Developers & Practitioners
Coca-Cola Bottlers Japan collects insights from 700,000 vending machines with Vertex AI
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. They 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.”
The new data analytics platform of CCBJ consists of the following parts:
- The data collected from the vending machines are all stored on BigQuery.
Data Discovery and Feature Engineering
- Minori and other data scientists at CCBJ are using Vertex Notebooks, where they access the data on BigQuery by executing SQL queries directly from the Notebooks. This environment is used for the data discovery process and feature engineering.
- For ML training, CCBJ uses AutoML for Tabular data, Custom model training on Vertex AI, and BigQuery ML. AutoML gives model performance with AUC curves and also feature importance graphs.
ML Prediction and Serving
- For ML prediction, CCBJ uses Online Prediction for AutoML models and Online Prediction for custom models for real time prediction when the sales person find the interesting point
- Batch Prediction is used for generating a large prediction map that covers the whole country
- The prediction results are distributed to sales managers' tablets
CCBJ started constructing the platform in September 2020, and completed it within a month. The business has conducted proofs of concept at its base in Kyoto since February 2021, and since April, has rolled out the platform to sales managers in 35 prefectures in one metropolitan area. "Data analysis is built into the day-to-day routines of sales managers with 100% utilization,” says Minori. “They can utilize the prediction results on tablets that were able to achieve pretty high accuracy from the start.”
The hardest part was the education of sales managers in the field; having them understand the reasoning behind the ML prediction results for particular outcomes, so they could be convinced to make use of the results. "For example, regarding a new installation location predicted by the model, it seemed that there was no effective information for installation from the map information, but when I actually went there, there was a motorcycle shop and it was a place where young people who like motorcycles gathered,” says Minori. “Or there is a small meeting place where the elderly in the neighborhood are active.
“In many cases, new discoveries that cannot be understood from map information alone can be derived from the data.”
Minori also points to a phenomenon whereby humans pursued and confirmed factors inferred by the model - meaning that once they experienced analysis and it worked effectively, they asked why the same type of analysis or prediction could not be undertaken next time. The resulting cycle of more inquiries generated, more information gathered and more data captured for analysis meant the accuracy of results was improved.
Minori describes Vertex AI as having a number of strengths in helping CCBJ build a ML data analysis platform. "One of the major merits of Vertex AI was that we were able to realize MLOps that streamlines the entire development life cycle from construction of the ML pipeline to its execution,” he says.
With near real-time data analysis through Google Cloud, CCBJ teams can spend time developing strategies rather than waiting for data requested from the IT systems department. Exploratory data analysis is also considerably easier as repeated trial and error has greatly improved the accuracy of analyses. Before we used Machine Learning, most machine placement processes were done by human senses, by looking at a map to find the suggestion points. By using Machine Learning to generate a massive number of placement point suggestions, the efficiency of routing of salespeople have been dramatically improved.
In the future, CCBJ aims to automate the continuous training pipeline with Vertex AI. “CCBJ is a tech company that operates in the food industry,” says Minori. With the organization operating a vending machine network of 700,000 units, it would like to create new businesses based on utilization and analyzing data. Some of these businesses may be based on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) initiatives such as the utilization of recycled PET bottles, measures to prevent food loss and ways of using vending machines to contribute to local communities, which we have been working on for some time. It would be interesting if we could collaborate with Google Cloud on these in the future.”