How much do espresso machines really change? 

  • The global espresso machine market is expected to generate $13bn this year alone
  • Releasing new, “innovative” espresso machines is a way for companies to capture a larger market share
  • However, manufacturers may be leveraging an appetite for innovation without genuinely contributing to the field

IN THE last decade, the number of espresso machines on the market has proliferated. More brands than ever are releasing new products that feature the latest innovations.

And the pace of these releases is accelerating. Over a fifteen-year period between 2000 and 2015, La Marzocco released 7 new or improved espresso machine models. In the 8 years since, the company has launched more than twice that number, including special editions and updates of popular models.

This represents a wider trend across the sector. At HOST 2023, almost all espresso machine manufacturers present launched a new machine or model, including renowned brands such as La Marzocco, Sanremo and Carimali.

Essentially, there is rapid innovation in the espresso machine sector. But a closer look at the endless product releases makes you wonder – how much do they really improve from the last?

Innovation trumps stagnation

Regardless of whether they genuinely improve, there’s certainly a market for it. The global coffee machine market was estimated at about $5 billion in 2020 and is projected to grow annually by over 4% for the next four years.

With such an appetite for new, innovative machines, regular product releases are worthwhile even without substantial technological advancements.

On the one hand, it could be argued that innovation trumps stagnation. On the other, if these machines don’t genuinely improve upon previous models and add value, what purpose do they serve?

“I think that – to compete – manufacturers need to stay on top of the market with new products,” says Umberto Doglioni Majer, CEO of VEA Ventures. “I think a big difference is whether the new machines presented are restylings of existing models, new platforms upon which they will develop a range, or new technology.”

Many believe that innovation in the coffee industry should focus on addressing broad trends or tackling larger issues such as energy consumption. However, significant leaps forward in this regard are rare.

“In my experience and opinion, innovation is not linear,” he says. “There are certain moments when there is a radical change in technology followed by some years of slower innovation in which the new technology is refined and adjusted to fit more use cases.”

In the meantime, manufacturers often release products that represent more marginal improvements in aspects such as aesthetics or user experience. This doesn’t mean that the majority of espresso machine releases are bogus; on the contrary, these innovations can still represent a positive step forward.

However, if genuine innovation isn’t the primary driver behind the frequent release of espresso machines, then other motivations come into play. While meeting market demand for new products is one aspect, it’s equally important for companies to divert attention from competitors.

“Competition is surely a big driver, having an innovative technology allows a company to get the attention of customers and can significantly drive sales,” Umberto says. “It’s not the only way to grow but it’s a common one.”

Espresso machines have changed a lot since the old days

An appetite for innovation

In this context, it could be argued that some espresso machine companies are leveraging consumers’ appetite for innovation without genuinely contributing to the field.

This could be seen in the explosion of home espresso machines available in the years following the pandemic. All of those machines could truly represent genuine innovation. Alternatively, it may also have been a response to consumers upgrading their home setups to replace the quality they were accustomed to at coffee shops – representing a race to capture the premium at-home espresso machine market.

Indeed, the reality is that developing espresso machine technology is usually extremely expensive and time-consuming. Meeting the post-Covid demand in that timeframe with genuine innovation seems potentially far-fetched.

“I think, oftentimes, manufacturers exaggerate technological innovation. They are all trying to improve but it’s an expensive, difficult, risky and slow process,” Umberto says.  “Large multinationals have a hard time justifying investing in real innovation in coffee machines as the return can happen years down the line.”

To bridge the gap before introducing “groundbreaking” innovations, companies often release smaller, manageable product enhancements. At the same time, these smaller releases can serve as a way to test innovations in preparation for a larger product launch.

That being said, espresso machines have undoubtedly evolved over the years – from early 20th-century “steam machinery” to what we see today. And most innovations are stepping stones on that journey; regardless of how significant they are.

In some ways, modern espresso machines are akin to smartphones – unrecognisable from 20 years ago, but now with constant micro-updates and new models that both feed and create the demand for innovation.

However, in the context of the history of espresso machine development, it could be concluded that the recent rate of product releases may have outpaced genuine innovation. And while small steps of improvement ultimately lead to larger ones – it’s worth paying attention to what’s real innovation, and what’s a marketing ploy. 

Coffee Intelligence

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter here.