It was only a matter of time before artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other newfangled technologies worked their way into the food and beverage world. Already, AI has revolutionised the healthcare, music, finance and manufacturing industries, and we are beginning to see its application in urban planning, education and fashion. But until now the f&b market has remained largely untouched.
Last year, we began to see the emerging technology of AI helping F&B companies with supply chain management through improved logistics and predictive analytics, as well as improving sales, by enabling companies to collect and analyse millions of data sets concerning flavour preferences and so forth, at the same time. Now we are beginning to see machine learning and AI upend the vending machine industry, with custom vending machines popping up worldwide with impressive new tech features that both increase sales and make operations more efficient. From cashless payments to facial recognition technology to enhanced energy efficiency, vending machines of the future will no longer simply churn out chips and water bottles when asked - they will be an experience in themselves, foreseeing a customer’s needs and wants before they have even approached the machine, before seamlessly supplying them with that product.
First, let’s talk about payment technologies. Between Apple Pay, Google Wallet, and Hong Kong’s smart Octopus watch that allows its commuters to board the metro with a simple tap, we have been moving in the direction of becoming a cashless society for some time now. So when it comes to finding a few measly dollars to cover a soda from a vending machine, the chances are that people usually don’t have enough cash on them. Thankfully, mobile payment and cashless technologies are becoming increasingly accepted, with most vending machines today equipped with a cashless payment option. In fact, as far back as 2013, vending operators were already deploying this technology at the Calgary Stampede. Visitors to the multi-day agricultural event were the first Canadians to be able to pay for their vending machine purchase with a simple tap of a debit card, with sixteen Coca Cola machines allowing visitors to pay with a touch of their Interac Flash-enabled cards.
Super advanced vending machines, however, will take this technology even further, by interacting with a customer’s smartphone through an AI-powered app to arrange the transaction. It seems complicated but really it goes no further than what we do today when we shop online: we pull up a shop’s inventory, hit purchase, and are delivered the final; product. Apply that same process and technology to a vending machine, and consumers simply select and pay for their item through a connected app. Beverage supergiant Coca Cola is one of the biggest players to have announced plans to roll out apps in Australia, New Zealand and the US which will rely on AI to dictate vending machine operations.
Next, let’s take a look at facial recognition technology and how vending machine operators intend on using it to transform the transaction process. While many companies are still trying to nail the technology before developing vending machines that rely on it, facial recognition features were first introduced to vending machines as far back as 2014. The Luce X2 vending machine, for example, is described as quite simply “the most sophisticated vending machine ever built”. Equipped with a dynamic interface, interactive online services, facial recognition technology and a 22″ LCD touchscreen monitor, the Luce X2 uses a motion sensor to detect when customers are approaching and a camera to recognise the consumer. It then offers a personalised menu based on the purchase history of that customer - and checks their identification against the law to ensure they cannot purchase restricted products, like cigarettes or alcohol. These incredible machines can also broadcast local media messages and customise the experience for each customer, lending to improved sales and customer feedback.
There are countless other technologies being experimented with in the vending machine world, too. Smart inventory capabilities, automotive features that can enable vendors to detect, diagnose and repair machines remotely, energy-saving technologies that help reduce energy bills and save the planet, the list goes on.
There is so much room for innovation in the vending machine space - especially at a time where, due to Covid-19-induced social distancing, people are trying their best to eliminate human-to-human contact wherever possible. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, American vending machine company Farmer’s Fridge are providing healthcare workers across the country with fresh, healthy, read-made meals from vending machines, thus eliminating the need to have hospital cafeterias operating at a time where social distancing is critical. They aren’t the only vending company flourishing during the Covid crisis: Chowbotics’s fresh food robot, Sally, serves customizable grain bowls, salads and snacks to customers in hospitals and schools around the country; Fresh Bowl’s kiosks dispense salads in reusable glass jars from its kiosks in New York; and Yo Kai Express has installed vending machines that serve ramen at the Tesla Factory and Netflix offices, making “contactless” food a real thing. If the future of F&B is contactless, the industry is certainly on the right path at this point.