RFID revolutionises dispensers

COCA-COLA has begun beta-testing an RFID-enabled drink dispenser in the US that the company claims will transform the soft drink dispensing industry.

COCA-COLA has begun beta-testing an RFID-enabled drink dispenser in the US that the company claims will transform the soft drink dispensing industry.

The machine, known as Freestyle, uses proprietary PurePour Technology to provide more than 100 drink options in the same amount of space as the current eight-valve machine.

The new drink dispenser, four years in development, utilises RFID technology to identify 30 or more cartridges, determine the quantity of flavouring inside each, and transmit data back to Coca-Cola indicating which drinks are being consumed, and when.

The system also uses RFID to ensure each cartridge is being installed properly, to guarantee it is not counterfeit, and to instantly stop the dispensing of certain drinks if Coca-Cola needs to recall the cartridges or their contents.

When developing the system’s technology, Coca-Cola considered several options that would help the company track its beverage cartridges. Each drink consists of a mix of several ingredients.

A Coke selection, for example, includes concentrated flavourings from a cartridge, a sweetener (such as corn syrup), water and carbonation. When an order is selected at the machine, the appropriate mix of all those elements is then injected into the customer’s cup.

The cartridges are the key to the large drink selection, however, and tracking those cartridges–ensuring they are not incorrectly placed or depleted–is thus essential to the machine’s success.

While the design engineers considered placing bar-coded labels on each cartridge, they found bar coding had several limitations.

First, it would have required the servicing staff to scan each label with a bar-code reader before installing it in the machine.

In addition, with bar codes, the machine would not have had the ability to read and write data regarding cartridge use in such a way that it could be stored with that particular cartridge and follow it, or be updated as needed.

With RFID, the company has the ability to leverage a write-back feature.

When a cartridge is manufactured and filled at the Coca-Cola plant, it is fitted with a passive RFID tag. An interrogator at the manufacturing site then writes data onto the tag, such as details about the drink in the cartridge, as well as the volume.

When a cartridge is installed in the Freestyle dispenser, the individual servicing that dispenser holds it up to the machine, and an RFID interrogator captures the unique ID number and other data encoded to the cartridge tag.

If the machine’s onboard computer confirms that the cartridge’s ID number is valid, it releases the door lock and illuminates an LED light at the location at which the cartridge should be installed.

The employee then opens the door and removes the empty cartridge from the slot where the LED light is shining, replacing it with a new one.

An RFID interrogator inside the machine captures the tag’s unique ID as the new cartridge is installed; if that cartridge is being placed in the wrong slot, the machine will fail to operate.

A single Freestyle dispenser contains multiple RFID interrogators, though the company has declined to reveal the exact number. According to the company, the RFID infrastructure was one of the system’s harder components to develop, and is a trade secret Coca-Cola is protecting from competitors.

To select a drink, a consumer uses a touch screen on the front of the machine to indicate the desired beverage.

The dispenser’s interrogators can then write usage-related data to the tag each time a particular cartridge is used, thereby enabling the system to calculate the remaining amount of that cartridge’s contents.

As well, the machine provides Coca-Cola with business analytics, as it has both cellular and cabled Ethernet network capability, thus enabling it to communicate with the beverage maker’s Freestyle SAP data-management system in Atlanta.

The machines can upload data indicating which beverages are being consumed most, at what times and in what places, and the dispensers can also receive directives from the network.

For example, if a cartridge with a particular tag ID number needs to be recalled, for instance, the network can instruct the machine to stop dispensing any beverages made with contents from that specific cartridge.

Coca-Cola also plans to employ the RFID tags for supply chain management. At the packaging site, RFID interrogators can verify that each box contains the correct beverage cartridges before it is shipped.

The technology may also be utilised for a recycling program in which the cartridge tags could be read as they are shipped to recycling plants.

The machines are presently being tested in select quick-serve restaurants before a wider introduction currently planned for early next year.

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