Japan is home to millions of vending machines installed on streets and in buildings, sports stadiums and other facilities. Vending machine owners and operators, including beverage manufacturers, stock these machines with different product combinations depending on location and demand. For example, they primarily display coffee and energy drinks in machines placed in offices and sports drinks and mineral water in machines at sports facilities. The combinations also vary by season: for example, owners and operators may display cold beverages in summer and hot beverages in winter.
Traditionally, vending machine operators have relied on the intuition and experience of sales managers to determine the optimum product mix for each vending machine. However, in recent years, manufacturers such as Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan (CCBJ) have turned to data to analyze and make strategic decisions about when and where to locate products in machines.
CCBJ is the number one Coca-Cola bottler in Asia and vending machines comprise the bulk of its business. The organization operates about 700,000 machines across Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and 35 prefectures. Minori Matsuda, Google Developer Expert and also Data Science Manager at CCBJ, says “The billions of data records collected from 700,000 physical devices are a great asset and a treasure trove we can take advantage of.”
Minori points out that when considering the mix of products in vending machines in sporting facilities, the managers naturally assume sports drinks would generally sell well. However, analysis of purchase data – including hot drinks and hot drinks plus sports drinks – found many parents purchased sweet drinks such as milk tea when they attended games or sessions involving their children. “Analyzing data gives us new discoveries and, by using catchy storytelling techniques from exploratory data analysis, we are instilling a data culture within our company,” he says. “It’s worth creating by looking at facts rather than making assumptions!”
Minori believes that to analyze the vast amount of data collected from more than 700,000 vending machines, the business needs a powerful analytical platform. However, until recently, CCBJ had to extract data for analysis from its core systems, load this data into a warehouse it created and perform the required analyses. The billions of records of data generated across the fleet – including transaction data – exposed some challenges for traditional analysis platforms. hey could not efficiently process data at considerable scale: it could take a day to return results and required extensive maintenance due to the size.
CCBJ considered building a machine learning (ML) platform as a layer on top of existing systems in August 2020 and opted for Google Cloud the following month. “I feel that Google Cloud has an edge in all products and is very well thought out,“ says Minori, noting the scalability and cost of the platform allows the business to take a ‘trial and error’ approach to achieve the best outcomes from ML. Google Cloud also delivered the required visibility and the flexibility to help the business deliver change every day against key performance indicators.
MLOps platform streamlines ML pipeline development
CCBJ built its analysis platform using Vertex AI (formerly AI Platform) centered on a BigQuery analytics data warehouse, and partly using AutoML for tabular data. “We have created a prediction model of where to place vending machines, what products are lined up in the machines and at what price, how much they will sell, and implemented a mechanism that can be analyzed on a map,” says Minori, adding that building the platform with Google Cloud was not difficult. “We were able to realize it in a short period of time with a sense of speed, from platform examination to introduction, prediction model training, on-site proof of concept to rollout.”