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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
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.

According to Farrell, a single Freestyle dispenser contains multiple RFID interrogators, though he declines to reveal the exact number. The RFID infrastructure was one of the system's harder components to develop, he says, and a trade secret Coca-Cola is protecting from competitors. "There was a lot of genius behind figuring out how to read each tag without cross-reads in a very tight space," he states, adding that there are several patents pending on Coca-Cola's design.

Gene Farrell, VP of Coca-Cola's JET Innovation Program
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.

What's more, 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, Farrell says, and the dispensers can also receive directives from the network. 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, Farrell says. 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 utilized for a recycling program in which the cartridge tags could be read as they are shipped to recycling plants—though such a system, he notes, is not yet in place. "Once we made the decision to use RFID, we decided to leverage it as much as possible," he states. "Since we have that capability, we might as well use it."

To date, two machines are being tested in fast-food restaurants in Atlanta, and three states (California, Georgia and Utah) have been identified where the company will roll out approximately 60 dispensers by the end of this summer. If the system is a success, Coca-Cola plans to introduce it across the country. "To accomplish any big breakthrough such as this one, we have to take the approach of learning as we go," he says, indicating that the company intends to study the results of the initial beta tests before making any concrete plans.

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