How AI Helped Us Design a Dream Coffee Machine

AI-Driven Design

April 24, 2024

The Quest for a Perfect Cup

Our client, a hardware startup, approached us with an idea: a portable coffee machine that looked great and was easy to use, and we were excited to collaborate. However, a challenge emerged as we delved deeper using traditional design methods.

Creating a sleek and user-friendly device that everyone would love might not fit within the startup's budget and timeline.

We needed to explore innovative solutions that wouldn't sacrifice design quality. This is where AI entered the picture, a technology we had been watching for a while. While we weren't lacking ideas, we saw an opportunity to explore its potential for streamlining the process and reducing costs for the client. 

Delving into the Details: The Client's Vision Takes Shape

Having secured the client's agreement to explore, we dove headfirst into understanding their specific vision for the portable coffee machine. The technical assignment outlined key parameters like functionality, durability, and power source — but the true challenge lay in achieving a design that was both compact and user-friendly.

Coffee on the Go, No Table Required: The client envisioned a scenario where users wouldn't need a table to enjoy their coffee. Compactness was paramount – the assembled machine had to fit comfortably in one hand. The client left the option open for an additional bowl attachment for the brewed coffee, but a monolithic form factor with a lid was also a welcomed design direction.

The Art of Geyser Brewing: The client specified a geyser brewing method. This bottom-up approach involves a series of chambers for water heating, coffee grounds, and the final brewed beverage. Specific requirements were outlined, including a 200ml water tank and a geyser bowl capable of holding 50g of coffee grounds. 

All-in-one Solution: While not essential, the client expressed interest in the possibility of an integrated module for storing dry coffee or even grinding coffee beans, offering a truly all-in-one solution for on-the-go coffee lovers. User safety was a top priority, and the design needed to ensure that the hot coffee wouldn't cause burns. 

We devised three design directions to fit the product and the client's stylistic preferences: Vintage elegance, Minimalist modern, and Industrial chic. And with these detailed requirements, coupled with the client's goals, we were ready for the next phase of our project – brainstorming and exploration.

Embracing Challenges: The Road to AI-Powered Design

Stage 1: Research

With the technical requirements solidified, it was time to unleash AI's creative power. As experienced designers, we understand that true design excellence lies in empathy — the ability to solve real-world problems for real people. We saw AI as a powerful tool in our design toolbox. It can help us explore tons of design ideas quickly while our expertise ensures they are user-friendly and address the actual problems people face.

To guide the AI, we provided a comprehensive data set. This included the geyser brewing method's specifications, style preferences, and reference images: existing portable coffee machines, everyday objects like travel mugs, and design elements inspired by classic sci-fi films. We also tried to use broader prompts, encouraging the AI to envision a coffee machine that perfectly embodied the concept of «hassle-free coffee on the go.» 

The AI tools delivered a fascinating range of concepts. Some offered clever refinements on familiar designs, while others ventured into entirely unexpected territory. However, some limitations emerged. Certain iterations missed the mark on portability, resembling standard coffee machines. Others took a more whimsical approach or looked utterly bizarre. Despite these occasional stumbles, the AI was a valuable springboard for our creativity.

Results included mood boards featuring curated images, textures, and color palettes aligned with our vision. We used them to fuel our discussion, and the client was thrilled with the design possibilities — now it was the time to turn them into a visualization.

Stage 2: Visualization

The first challenge was determining the best way to showcase the AI-generated concepts to the client. Initially, we explored showing various views of the coffee machine. However, it is not possible with today's technology. We decided to focus on a single, well-defined view and let AI explore variations within that perspective for a more focused exploration of design elements. Showcasing products from different angles was an entirely human task. 

Another obstacle was selecting the ideal AI tool for the job. We embarked on a trial-and-error approach, experimenting with or combining various platforms. 

A further challenge stemmed from the limited presence of portable coffee machines. This lack of reference points sometimes hindered the AI's ability to grasp the client's vision entirely. We adopted a creative approach to overcome this, crafting prompts that referenced other familiar objects. For example, we might describe the coffee machine as a «portable coffee maker that fits comfortably in a human hand», providing a relatable context for the AI to work with. 

After the challenging road, we were able to craft a couple of exciting concepts, and the client decided which design direction we should take. They loved all three concepts but agreed that a modern, minimalistic option would better suit their target audience.

Stage 3: Modeling

The initial AI-generated concepts offered a glimpse into the design possibilities, but a crucial step remained – ensuring these concepts were not only aesthetically pleasing but also technically feasible. Without this vital stage, we risked presenting the client with stunning visuals that might be impossible to translate into a real-world product.

For this particular project, the coffee machine's relatively simple form allowed us to create a basic 3D model in just one hour.

We recognized that this phase might require more time for complex forms; however, this initial success demonstrated the power of combining AI-generated concepts with traditional design techniques. The model gave the client a clearer understanding of the design's functionality and ergonomics.

The model also served as a critical communication tool. It allowed us to identify potential engineering challenges early on, preventing costly delays or redesigning later in the development process. In essence, this stage ensured that the client wasn't just receiving beautiful pictures — they received a design concept with a strong foundation for manufacturability, even if they won't need it immediately.  

But we didn't stop there. We understood the importance of a tangible prototype for the client's investor pitch. So, we took the 3D model a step further, creating a rough product prototype. This prototype possessed a physical presence that investors could hold and interact with. Tactile experience added another layer of credibility and excitement to the client's presentation, ultimately helping them secure funding for the next round of development.

The star is born

The design landscape is evolving rapidly. During our product development, we discovered that AI isn't a replacement for skilled designers but an influential collaborator. While each AI platform offered unique strengths, combining human expertise with AI's creative spark yielded the best results. This experience, particularly for resource-constrained startups, was transformative.

Witnessing the power of AI in design, we launched our AI-powered concepts service. Today, we help other companies overcome similar challenges.

In this project, we helped our client achieve a remarkable 3x faster completion time and a 10x cost reduction.

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