Similarly, new generations of cellphones will contain near-field communications (NFC) chips that will allow consumers to wave or "bump" their phone in front of a vending machine to make a purchase, rather than using cash, credit, or debit cards. The Google Wallet mobile app already lets consumers tap their smartphones on an NFC terminal at checkout and pay with a designated credit or debit card.
With such technologies in place, you can also expect to see the spread of micro-markets that cater to today's fast-paced, 24/7 lifestyles. First deployed in 2010, these outlets may one day compete with traditional convenience stores. Located in places like gas stations, these micro-markets require no interaction at all with a clerk. You simply choose your products and go to a kiosk, where a scanner recognizes the RFID tag or barcode on items you buy. Once again, you'll see payment options such as prepaid loyalty cards, credit cards, and mobile apps based on NFC technology. Such outlets are a natural progression for future electric vehicle charging stations.
Among other advancements, engineers are already working on technologies that will enable vending machines to identity the voice, face, or gestures of the customer standing in front of it. With those innovations, you won't have to take your smartphone out of your pocket or even contact a touchscreen. Once you're recognized, the machine can deliver customized messages to you, drawing from cloud-based data on your past purchases and preferences. The machine may even suggest other products you might need, as well as the locations of vending outlets that offer those items. Within five years, these technologies could be quite common.
New frontiers for vending
The combination of electronics, precision robotics, telemetry, and greater computing power is also taking vending to locations and applications never seen before. Because of high precision mechatronics, which can incorporate vision technology, sophisticated actuators, sensors, and closed-loop motion control, vending machines can now mimic human movements.
In 2008, for example, consumer electronics giant Best Buy launched its Express kiosks in major airports. The assortment of products available in those automated outlets include MP3 players, cellphone and computer accessories, digital cameras, Flash drives, other portable storage devices, and more. This application calls for a robust, intelligent robotics system that can select and handle a variety of complex shapes reliably. Express kiosks can now be found in more than 200 locations, including resorts, colleges, and malls.
To rival dough-twirling pizza chefs, Netherlands-based A1 Concepts is distributing a highly complex vending kiosk called Let's Pizza. Launched in Europe in 2009 and now being introduced in the US, the machine contains enough fresh ingredients to make 200 pizzas. It automatically mixes and shapes dough, dispenses sauce and a variety of toppings, and bakes the pie in an infrared oven -- all in about three minutes. To ensure a hygienic environment, the kiosk contains a refrigerator unit to hold perishable ingredients and automatically discards unused dough. Featuring a network of sensors, the kiosk transmits operational data over the Internet to the vendor operator. If this kind of system delivers the level of quality that consumers demand, you may well see other foods, such as hamburgers, delivered in automated environments.
For retailers, all these examples of vending technology offer an alternative to brick-and-mortar locations, allowing companies to extend their brands beyond traditional stores. And the underlying technology is increasingly being applied to items not traditionally found in vending machines -- from consumer electronics to shoes. Minneapolis-based InstyMeds now dispenses pharmaceuticals 24/7 from machines in about 200 US locations, primarily hospitals and urgent-care clinics. Using a touchscreen, a user enters a prescription code and pays by credit or debit card. Thinking about future medical applications, it's not far-fetched to envision a machine that would administer a flu shot and take your basic vital signs.
End-to-end technical solutions
Inventors, vending operators, OEMs, and retailers that want to embrace this new era of automated merchandising face the daunting challenge of blending the full gamut of engineering technologies into autonomous machines that must operate independently for days at a time. This is where experienced design engineering teams, like those at Jabil, can help. They can update a customer's existing machine, design a specific system within a complex vending machine, or do a complete turnkey design featuring the very latest technologies. With all these advancements in technology, it's clearly a very exciting time for the vending industry.
Jeffrey Lumetta is the vice-president of technology for Jabil Circuit Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Fla. A 25-year Jabil veteran, Lumetta oversees the global research and design group, helping OEMs develop new technology across a wide range of industries. He holds a BSEE degree from Michigan Technological University.
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