Overengineering the Soda Machine

Coca-Cola reinvents the soda fountain for the 21st century

Photo: The Coca-Cola Company
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This article was modified on 31 August 2010.

With a sleekness imparted by a Ferrari designer, a mixology controlled down to the microscale, and a stock of ingredients monitored with RFID tags, Coca-Cola's new soda fountain, the Freestyle, is loaded with geek panache. Customers tap its touch-screen LCD panel to select one of 106 drinks, from caffeine¿free Raspberry Diet Coke to Vault Red Blitz.

The machine mixes its beverages not from syrups—the foundation of soda fountains since their invention well over a century ago—but from tiny flavor concentrates delivered using a microdosing technology developed for chemotherapy drugs. And every time Freestyle mixes a drink, it uses its own Wi-Fi modem to report back to Coke's Atlanta headquarters through the Internet.

Even with the fountain's curvilinear shape (courtesy of Italian car design firm Pininfarina), is all this beverage nerdiness too much tech for consumers who just want 12 cool, no-fuss ounces of the trademark cola? Maybe, but even if the Freestyle's market is a niche one, it needn't be a small niche, seeing that Coke is perhaps the biggest brand in the world. So far, the Freestyle is found in only about 50 restaurants and stores in Georgia, California, and Texas, but there are plans for another 450 by year's end.

Food blogger A.J. Wolfe thinks the Freestyle has mainstream potential, with enough flashy appeal to pry consumers away from their plain old red-and-white cans. "It's an imagination-inducing machine," she says. "People are going to be excited about personalizing things they'd never personalized before."

This article appeared in print as “Overengineering the Soda Machine.”

About the Author

Mark Anderson is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum. In June 2010 he reported on the world's first laser television.

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