Inkjet Printer Transforms the Surface of Drinks
By Tom Samph
Oleksiy Pikalo, a Ukrainian-born mechanical engineer, created a new medium for advertising: the surface of drinks.
Pikalo’s invention, a beverage art printer, sprays a thin layer of caramel on the surface of any foamy drink, transforming a milky latte or an amber Guinness into a canvas. The beverage art printer uses images sent from a computer, so, “If you’ve got a picture of it, it’s a safe bet we can print it,” Pikalo says.
The printer’s versatility and unique medium has made it attractive to companies looking to promote their brands. Although the printer is not yet for sale, Pikalo has received more than 350 pre-orders. While many baristas deride what they call the printer’s “cookie cutter” kind of art, advertisers laud the printer for its captivating use of an unlikely surface.
“Everyone looks at his or her drink before the first sip. Seeing something unusual, such as our logo will be a conversation starter for sure,” says Haydar Kustu, marketing manager for Bruker Corp., which manufactures scientific instrumentation in Billerica, Mass.
Traditional beverage art, pouring milk into coffee to create designs, has never been about advertising, or capable of advertising, for that matter, as the most common designs are hearts and flowers. Pikalo’s printer prints hearts, flowers, faces, pictures, and even company logos. When people see a design from Pikalo’s printer, they, “have an Aha moment when they say, ‘this is so cool’,” Pikalo says. That Aha moment, when people see a design on a drink, is what has attracted advertisers looking to impress clients.
Kutsu ordered two printers for a special marketing campaign for Bruker’s 50th anniversary. The company has a new logo designed for the occasion, which will appear on brochures, trade show graphics, and now the surface of drinks.
“I am sure [the logo] will be most noticed and remembered on a cup of coffee,” Kustu says. The beverage art printer, “can add the ‘wow’ factor in marketing activities.”
Branding experts Derrick Daye and Brad VanAuken from the Blake Project, a company that helps organizations build advertising campaigns, wrote that the ‘wow’ factor is one of the most important elements in marketing strategy and a successful brand. “Customize wherever and whenever you can,” and, “Wow them every day, every way,” are two of their suggestions for creating a successful brand.
Creating a memorable brand image also is important to Deborah Avren, who runs her own event planning company called D.A.’s Office in New Mexico. “We are always looking for new ways to brand a product,” she says.
Avren hired Pikalo for an event she organized in New York City recently. At the event, part of a promotional campaign for the Beverly Hills Convention and Visitors Bureau, Pikalo printed logos with palm trees and script on lattes brewed in old-fashioned mugs.
“The notoriety of the printer was great at the event,” Avren says. “Everyone is used to lattes that have swirls and symbols. But to have designs that precise, it is really a novelty.”
Avren plans to use Pikalo’s printer at future events. “Coffee and latte are ‘in’ at the moment, and the personalization for promoting yourself [with the printer] is unique,” Avren says.
As for Pikalo selling the printer, Avren says, “I see him having a market in special social events. I would imagine weddings and bar mitzvahs, hotels and restaurants – those activities that have specific brands.”
Pikalo assumed the market for the printer would be coffee shops and individual households.
In the world of coffee shops, however, the printer has been met with hostility. Hand poured beverage art is a craft that baristas and coffee enthusiasts take seriously. Some see the beverage art printer as demeaning to their work.
Nicholas Cho, chairman of the United States Barista Championships, says although the printer is a fun idea and gives beverage art a new dimension, it produces a “cookie cutter” kind of art.
“There are great pastry chefs out there where you can get a beautiful cake, but then you can also get a cake with Dora the Explorer printed on it,” says Cho. The printer “is kind of the same thing.”
Simon Yu, owner of Simon’s, a small independent coffee shop in Cambridge, says, “I was skeptical when I saw the prototype.” As he was speaking, Yu carefully poured milk into a steaming mug of hot chocolate, creating a perfect heart shaped pattern in the middle. “The drinks I serve need to be handmade,” Yu says. Taking the time to print a design on a drink after you have made the drink, Yu says, takes the emphasis off of the taste.
People either seem to love it or hate Pikalo’s invention.
For Pikalo, who works full time as a mechanical engineer and does his inventing on the side, the positive comments have kept him focused.
“I thought it was a silly idea at first,” Pikalo says. “Once I knew there was a commercial interest, that made it even better.”
He has been successful enough with the printer, making money from demonstrations at events like those organized by Deborah Avren, and is considering leaving his full time job as an engineer at BBN Technologies, a company that designs secure networking solutions in Cambridge. Among his more notable demonstrations was being hired by a catering company in Washington, D.C. for an inauguration event where he printed Obama’s portrait on Lattes. “To see people’s reactions,” says Pikalo, “that keeps me going.”
Before he quits his full-time job to pursue inventing, however, he needs to design a production model of the printer. The printer looks like a scanner with a raised rectangular attachment on the shorter side. The bed of the scanner conceals the mechanical equipment. The design is fragile, bulky and finicky – not something you’d see on retail shelves.
Pikalo brings welding tools and backup parts to every event, just in case he needs to fix the printer. He is still working on making it, “small and pretty.” A production model of the printer, Pikalo says, has to be resilient and be able to tolerate abuse from users.
The printer was an engineering solution to making art, he says. The idea for the printer was a combination of Pikalo’s frustration with the difficulty of latte art and another invention he was working on to create holograms. He used the mechanics from a hologram machine, fitted it with a caramel printer nozzle, and began printing on drinks.
His first design took almost three minutes to finish the outline of a bearded king saying the words, “Can your Latte do this?” In that time, the coffee got cold. But Pikalo reworked the printer so it prints complicated images in just a few seconds.
A YouTube video of the speedy printer has generated frothy traffic on the site.
“That is so freaking awesome, you could market that,” avers one commenter. “Amazing. You are very creative,” says another. Others were less impressed. “Great idea, but not very practical,” one critic says. “Very impressive, it’s just sad to see a machine take all the beauty and technique out of an art form,” chimed another naysayer.
Whether you love the printer or hate it, if Dora the Explorer looks up at you from your next Starbucks latte, you’ll know how she got there.
Tom Samph, a senior at Boston University, has been an editor of the Spotlight section of The Daily Free Press, BU’s independent student newspaper. He covers sports, technology, culture, and education in the Boston area. Samph is an editorial intern at the Improper Bostonian magazine, a bi-monthly guide to entertainment and culture in Boston, and also writes book and music reviews for the Arts Fuse blog.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the March print edition.