INDIANAPOLIS -- A technology startup here is developing a do-it-yourself machine that invites patrons to customize drink flavors, and then mixes, bottles and labels the beverages before their eyes.
The founders of uFlavor recently took a prototype of their novel vending machine on a multistate bus tour to engage consumers, gather feedback and demonstrate the technology to potential investors. UFlavor partners Nathan Altman and Mike Mitchell both have backgrounds in technology and engineering and serve as chief executive and chief technology officer, respectively.
The beta machine, also called uFlavor, was built from the ground up. It can mix any combination of 42 highly concentrated all-natural flavor extracts and sweetening agents with still or carbonated water. Users decide what ingredients they want to mix -- ranging from vanilla and ginger to apple and cinnamon -- and the proportions of each. Beverage creators can also upload an image to personalize their bottle label.
The machine features two touchscreen displays for users. Patrons use them to log into their uFlavor account -- which they set up before they use the machine -- to select a drink that they've created online. They can also browse and select other creations or choose from uFlavor's most popular user-created beverages. (To help prevent long lines from forming, users are not permitted to formulate original drinks while standing at the machine.)
The entire production process can been seen through a window. The machine's mixing chamber fills with water from a plumbed-in supply treated with reverse-osmosis technology. Flavoring agents and a choice of sweeteners are "jetted" into the chamber. The bottle is filled and capped, as the label is printed. UFlavor anticipates that the drinks will vend in the $1.50 to $2 range.
The flavoring agents and sweeteners come in a proprietary liquid format and are stored in a "cell" that is designed to be easily swapped and shipped. The uFlavor production model is expected to offer 100 ingredients; each cell will store up to 20 of them.
Easy-to-load prepackaged bottle cartridges simplify service; each holds 130 glass bottles (12 fl.oz.) and the machine accommodates three cartridges.
While the uFlavor prototype is manually cleaned, the company's engineers are developing an automatic cleaning cycle that will run after each drink is produced. They are also tweaking the label-printing process to improve speed and graphics.
Altman and Mitchell are planning to put their vending machine into full production by summer 2013.
In the meantime, uFlavor has launched an online marketplace, where visitors can order one of four flavors created by beta users and create their own label for it. Within six months, visitors to uFlavor.com will be able to customize their own flavors, which other users can purchase, or they can keep simply order their own creations and keep them private.