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A little over two days from now, an ambitious project will be funded through Kickstarter, having reached sixteen times its goal in pledged funding. At almost a third of a million dollars, the ZPM machine has seen a lot of buzz recently, as its claims of a low-cost consumer machine, fitted with a specially designed thermoblock, open-source software, and commonly available parts, all PID controlled to provide efficient and dependable temperature control, and all for under $400 - it's quite a bit to take in, let alone believe. Still, the coffee world is abuzz over the prospect of the machine, especially since former Barista Guild of America chair Jason Dominy has stepped up to help the ZPM guys test and re-assess their design. Will their product actually revolutionize the home coffee market, bringing a feature-packed machine to consumers with tighter budgets? Time will tell, but there are clear lines being drawn over what looks feasible and what doesn't.
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The biggest polarizer is the thermoblock design of the water delivery system. The designers picked it as a cost-saving measure, as many manufacturers do, but intended to improve the performance of the part. Typically, thermoblocks are cheap hunks of milled aluminum, wherein water passes through labyrinthine channels while being indirectly heated by the heating element. This may work to flash heat a smaller volume of water to a given temperature, but as cool water enters the channels, the heating elements will often fail to keep up, resulting in temperature drops during an espresso pull - a terrible thing for what's in the cup. So, thermoblocks are oft-scorned accoutrements in the espresso world, though are seen as somewhat acceptable alternatives for secondary steam boilers, as evidenced by their use in the Crossland CC1 and the Quickmill Silvano. Yet, even some coffee professionals have gotten a bit giddy about the ZPM machine, mostly based on the recently published real-time temperature curve data. It would appear that, between what is possibly a larger thermoblock, affording more thermal mass, as well as a longer path to brew, plus strategic placement of temperature sensors and use of temperature control software, the ZPM machine has gotten the thermoblock "right." The detractors and skeptics, however, will be quick to point out that, for one, no tests have been made on a production machine. In fact, no production machine exists - there's only a prototype model that is constantly being modified. Without the final "frozen" machine specs, a lot of this testing can simply be frivolous marketing and hype.
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Further, as ZPM is not a company per se, let alone a full-fledged manufacturer, support has been called into question. One of their most recent Kickstarter updates cited problems with securing a warranty provider. As their target market are home enthusiasts with DIY sensibilities, ZPM has aimed at making repairs easily accessible, creating the drawback asserted on their update, that a customer could break something, but cover it up to look like a manufacturing defect. As the owner of a La Pavoni lever that's a decade older than me, and definitely out of warranty, I can appreciate the availability of parts and easy serviceability, as I know my machine is built like a tank. This new machine - and not to call into question the expertise of the designers - may be built more like a 1982 Toyota Camry. Without a proven track record, that lack of warranty can only hurt sales.
Despite this, the machine has done amazingly well on Kickstarter, gaining far more backing than ZPM expected, receiving far more orders than they could have dreamed (delaying the production schedule, of course), and establishing once more than coffee people are incredibly passionate, and can get awfully excited about something they think meets their needs (remember Coffee Joulies?). Igor and Gleb have already stated their plans for expanding the manufacturing capabilities, allowing them to create perhaps a better end product, and definitely more efficiently.
Understanding the concerns and uncertainties, I can't help but be hopeful that this effort will succeed. At the proposed $350(ish) retail price point, it'll be a strong contender for favorite single boiler home espresso machine. If it can keep pace with Lelit, Gaggia, and Rancilio, it will not only be the most feature-dense for the price, but valued for the expandability via software and tinkering. If it falters, it may still create some competition and bring about more innovation in one of the areas of home espresso that needs it; if you can hook a person on espresso without too much hassle for $400, they’re all the more likely to stick with it, maybe even upgrade later on. I've backed the project, but not at the machine level - I don't need another machine now or in six months - so I'm along for the intrigue, as well as a tshirt.
- Image credits: ZP Machines, retrieved from the Kickstarter page linked above