Masterton is the unassuming home to one of the most innovative hotbeds of technical talent in the Coca-Cola system worldwide.

In these humble Coca-Cola Amatil offices, tucked away next to a bus station sandwiched between mountains and hills, CCA’s General Manager of Vending Systems Services Andy Kerr and his team are shaping the future of vending machines.

And the future is smart with artificial intelligence.

A Smarter Machine

With over 4400 machines, selling over 7 million beverages each year, CCA is the largest retailer in New Zealand by outlets. 25% of these machines are online, giving CCA daily visibility of sales and any issues.

In 2015 Andy Kerr’s team was challenged to transform customer interactions with vending machines into experiences comparable to what consumers might have with a traditional retailer as well as improve the programming process.

Kerr knew it was possible to create a vending machine that could offer happy hour specials; a vending machine that could automatically track sales and preempt maintenance and refill needs; a vending machine that could accept mobile payments; a vending machine that consumers would never even need to touch to retrieve their drink purchase.

The solution, it turned out, was in the vending machines already in use. The machines just needed to get smarter.

Kerr and his team of eight built a retrofit kit, compatible with the most popular machines already on the market, which would allow the company to control existing vending systems digitally through the cloud. Once the machines are cloud connected, CCA can digitally adjust their pricing from afar and consumers can purchase drinks via phone before even reaching the vending machine.

The cloud integration opens up a new realm of global interconnectivity. Because the machines operate on a unified digital system, customers could push a button from their phone in the US and have a drink appear at a vending machine in Masterton, New Zealand.

Kerr says humbly of this cloud connection, “What we’ve done is common sense. It just took us a while to figure it out.”

Greg Chambers, Coca-Cola’s Global Group Director of Digital Innovation based out of Coca-Cola’s US headquarters, is less hesitant to boast about the game changing nature of this technology and the people behind it.

“These guys put me in awe,” he says of Kerr’s team. “They are still hand making circuit boards, when probably not five people in the United States can do that. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

An AI Experience

Inspired by Kerr’s innovation, Chambers’ team in the US set out to create a digital user experience to complement these newly-digital vending machines.

Chambers imagined sitting on a hot train and having a phone notification appear that announces a Coca-Cola happy hour special – buy a Coca-Cola and get a discounted water. More than a notification, Chambers envisioned this message as an invitation to join a conversation with the brand.

Customers could jump into personalised chats with The Coca-Cola Company, as if they were communicating with a familiar bodega operator. As soon as they reached their final destination, their mobile-made purchases would appear in their chosen vending machine.

This new user experience is soon to be rolled out in the US market, making its way into select New Zealand vending machines over summer.

The first step was to create a platform to host these digital conversations. Recognising consumers’ desire for an experience already built into their devices as opposed to one requiring a new app, Chambers’ team partnered with Facebook Messenger and Pandorabots, an artificial intelligence (AI) web service that designs internet robots (bots) capable of personalized conversations.

Consumers can opt into conversations with vending bot via Facebook Messenger. Using data gathered through the customer’s past Facebook use, current location, and tone of conversation, the AI bot will adopt a local dialect and attitude personally tailored to each customer. Each engagement with these responsive AI bots promises a unique experience, as the bots develop a cognitive understanding of what’s being said in each conversation and can respond accordingly.

Just like the contour bottle became a visual icon of the company, Chambers believes that these digital vending engagements can become a quintessential part of the Coca-Cola experience.

“The spirit of the Coca-Cola Company is about surprising people through experience,” says Chambers. “Our goal with this vending process is to create experiences that only Coca-Cola can.”