The food and beverage (F&B) industry is segwaying into a ’no touch’ mode of dispensing food products. Making it all possible is a technology-enabled touchless, adaptable, and customisable automation solution that has emerged as a creative option in the form of smart vending machines for food and drinks. But before we head for a contactless or ‘no touch’ future, we need to understand the challenges associated with it.
Almost all industries have transitioned or are in the process of adopting the World Health Organisation’s pandemic protocols into the way their businesses operate. The most significant of these include social distancing, hygiene, and safety. In order to incorporate a ‘low touch’ culture, development of contactless solutions is gradually seeping within different operations. In particular, the essence of contactless service in the food and beverage (F&B) sector is the use of cutting-edge technology to prevent unnecessary human-to-human contact, thus creating the safest possible encounter for both customers and employees.
In fact, experts believe that the inclusion of contactless technology might bring revolutionary changes and create ‘Industry 5.0’ in the post-COVID-19 era. Nowadays, we are seeing the introduction of innovative vending machines for food and drinks that are being installed in public places such as offices, schools, malls, convention centres etc. The contactless
technology involves a series of technological modules including voice control, motion sensing, mobile phone control, robotic services, thermal sensing, facial recognition, infrared temperature measurement, Internet of Things (IoT), drones etc. to support the entire ecosystem. As a result of which, F&B companies are now eagerly investing and collaborating to design such solutions across the globe.
However, contactless technology is not an invention of the pandemic. Many technological modules had already been explored before COVID-19 arrived across industries. While the F&B industry is increasingly implementing contactless services to help eliminate the health risks of COVID-19, several issues might prevail with respect to technology acceptance in the long run. It might even be speculated that the reason for incorporating contactless technology is to reduce staffing cost rather than to enhance safety.
Global tech advancements
One of the first to incorporate the use of contactless technology during the pandemic was the Swiss multinational food and drinks company Nestle. The company launched a remote control solution for all Nespresso Momento machines, where coffee drinkers could control the machine from their mobile phones thanks to an intuitive web-app. Another option provided by the company is automatic brewing that can be set up on the coffee machines. This means coffees will be brewed without touching the screen thanks to the Nespresso Momento capsule recognition feature. The machine will recognise the inserted capsule and brew the coffee according to the predefined cup size.
Nespresso Momento machines also offer a lock-screen option for safe interaction. The main advantage is that each coffee drinker can disinfect the touch-screen before interacting with it. In fact, Nestlé has teamed up with Singapore-based Nanoveu to customise its Nanoshield antiviral and anti-bacterial screen protector for its coffee machines.
“Increasing interest in Nanoshield, which is available as a commercial roll of film or in a number of pre-cut units such as tape and push-pads, is driving record sales. The increasing sales figures buoy our expectation that Nanoshield will become increasingly relevant for a wide range of customers seeking greater protection and peace-of-mind when operating high-touch surfaces”, said Alfred Chong, Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Nanoveu.
On the other hand, Azkoyen Group, a Spanish technology-based firm, has developed and patented air touch technology for their automatic machines such as coffee vending machines, which allows the user to obtain the products without having any contact with the surface of the machine, adding safety and hygiene to the purchasing process.
Quench, a leading provider of filtered water solutions for businesses across the United States and Canada, has launched a touchless Quench Q8 bottle-free filtered water system. The Position Sensitive Detector sensor-activated water cooler connects to an existing water supply and dispenses hot and cold, mineral-infused drinking water.
Adding on, Coca-Cola is patenting a touch-free, optical dispensing solution for its fountain dispensers. Sensor-enabled levers will detect the presence of a cup under the nozzle and pour the drink. When the cup is removed, pouring will automatically stop.
PepsiCo is responding to these changing times by creating a first-of-its-kind restaurant menu controlled by hand gestures as an alternative to traditional touchscreen kiosks. This is the first deployment of a touch-free gesture interface in a QSR using this type of computer vision and 3D hand-tracking technology.
Another player joining this list is Unilever. In collaboration with UK-based food retailer Co-op, Unilever is developing a smart ice-cream vending machine with contactless technology.
Further, RoboBurger has been developed as the world’s first fully autonomous robotic burger chef in the US. RoboBurger is an artificially intelligent, self-operating, patented kitchen designed to include all the processes of a restaurant at a fraction of the size. It is the first hot food vending machine approved at the gold food standard for safety by the National Sanitary Foundation (NSF) at the standard NSF/ANSI (American National Standards Institute) 25.
