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PantryLabs' Vending Machine Dispenses Fresh Foods Via RFID

The California startup's refrigerated kiosks, installed at UCSF Medical Center and Stanford Health Care, can identify sandwiches and other perishable products stored within, and can track sales and inventory levels.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 29, 2014

Following two pilots conducted at Bay Area hospitals, San Francisco-based startup PantryLabs has begun selling its smart sensor-based refrigerated vending machine, known as a Pantry, to enable businesses—such as health-care facilities, restaurants and other food sellers—to dispense fresh food automatically. The Pantry has a built-in RFID reader to track the items stored inside the unit via tags affixed to food packaging. The company initially has 1,000 of the kiosks available for pre-orders.

PantryLabs developed the solution to allow users to monitor the food inventory inside vending machines, view alerts to restock those machines, and prevent products from going out of stock, thereby reducing sales. PantryLabs' customers "want to extend their reach of point of service," says Art Tkachenko, PantryLabs' CEO. Although they can sell fresh food to workers and visitors during business hours, companies that continue operating throughout the night are often unable to provide the same food service during that time.

The Pantry refrigerated vending machine has a built-in RFID reader to identify which food items consumers have removed from its shelves.
This spring and summer, the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center's nutrition and food services department and Stanford Health Care each piloted a refrigerated kiosk to determine whether they could use the Pantry system to provide fresh foods and cold drinks to employees and visitors, even when staff members were not available to sell the product personally.

"Our operations have used traditional vending machines for years," says Charles Davies, the UCSF Medical Center's associate director of operations and culinary innovation. The machines dispense packaged snack foods and beverages. However, he says, stocking and managing a vending machine with fresh foods can be time-consuming. "With the use of RFID tags and PantryLabs' kiosk, we now have expanded our vending options to fresh refrigerated food," Davies states. That includes sandwiches, salads, fruit and entrées, such as burritos, that can be microwaved.

The medical center is open 24 hours a day, while its café closes at night, leaving personnel and other customers with few food options except those items sold in vending machines after business hours. In April 2014, UCSF installed the Pantry, which resembles a refrigerator with a door made of clear glass.

The Pantry has a ThingMagic Mercury6e RFID reader module and a reader antenna on each of its shelves. The unit employs a Wi-Fi or 3G cellular connection to PantryLabs' hosted server, Tkachenko explains, where data regarding its inventory is stored and managed. The use of a cellular connection versus Wi-Fi, he notes, depends on network stability.

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