Robotic Coffee Comes To Brooklyn, But Will It Stay?

Robots are cool. Everyone knows it, and [Eater NY] highlights a coffee shop with a robotic server opening in Brooklyn. While robots able to prepare and serve drinks or food is not new, it isn’t every day a brick-and-mortar café with a robot behind the counter opens up. But expensive automation isn’t the only puzzle piece needed to make a location work.

A robotic coffee shop (like a robotic burger joint) certainly offers novelty, but can it sustain itself beyond that?

As one example, the linked article above points out that the city of New York prohibits entirely cashless businesses. Establishments must accept cash payments, and it’s unclear how the touchscreen-driven system would comply with that requirement.

There are also many tasks involved in running even a modest establishment — loading, cleaning, and maintaining for example — that can’t be realistically taken care of by an immobile robot barista. It’s unclear to what extent the robotic coffee shop will employ human staff, but it’s clear that human involvement is something that isn’t going be eliminated any time soon.

Some of you may remember the robotic burger joint that our own Brian Benchoff managed to check out, and many of his same observations come to mind. The robot burger was perhaps ahead of its time (its single location is listed as closed on Google maps with no recent activity) but maybe the robot coffee place can make it work. Still, expensive automation is only one piece of a system, and the ability to crank out a drink per minute 24/7 might not actually be the missing link.

My Great-Great-Grandad, The Engineer Who Invented A Coffee Pot

In the study of genealogy it’s common to find people who will go to great lengths involving tenuous cross-links to establish royalty or famous figures such as George Washington or William Shakespeare in their family tree. There’s no royal blood and little in the way of fame to be found in my family tree, but I do have someone I find extremely interesting. One of my great-great-grandfathers was a Scottish engineer called James R Napier, and though his Wikipedia entry hasn’t caught up with this contribution to 1840s technology, he was the inventor of the vacuum coffee pot.

James R NapierHe was born in Glasgow in 1821 and was the son of a successful shipbuilder, Robert Napier, into whose business he followed once he’d received his education. He’s probably most well known today for his work in nautical engineering and for inventing Napier’s Diagram, a method for computing magnetic deviance on compass readings, but he was also a prolific engineer and author whose name crops up in fields as diverse as air engines, weights and measuresdrying timber, and even the analysis of some dodgy wine. The coffee percolator was something of a side project for him, and for us it’s one of those pieces of family lore that’s been passed down the generations. It seems he was pretty proud of it, though he never took the trouble to patent it and and thus it was left to others to profit from that particular invention.

Vacuum Coffee Pots: Impressive, But Slooow

Just what is a vacuum coffee pot, and what makes it special? The answer lies in the temperature at which it infuses the coffee. We take for granted our fancy coffee machinery here in the 21st century, but a century and a half ago the making of coffee was a much simpler and less exact process. Making coffee by simply boiling grounds in water can burn it, imparting bitter flavours, and thus at the time a machine that could make a better cup was seen as of some importance. Continue reading “My Great-Great-Grandad, The Engineer Who Invented A Coffee Pot”

RoboGaggia Makes Espresso Coffee On Its Own

[Nicholas DiPatri] very much loves his Gaggia Pro. It’s an amazing espresso machine, but it’s also kind of fussy and requires a lot of manual attention to brew a cup. As an engineer, he set about fettling the machine to run with a little less oversight. Enter RoboGaggia.

Stock, the Gaggia Pro requires regular water refills. The coffee-thirsty user must also wait for the brew heater to reach temperature before clicking the go button. Knowing the weight of coffee in the machine is key to getting the brew right, too. Steaming must also be done by hand. Overall, it’s a lot of work.

[Nicholas]’s goal was to get the machine to a point where he could load it with fresh ground coffee, hit a button, and walk away. On his return, the machine should be ready for steam. To achieve this, he went ham on outfitting the Gaggia Pro with fancy modern equipment. It scored a scale that sits in the drip tray, PID temperature controllers, a flow rate controller to manage the extraction profile, and an auto-fill water reservoir. The entire brew process is carried out under the command of a microcontroller, with live telemetry also sent to Adafruit.io for logging.

It’s by no means a lightweight project, but [Nicholas] has shared files on Github for the curious. However, if you’re in love with your Italian espresso machine and don’t want to switch, this might just be the kit you need to end your morning headaches. After all, when we’re in need of coffee, we’re at our worst for managing a complicated chemical processing plant. Video after the break.

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