RFID Will Deliver Drink Orders On the Go

By Claire Swedberg

Technology startup Shotput's system will enable consumer app-based orders of beverages or other products, from a mobile unit equipped with radio frequency identification, in order to provide automated dispensing and restocks.

Logistics technology and services startup Shotput has partnered with a global beverage company to pilot a solution that delivers product quickly to consumers wherever they are, by using refrigerated containers dispersed in heavy-demand areas, equipped with radio frequency identification technology. The beverage company, which plans to pilot this technology during the next few months, has asked to remain unnamed. The system, says Praful Mathur, Shotput's roboticist and co-founder, is intended to challenge the existing model of product supply chains, by enabling a more Amazon Prime-type of service for food, beverages or other consumer goods.

The solution that Shotput has developed consists of EPC UHF RFID-enabled shelves within a cooled container that acts like a vending machine. When a consumer requests a product via an app, the system receives that request, prompts the dispensing of products from the closest cooler and orders transportation to get the product quickly to the consumer. RFID ensures that replenishment orders are made in time, thereby preventing out-of-stocks.

Shotput's Praful Mathur

Shotput refers to the coolers—which act like robotic vending machines but could be the size of a shipping container—as micro-warehouses. These units are what enable orders to be placed from any location, the company explains, and goods to be received quickly.

Shotput was launched in 2014, Mathur says, to develop advanced robotics for the logistics industry. He formed the company to provide greater efficiency to the supply chain of goods, such as food, beverages and other verticals, that traditionally are purchased by individuals walking into stores and finding the goods on store shelves. The availability of e-commerce, as well as companies like Amazon, are challenging that model in the case of many higher-value products, he adds, while beverages, food and other convenience items tend to be more challenging for e-commerce, based on the high volume of goods being moved and sold worldwide. "The consumables are one thing that hasn't done well in the e-commerce space," Mathur states.

So Shotput, Mathur says, is developing a system that it plans to test this year. Initially, testing will involve the beverage manufacturer, to determine whether consumables—a can of soda or other beverage, for instance—could be purchased in the same way that goods are ordered via channels like Amazon Prime.

The pilot will consist of Shotput vending units staged in strategic areas where beverages sell in high volume and consumers are tech-savvy. Austin, Texas, is one example. The beverage company will offer consumers an app that uses Shotput's software developers kit (SDK) to manage the product and ordering data. Upon downloading the app, a consumer—assuming he or she is located in the trial's geographic area—will then use the app to place an order for a beverage. The app on that person's mobile phone will capture that order, along with the consumer's location—for example, in a park, at home or at a public swimming pool. The app will then identify the closest Shotput cooler and forward the order data to the onboard computer at that site.

The unit contains off-the-shelf UHF RFID tags on its shelves, each with a unique ID number linked to the beverages stored on it. It comes with "autobagger" robotic mechanics, which have a built-in ThingMagic Vega ruggedized RFID reader. The mechanical arm that retrieves the beverage identifies the product based on the shelf tag ID read, then delivers the appropriate drink to the dispensing unit.

The software must trigger the delivery of that beverage to the customer, Mathur says. During the trial, he notes, orders will be placed with a car service such as UberEats, or Instacart, after which an service driver within the vicinity will receive the order, proceed to the dispensing unit, pick up the product and deliver it to the address provided. In additional, the system is also designed to enable drone delivery in the future.

In the case of a vehicle-based delivery service, a driver will use his or her own smartphone to select the prompt indicating that the product has been delivered. The Shotput app will then bill the customer's credit card account for the product and delivery.

In the meantime, data related to this event is captured by the software, enabling the system to know when inventory needs to be replenished, based on the RFID tags read at each shelf. For example, if the autobagger robotics system has retrieved several dozen containers of a specific type of cola, based on the RFID shelf tag reads, the unit will automatically forward a replenishment order to Shotput, which can then place an order to restock the unit, thereby avoiding any out-of-stock issues. In addition, the software would know if a specific unit did not contain enough of a particular product to fill an order, so that the order could then be forwarded to a different unit.

Shotput determines the best locations for the micro-warehouses and parks them there. However, they can be quickly moved if consumer demand changes.

For the beverage company, the pilot will be intended as publicity, to simply ascertain whether or not technology enables it to provide such a service.