‘Low-touch’ boom in India
Driven by IoT-enabled technology, digitally connected food vending machines and smart-stores in India have been identified to accelerate the growth of the F&B industry. For instance, Daalchini, a startup based in Delhi-NCR, is popularising smart food vending machines with the added benefit of no contact services to comply with the stringent parameters set by the pandemic.
According to a report by ResearchAndMarkets, the Indian food tech sector is expanding at a CAGR of 39 per cent from 2021 to 2025. This demonstrates the growth of the food tech industry, making it the fastest-growing direct-to-consumer (D2C) category.
Mumbai-based startup Cherise India has also forayed into smart vending by launching a range of smart, IoT, and android-based vending machines dispensing a wide portfolio of teas, coffee, soups, and milk, under its own brand. The user-friendly smart vending kiosks of Cherise come with their own proprietary IoT dashboard and app for monitoring the operations.
“Our vending technology is fully proprietary and owned by us. We have our own laboratories where we do extensive research on vending technology as well as on beverage ingredients. Our smart vending machines as well as our beverages and formulations are manufactured by us at our own plants. We do not have any third party or OEM partners”, said Parimal Shah, Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Cherise India.
On the other hand, Bengaluru-based Chai Point has entered the vending segment back in 2017 with the launch of its boxC.in, an IoT enabled tea/coffee vending machine. boxC is currently present at more than 4,000 locations in the country. Encouraged by the success of its boxC range, the company has now launched an android enabled contactless vending machine dispensing western coffee with beans grinding mechanism. The new machines come fitted with sim cards and are remote monitored by Network Operating Centre (NOC). Furthermore, Chai Point has enabled access to high-quality single-origin Rain Forest Alliance certified beans for these new range of boxC coffee machines.
“We are working on expanding the vending machine business in a big way. Our ‘Vending as a Service’ (VAAS) channel powered by boxC machines, are already amongst the largest sellers of filter coffee,” said Amuleek Singh Bijral, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Chai Point.
Pune-based startup Vendekin Technologies is another player exploring this space rapidly. It has developed a retrofittable plug-and-play device that makes an existing vending machine smart in a few minutes. The company has got two US patents and one Indian patent that enables it to convert the legacy machines into smart vending machines. Apart from retrofitting, Vendekin also makes its own factory-integrated machines that can sell a wide range of goods from snacks and groceries to hygiene products.
“Touchless has become a must-have and our technology enables use of the machine through the mobile phone instead of using the machine’s keypad. The touchless technology offers the consumer a safe way to make purchases, ensures lower operating cost and higher margins for the vending machine operator,” says Aroon Khatter, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Vendekin Technologies.
With the industry developing different forms of technology to expedite the acceptance of the contactless concept, the academicians are not far behind. Bengaluru-based scientists from the Centre for Nano and Soft Matter Sciences (CeNS), and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced and Scientific Research (JNCASR) have provided an affordable solution to develop a low-cost touch-cum-proximity sensor popularly called touchless touch sensor through a printing technique.
This touchless sensor technology could help many F&B companies build smarter food and drinks vending machines in the coming times. “We are making a few more prototypes using our patterned electrodes to prove their feasibility for other smart electronic applications. These patterned electrodes can be made available to interested industries and R&D labs on a request basis to explore collaborative projects. The novel low-cost patterned transparent electrodes have tremendous potential to be used in advanced smart electronic devices like touchless screens and sensors,” said Dr Indrajit Mondal, Researcher, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced and Scientific Research.
But then ease of use is not always easy because digitisation requires significant investments in the form of time and money. Securing that willingness to invest rests on the vendor’s ability to explain the technologies involved, and to put together an appropriate strategy to come in on time and on budget. Security is another complexity that lurks behind seamless contactless experiences. In order for the system to operate, it must be completely safe particularly when the use of mobile apps is involved.
Lastly, technology acceptance is measured based on behavioural intention; however, the actual usage of contactless services not only depends on customers’ intentions, but equally on the availability of the technological module. Therefore, when contactless technology is more widely adopted in the future, it would be interesting to investigate its influence on the industry’s growth.
Dr Manbeena Chawla