CHICAGO -- Vending machines designed to be loaded with bulk product are among the earliest applications of robotic retailing. While the first ones dispensed liquids -- lustral water in ancient Egypt, eau de cologne in late-19th century New York City -- solid products followed, and machines selling gumballs, hard candies and (eventually) toys and novelties dominated the vending industry for half a century. While the full-line vending revolution is thought to represent the industry's evolution to portion-pack goods loaded individually onto drop shelves or into spirals, the majority of hot beverage venders still are loaded with soluble, roast ground or whole-bean coffee, as well as allied products. These machines have advanced to microprocessor-controlled timing of product throw and sophisticated circuitry, allowing patrons to choose not only their favorite beverage, but their preferred condiments.
While the classic bulk vending machine is prized for its mechanical simplicity, economy, durability and intuitive operation, today's full-line industry is moving toward greater patron engagement through greater selectivity and a wider range of options.
So has the time come for a computer-controlled bulk vending machine? Maybe. The industry seems primed for a change, and new-concept machines incorporating a level of "intelligence" and flexibility associated with full-line types have been appearing. Beaver Machine Corp. (Newmarket, ON), a leader in bulk equipment design and manufacture, recently introduced a microprocessor-controlled vender. Sweet Amanda's LLC (Roslyn Heights, NY) has launched a large, highly visible design for high-traffic entertainment venues. And Branded Vending Concepts, which was the first to showcase a machine of this sort at a vending convention, is steaming at full speed ahead with its entry, developed in conjunction with Italy's Ducale Macchine da Caffé di Sandei Ugo & C.s.n.c (Parma). In partnership with Fastcorp LLC (Chester, CT), an innovator in the application of robotics to vending, Chicago-based Branded Vending Concepts has been the American agent for the Ducale machine since 2010. It is now partnering with Fastcorp, which is the North American distributor for Ducale, to market and enhance the machine. Fastcorp's modern factory is equipped to adapt the machines to North American electrical supplies and safety requirements, and BVC is expert at forging high-visibility alliances with leading brands.
THE NEXT STEP: Branded Vending Concepts founder Kevin Zimmerman has discovered that patrons in high-traffic, upscale public sites are responding eagerly to Ducale's vending machine loaded with bulk foods.
The aggressive move of bulk vending operations into new types of location, some upscale, like shopping malls, began several years ago. Today, these accounts are commonplace. Bulk vending operators have demonstrated a willingness to try new formats, such as animated spiral and interactive designs -- even custom display stands. As consumers with higher expectations provide the pull for this movement, the push is exerted by the industry's common price points. These haven't gone up in decades, and as costs increase, pricing constrained by coinage and elementary payment systems continues to squeeze the bottom line.
The BVC-Fastcorp venture is a frontrunner in the push toward this customer-facing, computer-controlled bulk vending with Ducale's novel City Bulk Vendor. The Italian company has been manufacturing equipment for the hospitality industry since the mid-1950s. Starting as a manufacturer of coffee machines for bars and restaurants, Ducale's move into vending began in the 1960s with coffee machines and progressed into other full-line categories.
The partnership with Branded Vending Concepts, which began six years ago, gained some attention when it rolled out a Jelly Belly vender in 2012. Introduced at a time when the industry was still suffering from the recession, the machine won praise but few sales; operators, then, were losing accounts because their locations were going out of business.
Now, with the economy picking up, Branded Vending Concepts is seeing a burst of renewed interest in the machine, and Fastcorp's vending equipment engineering and distribution expertise has positioned the venture for growth. The latest American-adapted Ducale machine was on display at the 2016 Amusement Expo International, and bulk vending operators at the show were doing more than just window-shopping and "kicking tires."
"Bulk vending operators are now looking for something new that fits into new types of locations and boosts their bottom line," said Branded Vending Concepts founder Kevin Zimmerman. "They're ready for something more sophisticated."
Zimmerman observed that the machine is not at all likely to replace the standard nine-head bulk rack in front of the local candy store, but it should be eagerly accepted in such high-traffic locations as movie theaters, shopping malls, casual dining restaurants, hotels, bars and airports.
Initial market testing yielded some interesting results in terms of locations, Zimmerman reported. "We did a test with one of the consumer packaged goods companies in 15 markets," he said. "We found that the machine was most successful where people were in an 'entertainment' frame of mind. We got the best results from water parks, museums, amusement parks -- those kinds of location."
Measuring a slender 33" W. x 24" D. x 72" H., the unit takes up little more space than a standard five-head bulk rack. But it offers five "mixable" selections dispensed by five 3.3-gallon dry-volume capacity containers.
Product is automatically delivered in a standard 10-oz. "squat" cup and presented to customers after the vend process is complete, which provides for a hygienic vend. "Our bins are behind glass; customers can't touch the orifice or the dispensing mechanism," Zimmerman explained. "And because we use a robotic arm to deliver the product, there's no chance of cross-contamination, no common tube."
AUTOMATION: Ducale's control logic enables its City Bulk Vendor to dispense a single selection or to create a mix of as many as five, as the customer wishes. It supports a wide range of payment systems for convenient transactions with cash, cards and mobile services. Designed for easy service, the City BV's onboard software can be updated over a USB connection.
The unit controls its internal humidity, which means longer shelf life for products and fresh taste for consumers. There's an option for operator-adjustable lights and sound effects. Pricing is completely operator-adjustable, too, including options for a variety of payment formats, including cash, debit and credit cards and mobile systems like NFC-powered Apple Pay.
If this sounds more complicated than a typical bulk vender, that's because it is. But the technology is proven. Ducale has cleverly leveraged engineering expertise used for its other vending machine designs that have been in the field for years. For instance, the cup dispenser, robotic arm and dispensing door, among other components, are all borrowed from Ducale coffee venders. These repurposed components have been refined and proven through years of use around the world.
Zimmerman really sees the machine shining as a vehicle for branding. Because of its design, vinyl "wraps" or "skins" flaunting the logotypes and graphics associated with well-known products provide the opportunity for a high-profile branding campaign that traditional bulk vending display cards can't equal. And having the ability to customize an already attractive machine for a location that is itself a recognized brand can get the unit into more locations.
"The nice thing about the machine is that it lends itself to a wrap," he said. "Obviously, wrapping a machine is nothing new, but you can wrap 90% of this model. That's a large space that gets attention. My philosophy is the brand brings credibility to the vending machine."
Do machines like Ducale's represent the future of bulk vending? Such a blanket prediction is almost certainly too general. However, in an industry that has already seen the widespread integration of skill cranes, prize merchandisers and even ATMs into the equipment mixes for the majority of operators, it does seem a safe bet the Ducale unit will find a home with operators who continually seek to adopt and adapt.
Fastcorp and BVC's Ducale bulk venders are expected to begin shipping in July. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. For sales information, call Fastcorp's Connecticut office at (203) 739-0301.
SWEET! Fastcorp owner and president Brian Weinstein shows off Ducale bulk vender, a cooperative venture with Branded Vending Concepts and Italian machine manufacturer Ducale, at the NAMA OneShow. The vender dazzles patrons with a robotic arm that delivers their choice of loose candies, mixed hygienically in a cup. The machine can hold 500 cups and houses five modular vertical product containers (one is shown at right), each with a 3.3-gal. capacity. Fastcorp and its parent company Chapco can apply long experience with vender design, production and distribution to customizing and supporting the Ducale machines.