Engineering the Perfect Shot of Espresso

By Danielle Roof

Gabriele Gorla drinks a lot of coffee. Specifically, he drinks a lot of espresso, and he was frustrated by off-the-shelf espresso makers because when it comes to quality, it's all about temperature, and the store-bought machines were not nearly precise enough for his tastes.

The brewing temperature of espresso is crucial. The machine's operating system works using a thermostat that triggers at specific temperature thresholds. While some may have said "good enough," Gabriele was frustrated that the range that regulated the temperature was too wide. So, he applied his engineering experience to the problem in search of the perfect cup of coffee. Gabriele is convinced that maintaining a consistent temperature is critical to the quality of the product.

Gabriele applies his technical knowledge to the problems he faces in daily life with his open source hardware project, GGlabs. He spends his weekends designing new hardware and accessories to use with vintage computers and other applications. Some weekend projects are inspired by his day job as Assistant Design Manager at Nvidia. Others stem from his interest in vintage computers - or his other passions, like coffee. He insists on only using components and parts that are readily available to consumers.

Gabriele saw an issue with a technology he uses every morning and spared no effort toward achieving the perfect espresso shot. The first step in this process was to take out the original thermostat, which at first sight looks like a bundle of wires. He wanted his hack to involve as few components as possible. It was crucial that the new and improved temperature sensor fit into the existing configuration, and that proved to be one of his biggest challenges. Gabriele reverse engineered the components that connected to the thermostat. He focused on the switches and connections with the other parts of the espresso maker which communicate with the new temperature sensor. The reverse engineering process was painstaking and little more than trial and error, but he eventually got it to work and to fit. The original switches still do their jobs, with the new sensor hooked up in place of the original thermostat.

This proved to be more than simply swapping out hardware. The new sensor needed a new operating system as well, something Gabriele knew he did not have as much experience with. With this need in mind, he turned once more to the Internet and bought a book about operating systems to figure out which system to create and how to do it. The end result is a chip that connects to the back of the display and ensures the continued consistency of the temperature of his espresso, even as a shot is being pulled from the machine. The display itself is also new, as the original machine did not need to show the exact temperature. In search of the right hardware for the job, Gabriele found an inexpensive Nokia 5110 display that worked perfectly. Connected to the new operating system and temperature sensor, the small screen allows the user to decide what exact temperature is the best for their own preferences and the type of bean being used.
GGlabs Espresso Machine
GGlabs Espresso Machine

The GGlabs Espresso Machine Project represents an integration of different pieces and components, a synthesis of technologies and hardware that many would not think to connect in this way. For him, the journey is about learning and exploring technology in order to make it more effective. From weekends spent reconfiguring his espresso machine to his work at Nvidia, Gabriele Gorla approaches his projects as opportunities to work backwards and innovate his way to the ideal solution. To learn more about Gabriele's projects, see his website, or email him at [email protected].
Danielle Roof is a senior at Tulane University originally from San Carlos, California. She is studying Political Economy and Education, and hopes to go into teaching. Her favorite things to do when she's not studying are dance, yoga, and traveling to new places.