The future of vending – an immersive consumer experience
Vending has been around for quite some time – indeed, the first vending machine was reported from 215 BC (Hero of Alexandria, who also demonstrated a rotating steam-driven sphere!). Today, the development of connected devices, sensors and interactive software-driven devices is, however, enabling more sophisticated vending platforms.
Consumer demands for rapid 24/7 access to a wider choice of products drive the opportunity for vending solutions and their supporting infrastructure to be tailored to specific demographics. In this article, we highlight how technology is addressing this challenge and others in quality, freshness, and supply chain management.
Vended edible products have long been those with a long shelf-life. However, two themes are becoming evident. One is the ability to tailor the product to the individual consumer’s needs, and the second is the increasing demand for short-shelf-life products. In the former case, beverage dispensing, for example, Pepsi’s Spire or Coca-Cola’s Freestyle, must interact with the consumer not only to present available choices but also to allow the vending process to be controlled and quality assured.In the latter case, the growth in demand for healthy and fresh products to be made available in fast footfall locations such as public events or transit locations is driving better inventory control and assurance of freshness. An example is provided by Krispy Kreme, where doughnuts are made daily and selling locations are mostly stocked and dispensed manually. However, Krispy Kreme vending was pioneered at their North Carolina headquarters and has arrived in the UK. They target high-traffic locations such as airports, where contactless interaction is appropriate in a post-pandemic world and where product turnover ensures minimum loss through spoilage. As with any machine, regulators and consumers alike drive the need to monitor a sufficient level of quality and to help ensure product authenticity. For example, optical devices which can detect colour, texture or mass have applications here.
Foods with a limited shelf-life require a profitable vending option to deliver a combination of features starting with careful product choice, embodied in an engaging format along with inventory control, freshness detection and cleanliness. Concerns that consumers may have over freshness and the risk of failure of appropriate product management can be mitigated using appropriate sensors and assured inventory control. Freshness sensors include those that facilitate the detection of common products of spoilage, such as alcohols (milk souring); ethylene (ripening of bananas), and primary amines (putrescine and cadaverine from meat and fish spoilage). An example of such a sensor is provided by Dart sensors Sampling Food Fresh Sensor - Dart Sensors (dart-sensors.com). Gas sensors of this type have a convenient size and format and sometimes utilise specificity-enhancing membranes. Simple deployment of sensors in a common environment (the interior of a vending machine) might detect that something is “off”. However, careful design of a distributed sampling system integrated into the existing airflow might allow a specific product to be identified and even removed automatically.
Managing the supply chain
Reduction of unsold products (waste) depends on being able to stock an outlet with what the local consumer population will buy. Inventory management using multiple sensor types is prevalent in warehousing, retail outlets, agriculture, and medical supply locations. The vending machine can be considered a branch of such a connected system. Stock levels can be detected optically, using ultrasonic locators or by measuring mass - with a variety of load sensors available to suit all dimensions and mass ranges – for example, iVendScale+ provides an integrated and connected mass-based system (Inventor-e – Innovative Inventory Management Solutions to streamline your inventory. ) Building from inventory management, the tracking of purchases over time can inform planogram selections and, ideally, be linked to consumer demographics. Factors which can be detected using an image-based system are, for example, the gender and age of the consumer. When these factors are related to a consumer interaction during the selection and purchase of a product, further information aligning the initial demographic to purchasing preferences and even prediction of likely future preferences provides a complete picture for that locality. As stated by alwaysAI: “Using data from cameras and sensors, retailers are leveraging AI to power faster checkouts, manage inventory, and reduce loss, to make their businesses more efficient and profitable” (Computer Vision Helps Retailers Understand Their Customers in Real Time (alwaysai.co)).
The future – immersive experiences
In the present and near future, sensing technologies, when coupled with the latest connectivity, are revolutionising product quality, freshness, and availability. However, what about the next step in vending capability and functionality? The potential to tailor the vending experience for the consumer comes with all the complexity associated with managing personal information. However, enabling personalised menus, targeted advertising and promotion, and entirely cashless payment through biometric (facial, eye) recognition is a tantalising development (see for example: https://www.vendingmarketwatch.com/technology/telemetry-data-collection-equipment-systems/article/21133037/the-rise-of-biometrics). Similarly, the capability to dynamically assess what is happening around the vending site – for example, the footfall (number of passing consumers); degree of interest in machine (e.g., dwell time); and mood of consumer approaching (visual systems coupled with machine learning) could be used to optimise products stocked and dispensed (see for example: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0957417419308279). Finally, in a world where sustainability is at the very centre of our lives, the ability to provide a seamless reverse vending solution is likely to be critical (see for example: Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs) | Veolia UK). In this scenario, the solution would be able to detect incoming packaging, verify the validity and dispense cash or credit. Furthermore, the ability to clean and disinfect before re-use of packaging would enable the application upon a wider range of (fresh) products. Examples already exist for vending of milk, where containers are dispensed separately, or consumers’ own containers can be used. The way is open for automating the process and allowing better control of cleanliness and re-use of standardised containers. It’s clear that vending has come a long way since the days of Hero of Alexandria – with plenty more to come!
How Sagentia Innovation can help
We bring technical expertise and experience in connected sensing solutions and services for the food & beverage, consumer, medical and industrial sectors, coupled with capabilities for assessing market opportunity and strategic partnerships. This puts us in a strong position to illuminate the path towards innovative technical solutions that consider the consumer/user experience, ensure confidence in the claims made and carefully de-risk applications for users and the environment. In recent years we have worked with a variety of partners to assist in identifying solutions for design challenges where end-user convenience and simplicity are key for success, either in terms of core device performance, or by considering how a product and device work best together. And beyond our advisory research and product development services, our access to regulatory expertise within the Science Group family of consultancies enables us to consider upfront any challenges for market commercialisation.