Keurig single-cup coffee makers are the most unreliable appliances I’ve ever owned. My most recent machine failed after only three weeks, and thus this rant. I’ve owned several of them, and used many more at work, but they never seem to last more than a year. There’s actually a class-action lawsuit proceeding against them, claiming: (a) false advertising in their performance and durability, (b) that they brew less than the advertised amount, and (c) that these bugs force the use of more K-Cups.
There appear to be several problems:
- The needle that punches up into the cup gets clogged. It can be cleaned out with a paper clip if you have a good eye.
- A vapor lock occurs in the water feed line from the reservoir to the pump. If you close off the little white overflow pipe at the top of the reservoir and brew another cup, that sometimes clears it.
- The internal micro-controller gets hung. It can be rebooted by unplugging the brewer and plugging it in again
I’ve clearly fiddled with these way too much. These problems seem fairly easy to fix, so something appears to be wrong at Keurig Central Engineering. These also aren’t the only issues that they’ve been slow to fix. In the late 2000s the machines routinely made a loud clattering noise as the internal reservoir was filled, and that turned out to simply be defective pumps.
So maybe their problem is that they kicked out the actual inventor of the machines, John Sylvan. The Boston Globe had an article about him and Keurig last fall – The Buzz Machine. He founded Keurig (excellence in Danish) with a partner, Peter Dragone, in 1992. They tried a lot of different ideas in their apartments, and did their own taste testing. Sylvan actually found himself in the ER with caffeine poisoning after drinking 30 cups a day. By 1997 they had a working machine, and had raised $1M from venture capitalists. Sylvan didn’t like being told what to do, though, and was shoved out of the company for a relatively small amount, $50,000. Dragone was kicked out too, but kept stock. By the mid 2000s Keurig was starting to take off, and one of their investors, Green Mountain Coffee of Vermont, bought out the 65% of the company that they didn’t own for about $100M. In fiscal 2011 (ending Sep 24, 2011), total sales at Keurig were $2.6 billion, of which brewers were $520 million. The brewers are actually sold at a loss to encourage K-Cup sales, which might be why they’re so crummy – they’ve cut every corner on manufacturing them.
Sylvan and Dragone’s original patent (# 5,325,765, Beverage Filter Cartridge) was granted in 1994, and expires this year. Sylvan hasn’t patented anything since his Keurig days, but the Globe article says he’s working on a solar heating and cooling unit. He also appears to have designed a nice interlocking trivet scheme at Quirky.
He seems more amused than bitter about his experience, which is the right attitude. He could have been like Robert Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers and the protagonist of the movie “Flash of Genius”. He came up with a quite minor idea – using a transistor RC oscillator to drive a wiper – and then wasted the rest of his life suing people he thought had stolen it. You just have to let that stuff go.
I can speak about this with some experience. After I left one company, my work was adopted by another and they sold about 20 million chips using it. I didn’t get anything out of that, but I was still pleased. It’s so rare that something actually takes off that it’s a thrill when it happens. Although it pains your ego to say it, the success of something is due to a lot of people’s work, and not just your brilliant idea.
Anyway, I’ve kept using these Keurig K-Cups because they really do brew good coffee, and really are a convenience. Maybe when the patents are gone someone else will find a way to build a decent brewer.