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RFID Monitors Students' Beverages

Florida high schools use the technology to limit refills and control costs.
By Minda Zetlin
Oct 08, 2012—Self-serve beverage stations are a popular feature at many eating establishments, including the high-school cafeterias in Central Florida's Osceola County. But many students were taking advantage of the system, buying one beverage and then refilling their cups several times—and even sharing their drinks with friends.

The machines dispense sports drinks, iced tea and lemonade, so it wasn't so much an issue of controlling the amount of beverages consumed in an effort to reduce the incidence of obesity—rather, the losses stemming from students taking more drinks than they'd paid for were mounting up. "People would come in with their own cups and just come up to the machine and get a drink," says Donna Wolter, Osceola County Schools' supervisor of food service. "At one time, something like seven out of every ten drinks consumed weren't being paid for."

An RFID chip embedded in a refillable cup, and a reader mounted inside the beverage-dispensing machine, enables the school system to control the number of times students refill their beverages.

In 2003, Wolter attended a restaurant industry trade show in Chicago. "I was talking to the rep of a vending machine company," she says. "I asked, 'Why can't they come up with a machine that allows us to sell them one drink—and that's all?' The rep replied, 'There's a company that's working on that.'"

That company was Whirley-DrinkWorks, a food and beverage container manufacturer that believed radio frequency identification technology could be used to monitor drink refills. The concept was that with an RFID chip embedded in a refillable cup, and a reader mounted inside the beverage-dispensing machine, merchants could control the number of times consumers refilled their beverages, and for how long they were allowed to do so. Such a solution could also provide detailed sales data.

In 2009, Whirley launched ValidFill, and focused on developing and marketing the concept. "It became more and more apparent this was a good idea," recalls Jeremy Wade, ValidFill's VP of product development and operations. "Tag prices were coming down to where there was a favorable ROI for customers."

ValidFill believed its RFID solution would appeal to cruise lines and theme parks, which typically allow customers to purchase unlimited beverage refills throughout a day, a season or the duration of a trip. Guests could buy a reusable plastic cup with an embedded RFID tag, enabling them to serve themselves without the need for employee assistance.

But before marketing the solution to those high-pressure arenas, in which customers would likely be unforgiving if things went wrong, ValidFill first wanted to make sure the system worked perfectly. As it turned out, Osceola County's Poinciana High School was both geographically near ValidFill's offices and receptive to an RFID experiment.

"It was the one where we were having the most trouble, because the soda-dispensing machines were nowhere near the cash register," Wolter states. "They were out in the dining room, where staff couldn't monitor them."
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