Image credit: AAEON
Before the pandemic stopped the country in its tracks, Farmer’s Fridge CEO Luke Saunders knew something was amiss. His company operates about 400 smart vending machines that provide fresh salads, bowls, and wraps to consumers in airports, educational institutions, and healthcare facilities.
“Probably three or four weeks before we saw any impact to everyday life, sales at the airport were down 20 percent,” Saunders has said. “Usually, [we would have been] ramping up at this point in the year.”
As vending machines shift to carry more fresh foods and even meal kits, tracking purchases is critical to reduce food waste and boost profits. Enter the smart vending machine, where companies can track information from a central, remote location and make real-time decisions based on that data.
Data-Driven Inventory Control
Chicago-based Farmer’s Fridge uses smart vending machines to monitor sales in real-time. The company uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a data-driven inventory control system that shares information between the refrigerated vending machines, the kitchen, and the drivers, through a cloud infrastructure.
The infrastructure allows Farmer’s Fridge to monitor the vending machine, product inventory, and restocking needs multiple times a day. It also tracks consumer information such as product purchases, loyalty, new product interest, and response to push notifications. The solution also supports mobile ordering.
When Saunders realized airport sales were down and universities were closing, he relocated some of his smart vending machines to healthcare facilities, where essential workers who needed to eat had a hard time finding an open cafeteria or restaurant. It was a smart move, and business resumed.
Even as the country begins to open up, Farmer’s Fridge has noticed changes in dining patterns. In healthcare facilities, the size of a single order has increased about 14 percent. Off-hour use—typically from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.—has shot up 300 percent, and typically slow weekend consumption has been robust as well.
The Shift to Smart Vending
To gain that level of insight requires the use of IoT. Most basic vending machines use a vending machine controller (VMC) to handle functions such as payment, lighting, and refrigeration. Outfitting those machines with more intelligence can make them far more profitable, as operators can monitor multiple aspects of their machines from a central dashboard. Companies like AAEON are helping vending machines move into the IoT arena with upgrade kits.
AAEON’s Intelligent Vending portfolio offers solutions from the entry-level to the high-end. All solutions are powered by the UP Board, AAEON’s credit-card sized embedded board computer based on the Intel® Atom™ x5-Z8350 processor. The solution supports different expansion modules along with WiFi, 4G, and Bluetooth connectivity to the cloud. It also has a specific dedicated group of interfaces, including MDB, DEX, Executive, and CAN bus. With support for the Intel API Software Development Kit, operators can create custom apps that harness the capabilities of Intel’s Intelligent Vending platform.
AAEON’s smart vending solution, called Brainy, is based on the Intel® Reference Design for Intelligent Vending. Brainy solutions support the Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform for real-time analytics and telemetry, centralized pricing management. It also supports the Intel® RealSense™ facial recognition technology to enable the machines to offer customized product suggestions to consumers, based on gender or age. Brainy Intelligent Vending solutions can be powered by Emutex Intelligent Vending Solution or by BSquare DataV IoT Services.
With the added IoT capabilities, vending machine operators can get specific information about product inventory and restocking, take a proactive approach to maintenance, and evaluate the success of targeted marketing.
Teaming Up with Digital Signage
Intelligent vending machine manufacturer V-Sync combines vending and digital signage. With image display capabilities, V-Sync’s SmartVendor machines can offer food and beverage suggestions to consumers, post advertisements or public service announcements, and even warn consumers of impending threats, such as a tornado. The multi-function machines can offer the capability for customers to take a commemorative photo, similar to a photo booth, and get local information and maps.
Image credit: V-Sync
Intelligent vending machines and smart fridges have been gaining momentum for their convenience and increased potential profitability. Last year, even before COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, the smart vending market was projected to reach $5 billion by 2025. The growth might be quicker as the pandemic continues to change how people interact and as contactless meal purchases gain momentum.
- Learn more about AAEON’s smart vending kits here.
- To find out about V-Sync’s SmartVendor machines, click here.
- For more information about Intel’s Reference Design for Intelligent Vending, read this product brief.