The Coca-Cola Company…robot manufacturer? If that association doesn’t ring a bell, it will soon. Go behind the scenes as a team of design and technology experts build a robot to distribute beverages – and surprises – to consumers.

The Beginning

In 2014, Coca-Cola partnered with Fellow Robots, a Silicon Valley-based startup, to develop Cobot 1.0, a consumer-facing Coca-Cola robot inspired by the idea of "a Coke finds you, instead of you finding a Coke." 

Fast-forward to early 2016: Tom North, equipment commercialization manager, led Coca-Cola’s development of Cobot 2.0 in conjunction with Coke's External Technology Acquisition (ETA) team. North is pictured here explaining Cobot 2.0’s increased product storage capacity.

Nancy Quan, vice president, R&D and Quality, says the ETA team played a pivotal role in bringing Cobot to life. “Cobot is an excellent example of how we are working closely with external partners through our Global ETA function," she said. "In this case, ETA connected technology startups with our R&D subject matter experts and integrated with our business unit cross-functional partners to enable fast adoption of new technology into the marketplace.”

Several other teams were involved in Cobot’s development, but all partners had one vision in mind: to create a mobile vending machine that engages consumers in a fun and unique way. After the successful development of Cobot 1.0, R&D met with various business units to understand potential market needs and foster collaboration. Coca-Cola teams in China and Japan were excited to help bring Cobot 2.0 to life.

Cobot 1.0

Cobot 1.0’s look was a throwback to antique vending machines. While the Design team appreciated its vintage look, the machine could hold only four mini-cans, which limited its usefulness. Coke's Industrial Design team decided to modernize Cobot, with a dramatic rethinking of the robot’s look and functionality. 

“Service robotics is a rapidly growing industry, and through our partnership with Coca-Cola, Fellow Robots is able to demonstrate the expansion, use and applications of service robotics for retail industries,” said Fellow Robots CEO Marco Mascorro.

Working with Global Design

Once the R&D team decided to proceed with Cobot 2.0, they reached out to James Cha, design manager, to create a new look. “Although in its infancy stage, the Cobot program reminds us of where Coca-Cola‘s Freestyle project once was," Cha said. "Cobot can very well be our next big thing, in providing delightful moments to our connected next-generation consumers.”

Guts

To solve Cobot 1.0’s main challenge – the fact that it could only hold a few beverages – Cobot 2.0 was designed to have a loading capacity of roughly 20 350-ml cans or 300-ml PET bottles. The next-generation robot’s sleek new look also features an arsenal of interpersonal skills. It can react and distribute beverages or prizes based on a consumer’s facial reaction – i.e., smile and get a Coke, or pose and have your picture taken.

Cobot’s Brains

Cobot 2.0 is run by two operators using controllers that bear a resemblance to the hardware for remote-controlled cars. One person guides Cobot’s movement; the other guides Cobot’s interactions with consumers. The human “brains” can direct Cobot to take a picture, dispense a beverage, smile, or display other facial expressions.

Robot, Get to Work!

When I met the team, they were hard at work trying to assemble “Tom” and “Jerry,” two Cobots who were headed to China for an early-May 2016 debut. For logistical reasons, it’s best to build and use two machines at the same time. That way, when these Cobots are out in the marketplace, the operating team can ensure one robot is stocked while the empty unit gets refilled.

Heart Surgery

To prepare Tom and Jerry for their maiden voyage to China, the Global Equipment R&D team worked every night for three straight weeks, surviving on Chick-fil-A cookies, Coca-Cola and Coke Zero. When I visited them, Clayton Burnett, a commercial engineer, jokingly explained that he was performing "heart surgery” on Jerry to ensure the robot’s energy source worked seamlessly. “We are in the red zone, down to the five-yard line,” North said. “This is the hardest part – getting everything across the goal line.” It took the team six to eight weeks to assemble these first two Cobot 2.0 units, and they predict they can cut build time in half on future projects.

Cobot 2.0’s Pilot Launch

Coke's Global Equipment R&D worked around the clock because Tom and Jerry were expected in China for a pilot activation tour from Shanghai to Beijing, stopping by key customers like Wanda Cinemas and Metro Supermarkets.  After China, Tom and Jerry will travel back to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta for an upgrade and redeployment.  Meanwhile, two Cobot 2.5’s are in development for product sampling at Universal Studios in Japan (USJ) for the park's 15-year anniversary this summer. Pictured here, operators Hannah Rittweger, an R&D intern from Georgia Tech, and Clarke Monroe, electronics manager, successfully get Tom moving and vending products after a long day making minor adjustments to smooth out the functionality.

The Future of Cobot

Cobot 2.0 was a huge technological and design leap forward from the robot's initial prototype. Future updates will include increased vending capacity, the reduction to one remote-control user, and improved gesture and emotion detection, as well as exciting social and photography advancements.

To fully realize Cobot’s potential, R&D will work with Coke's IT Innovation Services team. “Working with R&D to improve Cobot 2.5 is an exciting way to approach innovation,” Bill Maynard, director of enterprise architecture/innovation. “What technology can we build into Cobot to enhance the consumer sampling experience? I think we have some exciting ideas, and – who knows – maybe one day you’ll be able to hug a Cobot and get a Coke in return!”

China Sampling Event

On May 14, Tom and Jerry Cobots 2.0 made their public debut at a cinema in Shanghai. The excited crowd delighted in sampling product and interacting with Cobot. “After a successful launch in Asia, I’m excited about bringing Cobot to the rest of the world with ever-evolving functionality aimed at helping consumers 'Taste the Feeling' of innovation at Coca-Cola,” North said.

Cobot Team

The Cobot 2.0 Engineering team (from left:) Clayton Burnett, Clarke Monroe, Alan Hawkins and Hannah Rittweger. Not pictured, Frank Fu.