IoT Beer Brewing Device Hops Over Human Error
How IoT Beer Manufacturing Can Fix Your Strange Brew
The process of brewing beer has been known for thousands of years. So when you add the Internet of Things (IoT) to the process, one needs to wonder how connectivity can really improve the process?
Meet the Brewbot, an IoT-enabled beer production device. (All images courtesy of Brewbot.)
One area in which IoT can help brewing is in the automation of smaller-scale productions.
Though large-scale brewing operations might have this automation down pat, any microbrewer and homebrewer will tell you that automating systems on their scale, while trying to make a consistent product, isn’t as easy as you might think.
“Brewing beer is a manual and messy process. We take this out of the equation,” said Samuel Khamis, chief science officer at Brewbot.
Khamis explained that brewing beer can take about 4.5 hours. Traditionally, this time is spent measuring water, grain and hops, and continuously checking the water temperature. The Brewbot, however, does a lot of this work for you. It will:
- Fill the tank with water
- Heat up the mash and brew while maintaining temperature
- Prompt users to add pre-measured ingredients
- Prompt users to test the specific gravity in the fermenter
- Transfer all of the fluids to where they need to go
The system communicates to the user through the Brewbot app. The app also offers a shop where users can buy brew master–approved beer recipes and ingredients. Order them on the app and they will be sent to you in premeasured amounts. All you have to do is follow the app’s instructions when making the brew.
“With our robot, you can make any beer you can make in any other brewing system,” said Khamis. “We have partnership with 40 different breweries and we are adding more all the time. Or you can make your own recipes or tweak them on your own.”
As a result, this system should save quite a lot of money and energy in shipping. After all, shipping the dry solids to make the beer is a lot easier and lighter than shipping the beer itself.
“That whole distribution network represents $24 billion a year,” said Khamis. “Just to ship glass and water around!”
“Let’s say you travel the world and you taste a beer you would like to get at home, but you can’t get it at the bars around you as they are not on the distribution for that beer. Or it doesn’t taste the same after it’s been shipped. There is no reason for that,” Khamis said. “With Brewbot, you download the recipe for the beer you want and you brew it on site where you want to serve it.”
You might then wonder, what’s in it for the company that makes the beer? Well, as Khamis explained, “they’d rather people have the beer, whether it’s coming from their bottle or through the Brewbot. A lot of the recipes on our network come from our partnership of 40 breweries.”
One key drawback to the Brewbot is that the water used in the process will have a significant impact on the results from many beer recipes. However, by assessing the data collected by the system over the IoT, the team can better assess the local water quality. This will allow for recipes to ship better water conditioning tables in the future to ensure the beer’s quality.
Designing an IoT Beer Brewing System Takes a Lot of Work
Brewbot and its phone app.
A lot of intellectual property went into the Brewbot, according to Khamis.
A team of about 20 engineers was split between designing the hardware and software of the brewery.
“Every time you set out to design something that seems simple, a lot of issues come up,” said Khamis. “From how to automate it, how you will measure out the right amount of water, how you get the feedback for the temperature. A lot of things just to make it work, then make the user experience nice and then to make it smart.”
For instance, a lot of the design went into the safety of the product. “None of the outside surfaces get hotter than about 30°C [86°F],” Khamis explained. “Nothing is exposed to the user where they can actually get hurt. The high temperature is in one process: the boiling of the water. Once that is done, there is no high temperature or high pressure process.”
To ensure these safe operational temperatures, the engineers needed to verify their designs using mechanical, thermal and flow testing. When the team got into trouble with these tests, Khamis said that they got a lot of help from the team at SOLIDWORKS.
“We used SOLIDWORKS for everything,” he said. “We get great support from them. There is no other design tool in-house, and all of our suppliers link up to that network.”
Another key part of the design came when deciding where to automate the system. Currently, all the mixing, adding of ingredients (except water) and post-brewing processes still have a human in the loop.
“Where we made the initial decisions is [in] places where people can make the biggest error,” explained Khamis. “When you are measuring out the water, the speed at which you add it and the temperature at which you add it can all affect the final quality of the beer immensely, so we try to reduce human error on anything that is mission-critical to the user process.”
However, commercial users of the Brewbot, such as microbreweries and restaurants, will want a turnkey system. To assess this, the team is looking into creating more IoT devices to connect to the brewery.
“We are working on a new product, which will be a smart fermentation vessel,” noted Khamis. “Currently, we use a standard fermentation, where you monitor the number of bubbles in the airlock. This new device will work with our brewing system and app to tell you when it’s done and what the specific gravity is.”
Khamis hinted that one day they will be able to automate the whole microbrewery system over the IoT. After all, large breweries have been able to automate much of their production cycle.
He added, “We’re working to make a system akin to Lego blocks that is fully expandable. You can buy modules and plug them in. Maybe you will want a brewing system and three fermenters or ten fermenters and no brewing system so you can hook it up to your own. All our future devices will be completely compatible with all the technology out there.”
To see more on the design of the Brewbot, watch this video:
Brewbot’s Benefit to Microbrewer Is Clear, but Fizzy for Homebrewers and Large-Scale Producers
One big question about Brewbot that seems to be confusing is, who are they are trying to market this device too?
Brewbot presentation shows off their custom beer for SOLIDWORKS World 2016.
During their presentation at SOLIDWORKS World 2016, homebrewers, microbrewers and even large-scale brewers were all mentioned, at least in passing.
Khamis said, “With Brewbot, we have democratized the beer making process, making it accessible to homebrewers, restaurants, bars and large-scale breweries.”
For the large-scale breweries, the Brewbot would really only work for pilot plant purposes, to test out new recipes. The system maxes out at producing 45 liters (11.9 gallons), and most recipes only make 25 liters (6.6 gallons). This is simply not enough for large-scale operations. And, besides that, many large-scale operations have already automated much of the process, so Brewbot doesn’t offer them much benefit with the IoT feature.
As for homebrewers, the trial and error of the process is 90 percent of the fun. Learning on the fly. Do it yourself. Making bad beers. And laughing about it. The idea is to get better by yourself until you get it right. Brewbot takes away this experience.
Additionally, the $10,000 price tag of the brewing system is rather prohibitive for the homebrewer. This is especially true when a homebrewer needs little more than a large pot, thermometer, carboy/bucket (fermenting vessel with an airlock) and some tubing to perform the same overall function of Brewbot, sans the IoT element.
As a result, the Brewbot is really only economical when working on a microbrewery or restaurant scale. Using a simple back of the napkin calculation, a brewer can break even from buying the Brewbot in about 28 batches. This calculation ignores water, electrical and kegging costs and tax. The equation also assumes recipe costs of $60 per batch, making 25 liters a batch (6.6 gallons/batch) and selling beer at $8/U.S. pint.
Since each batch will need about a week or two of fermentation time, you might want to stagger out this process with multiple fermentation tanks. To break even in about a year at this rate, you need to sell about four pints a day.
Again, this volume doesn’t seem feasible for a homebrewer operation.
However, Khamis did hint at a product called the Brewbot Core. This will be an app that can apply much of the software IP collected by Brewbot into any brewery system. If so, this will be a good way to tap into the homebrewer market and perhaps even some of the larger-scale operations that have yet to set up much of their automation.
About the Author
Shawn Wasserman (@ShawnWasserman) is the Internet of Things (IoT) and Simulation Editor at ENGINEERING.com. He is passionate about ensuring engineers make the right decisions when using computer-aided engineering (CAE) software and IoT development tools. Shawn has a Masters in Bio-Engineering from the University of Guelph and a BASc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.