US 20050211720 A1
An article storage container, comprising a bin for storing in an a columnar manner, articles to be dispensed from a dispensing end of the bin. A plurality of article supporting intrusions positioned in a spaced manner along at least a portion of the length of the bin function to provide load bearing support for articles stored in the bin. Sectional bins, bin sleeves and macro bins are also disclosed for facilitating rapid, accurate and efficient loading of articles into an article dispenser.
1. A method for stocking a vending machine with columnar-shaped bins having positioned therein articles to be vended, comprising:
providing a longitudinal segment of a bin, said segment having a plurality of articles stored in a stacked manner therein;
assembling multiple ones of said bin segments together so as to form one or more continuous stacks of articles to be dispensed; and
placing said assembled multiple bin segments in a storage area of said vending machine.
2. The method of
3. The method of
4. The method of
5. An automated article retrieving apparatus including an article storage area adapted to have selectively positioned therein a removable article storage structure which stores a plurality of the articles to be retrieved, the removable article storage structure comprising;
a support (219 and 1200 or 1300) adapted for being selectively positioned into and out of an article storage area of the article retrieving apparatus, wherein:
at least a portion of the support (219) includes wall portions for facilitating the formation of a plurality of adjacently aligned article storage columns,
the columns store therein a plurality of pre-packaged groups of the articles to be retrieved (1202 or 1302), and
the columns providing guidance for movement of the articles stored therein in a direction toward an article grasping portion of the article retrieving apparatus.
6. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
7. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
a base having a cross-section adapted for being positioned adjacent a portion of the article storage area which is opposed to the article grasping apparatus, said base providing support for said wall portions so that they extend away from the base and toward the article grasping apparatus.
8. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
9. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
10. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
11. The automated article retrieving apparatus of
12. A method of stocking an article retrieving apparatus with articles to be retrieved, comprising the following steps:
providing a support (219) which holds a plurality of pre-packaged groups of articles to be retrieved (bins segments 1202 or sleeves 1302) so that the articles are arranged in a plurality of adjacently positioned, paraxially aligned, article storage columns, which columns provide guidance for movement of the articles stored therein in a direction toward an article grasping portion of the article retrieving apparatus, and
positioning the support (219, 1202 or 1300/1302) into and out of the article storage area of the article handling apparatus.
13. The method according to
positioning the support (219, 1202 or 1300/1302) out of the article storage area of the article handling apparatus and onto a supporting surface;
using openings at one end of the columns for introducing therein columnar-shaped bin segments which are pre-packaged with groups of articles to be retrieved, and using openings at an other end of the columns which is opposite the one end, for removing columnar-shaped bin segments which are empty.
This patent application is a continuation of and claims priority under 35 USC 120 of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/215,101, filed Aug. 7, 2002, entitled METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR STORING ARTICLES FOR USE WITH AN ARTICLE HANDLING DEVICE, which itself is a continuation of PCT/US01/16847, filed May 23, 2001, entitled METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR STORING ARTICLES FOR USE WITH AN ARTICLE HANDLING DEVICE, which itself claims priority under 35 USC 119 and 35 USC 120 of U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 60/206,363, filed May 23, 2000, entitled METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR ARTICLE HANDLING, SUCH AS FOR A VENDING MACHINE. The entire disclosure of these applications, including the drawings and attachments thereto, are hereby incorporated into this application as if fully set forth herein.
1. Field of the Invention
The present invention relates generally to improvements in the design and operation of an article containment area, storage area and system therefore, for use with an article handling apparatus, and is particularly useful for storing, containing and/or handling fragile articles, such as bags of potato chips, in a columnar/stacked manner.
2. Description of the Prior Art
Most prior art article handling mechanisms, more specifically referred to in the description of the present invention as being in the environment of a point-of-sale (POS) article dispenser, rely on a multitude of motors, switches and solenoids for moving various portions of the handling mechanism, and handling of the articles themselves, such as packaged products. Most such machines require one motor, switch and/or solenoid dedicated for each row, column or type of article or package to be handled or dispensed therefrom. Such machines generally suffer from numerous disadvantages, such as poor reliability due to mechanical failures, as well known by those skilled in this art.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,240,139 represents a significant improvement in article handling devices. It describes the use of a negative air pressure lifter (i.e., article pickup or handling mechanism), which uses suction, i.e., a reduced or so-called “negative” air pressure created by a partial vacuum, for making a secure contact to an article to be retrieved by entering the open top of an article storage bin located in a refrigerated storage area of a vending machine. Although robotic, and specifically suction-type lifting mechanisms are in common use in factory settings, where space limitations are generally relaxed, their use in tight confines, such as an article vending machine, has not gained wide acceptance. Due to the greater reliability and versatility of vending machines of the type which utilizes suction technology for grasping and moving selected articles, it would be desirable to develop new techniques and methods for the operation and control of such machines, as well as for other more generalized article handling mechanisms.
Article storage is provided in the forenoted U.S. Pat. No. 5,240,139 by arranging a plurality of vertically aligned storage compartments or bins within the freezer. Since the articles to be dispensed were frozen, the weight presented on the articles stored in a lower portion of the bin, by the stack of articles stored above, did not present the problem of product crushing. In some applications, however, the articles stored in the bins may be fragile (such as potato chips which are packaged in flexible bags), and means would then be necessary to prevent crushing of the articles stored near the bottom of the bin. Even if article storage in the dispenser used horizontal placement of the article storage bins, fragile articles could still be damaged during transportation of the storage bins from the warehouse or article manufacturer to the actual dispenser mechanism. It is desirable to make the article storage bins so that they have the most capacity possible, for example, by making the bins taller. However, the taller the storage bins, the more the above noted crushing problem is exacerbated.
