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RFID to Revolutionize Coca-Cola's Dispensers

The Freestyle system uses passive RFID tags, enabling a single beverage dispenser to provide consumers with more than 100 drink options, as well as track how well each sells.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 10, 2009Coca-Cola has begun beta-testing an RFID-enabled drink dispenser that the company claims will transform the soft drink dispensing industry, by providing more than 100 drink options from a single machine. The machine, known as Freestyle, utilizes RFID technology to identify 30 or more cartridges, determine the quantity of flavoring inside each, and transmit data back to Coca-Cola indicating which drinks are being consumed, and when.

"We consider Freestyle nothing short of a revolution in the fountain dispenser business," says Ray Crockett, Coca-Cola's director of communications. The system not only offers consumers a vast choice of Coca-Cola beverages, he notes—from sodas to flavored waters—it also provides the company with real-time insight into what is happening in restaurants across the United States.

Coca-Cola's Freestyle drink dispenser
The Freestyle system, in design for several years, 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 necessary to produce that beverage, says Gene Farrell, VP of the company's JET Innovation Program team, which developed the technology.

When developing the system's technology, Coca-Cola considered several options that would help the firm track its beverage cartridges. Each drink consists of a mix of several ingredients. A Coke selection, for example, includes concentrated flavorings 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 JET Innovation Program team considered placing bar-coded labels on each cartridge, Farrell says, 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. "It would mean an added step for the crews," Farrell says. 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," he states, "we have the ability to leverage a write-back feature."

When a cartridge is manufactured and filled at the Coca-Cola plant, Farrell says, it is fitted with a passive RFID tag. (He declines to reveal the tags' frequency or RFID standard, citing trade secrets.) 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.

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