Vending Machine Works the Night Shift and Earns a Nickname in the Process

What began as an unlikely experiment at the research labs of Coca-Cola Japan has become a hallmark vending innovation for the company – one with a new moniker and a furry mascot.

The Peak Shift vending machine (nicknamed Polar Bear) only cools drinks at night, when demand on the electricity grid is lower.  During the day, it completely shuts down, soundlessly dispensing cold drinks while saving energy.

The idea of halting cooling in a soda machine during peak vending hours in the summer was radical enough for researchers to dub the project “Apollo,” for the historic moon mission, when the team first hatched the idea in 2011.

There were several eco-friendly vending machines Coca-Cola Japan has released. In 2010, it introduced a machine with a greenery-covered rooftop to enhance cooling efficiency. The company also produced a machine fitted with solar panels that used zero energy for nighttime lighting. But the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011 and the energy constraints it imposed on Japan pushed Coke’s researchers to develop a vending machine with a very new concept that needs no energy to cool during the daytime, helping save the environment.

In 2010, Coca-Cola Japan introduced a machine with a greenery-covered rooftop to enhance cooling efficiency.

The disaster created both a moral imperative and a business challenge, as rolling blackouts and calls to save energy in Japan put pressure on the vending industry. Coca-Cola’s researchers needed to find a way to keep drinks ice cold even if a machine shut down for several hours. They departed from convention on vending machine design by chilling all of the beverages in the machine immediately rather than just the ones ready to be dispensed, as all conventional vending machines do. That total, quick-cooling feature, along with special insulation materials, makes it possible for the new machine to deliver cold drinks on a hot day, even when it is dormant electricity-wise. The machine uses 95 percent less energy than an average machine during the daytime in the summer, and uses 68 percent less energy than an average machine during the winter.

After testing the machine both in the lab and in the field, Coca-Cola Japan announced that the Apollo experiment was ready for prime time (so to speak). The Peak Shift machine, now known to the public as Polar Bear, will be rolled out starting in January 2013. At least 25,000 machines will be installed across the country, and Coke is investing $121 million (10 billion yen) to support that roll-out.

Coca-Cola’s famous polar bear distinguishes the Peak Shift, carrying with it a number of messages that appear printed in word balloons on the vending machine, such as “Wouldn’t it be great if there were more vending machines like this?” and “Saving energy during peak hours? What a smart vending machine!” The polar bear, which first appeared in Coke advertising in France in 1922, has new relevance as a symbol today amid concerns of global warming and diminishing glacial ice, making it a perfect emblem for Peak Shift.

Tim Brett, representative president, Coca-Cola Japan, said at a press event to announce the rollout, “I believe, when we look back at all the years of innovation that we’ve seen already today, this is probably our most important piece of innovation in our vending business in Japan.”

Ashley Callahan is Digital Communications & Social Media Manager at The Coca-Cola Company.