NASA's Creative Use of Vending Technology

When you think of vending machines, what do you imagine?

Almost everyone knows that after the customer inserts an appropriate amount of cash into any machine, products are automatically dispensed. Whether you're keen to enjoy a soft drink, ice cream, refrigerated sandwich or one of a wide selection of snacks, almost anything is possible. In today's world, vending machines are fairly common and convenient to use. At cinemas and other public venues, they can provide quick access to a much wanted snack or drink, whilst avoiding the queues of a concession stand.

However, the future of the vending machine looks set to change if a recent display by NASA, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is anything to go by. Normally associated with space travel and robotic innovations, they've adapted a vending machine 'with a difference' at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory machine shop.

At their recent annual open house, NASA's scientists delighted the visiting public by displaying and explaining their latest robots and inventions. The inventions on display were impressive. Surprisingly, one particular adaptation that caught the eye of many visitors was their updated vending machine, as people remarked that "they'd never seen anything like it". With no ice cream or snack in sight, people were astonished to see tools and equipment being dispensed as needed. The available items included precision drill bits, saw blades, couplers, and other numerous tools.

Naturally, as part of their normal daily work, NASA's scientists and engineers require access to essential small bits and parts to develop their inventions. Whilst constructing a new robotic arm, an engineer may discover that he needs a different sized saw blade, drill bit or coupler to the ones already in the laboratory. The solution? Rather than placing an order with a trusted supplier and awaiting delivery, the engineer sends someone over to the vending machine shop to select the necessary part to complete the job; quickly and efficiently.

NASA is not the only company to use a vending machine in this way. Recent reports confirm that vending machines are being adapted for multiple uses. Further research (using the trusty internet!) helped us discover that, by incorporating an inventory management system, vending machines can be designed and adapted to help large and small companies monitor tools and parts. Imagine NASA preparing to launch its next space shuttle. On the final check, they discover a small fault that is straightforward to repair. A quick check in the stock room finds the essential item 'on order' but not on the shelf! By using a vending machine with an automatic inventory management system, there will always be essential equipment in stock. This would benefit all businesses, including those not as famous as NASA.

Vending machines with inventory management systems are becoming increasingly common in factories. Seen by some workers as a "big brother is watching you" tool, some comment that the machines are used by management to keep an eye on who is using what and, occasionally, restricting accessibility. If it's true, is that really such a problem?

If the machines reduce stock waste and preserve natural resources, then surely everyone benefits? Reducing overheads could have a positive affect for employees too. As profits increase, surely a company will seek to invest in the workers who contribute to such improvements?

Other reports suggest that using vending machines to distribute essential tools is not as cost effective as a manual system. For example, if only one or two screws, or a small amount of glue is needed, current vending machines only offer the possibility to select a whole box of screws or tube of glue. As yet, no system exists that enables workers to return any unused items. So, if everything is not used, the leftovers cannot be returned and may end up being thrown out. It is argued that this makes the machines less cost-effective as a stock control tool and it is a valid point. One seemingly straightforward solution would be to stock the machines with different sized options. Alternatively, perhaps scientists (including NASA's experts) could carry out further research to find ways to adapt the machines to be more flexible and accept returns?

Smaller, non-manufacturing companies could benefit too. How many schools and offices are often surprised by how quickly their stock of pens or paper is used every month? Where does it go, as there are no obvious signs of items being used on the premises? Perhaps vending machines could dispense stationery and smaller office supplies? That could certainly help reduce the quantity of "disappearing" stock from the supply cabinet, saving valuable budget funds.