Furthermore, when the article storage bins store product which is date sensitive, i.e. may get stale overtime, means must also be provided to ensure that refilling/filling of partially empty bins are not only accomplished in a simple and reliable manner, but in a manner which preserves a proper ordering of the product in the bins, i.e. in a manner which maintains FIFO (first in, first out). FIFO dispensing of the product from the article storage bins, helps maintain the quality of the product at the time it is delivered to the consumer. When taller, higher capacity, bins are used, the FIFO problem is also exacerbated if access to the interior of the bins for refilling/filling is only provided at an end of the bin which is opposite from the dispensing end.
U.S. Pat. No. 6,082,578 entitled VENDING MACHINE FOR PACKAGED COMMODITIES discloses a vending machine wherein the articles to be dispensed are stored in vertical columns. In order to prevent the weight of the articles in the columns from crushing those articles near the bottom of the column, the vertical stack of products is divided into sections, with each section having its own article dispenser at the bottom thereof. Providing multiple dispenses to solve this “crush” problem is wasteful of the article storage volume, as well as requiring the use of many additional electromechanical components.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,772,072 entitled VENDING MACHINE INCLUDING REFRIGERATION AND OVEN COMPARTMENTS subdivides a vertically oriented article storage magazine into multiple vertically oriented sections. Each section includes a pair of opposed “retention levers” for engaging the bottom product in its section of the magazine. The “retention levers” are operated in a sequential manner in order to shift the stored products, one at the time of each vend, from a higher section to a lower section, until all of the products have been dispensed from the magazine. This technique would be somewhat undesirable for supporting articles comprising flexible bags, since the retention levers would have to extend quite far into the interior of the magazine in order to engage the bags in a supporting manner, and could therefore damage fragile products. Additionally, including a technique such as this in a system of the type described in the forenoted U.S. Pat. No. 5,240,139, it is likely that the retention levers would interfere with movement of the article retrieving mechanism into and out of the storage bins. Even furthermore, the retention levers add significant mechanical complexity to the storage bins.
U.S. Pat. No. 5,651,476 entitled MODULAR VENDING MACHINE and U.S. Pat. No. 3,175,669 entitled DEVICE FOR VENDING CYLINDRICAL OBJECTS are illustrative of the use of baffles along the inside portion of a vertical column of products, for staggering the distribution of the products in the vertical column, thereby preventing the weight of the products above from “bunching” or “jamming” a product feed mechanism located at the bottom of the column. The use of fixed position baffle elements are not sufficient to prevent damage to a column of fragile articles, such as a stack for bags of potato chips, and in fact the fixed position baffle elements themselves are likely to cause damage to the products.
It would be desirable to provide a relatively low cost and reliable method and apparatus to increase the article holding capacity of the storage bins without adversely affecting the overall quality (freshness and structural integrity) of the articles stored therein, as well as techniques which reduce the effect of external forces on the articles stored therein, such forces being presented to the articles during, for example, transportation from the manufacturer or a warehouse, to the storage area in the article dispenser.
Furthermore, it would be desirable to provide such an apparatus which not only prevents the crushing of fragile products, but also uses a method and apparatus which reduces the handling of the individual products during their transportation from the product manufacture to the article storage area of the article dispenser.
Accordingly, one of the general objects of the present invention is to provide new techniques and methods for the design, operation and control of article handling mechanisms.
It is a further general object of the present invention to provide new techniques and methods for the design, operation and control of article handling mechanisms used in association with computer-controlled electromechanical technology, and in the illustrated embodiment a robotically positioned suction-type gripper, for grasping and moving a selected article from a storage area to a dispensing area.
It is also an object of the present invention to provide new techniques and methods for such mechanisms which improve the speed and accuracy of the article handling operation while still handling the articles to be dispensed in a careful manner so as to prevent any damage thereto.
More specific objects of the present invention are to:
1) increase article storage capacity by increasing the height/length of a stack of articles, and manner so that forces which act upon the articles are prevented from causing damage, such forces comprising, for example the weight of the articles stored above or impact forces which result from shipping/transportation of the articles in a columnar form;
2) provide article storage bins which are designed so as to facilitate enforcement of the loading of articles in a FIFO manner;
3) provided a technique for prepackaging of the articles at a manufacturer's facility in a manner which reduces the labor and time it takes for restocking an article dispenser;
4) provide a support shelf or table in association with the dispensing apparatus which facilitates FIFO refilling/filling of the storage bins.
The above objects are achieved in the illustrative embodiment of an article handling apparatus embodied, for example, as a vending machine, including a controllably positioned hose gripper for retrieving articles from a storage area.
In one embodiment, the storage area includes a plurality of axially aligned storage bins having an opening at a dispensing end thereof, wherein each storage bin includes at spaced positions along its length, opposed intrusions adapted to support at least the edges of articles stacked in the bin. In one preferred embodiment of the invention, the intrusions comprise opposed pairs of tabs which extend from the inside wall of the bin into its article storage interior. The tabs are flexibly biased within the bin so as to facilitate movement of the articles in a direction towards its dispensing end, and which at the same time hinder movement of the articles in a direction which is opposite to the dispensing direction. In a specific embodiment of the invention, flexible biasing of the tabs is accomplished by attaching the tabs to the exterior the bin and having them extend into the interior of the bin via a hold in the bin wall. The thickness of the hole in the wall acts to create a support for the tabs which hinders movement of the tabs in a direction below the hole, while the whole as a height which is sufficient so as to allow the tabs to easily flex in a direction above the hole. The length of the tabs are predetermined so that the space between their opposed free ends is sufficient to allow the article gripping mechanism to freely pass therethrough, and the flexible biasing of the tabs is not strong enough to dislodge an article from the article gripping mechanism as a result of contact between the tabs and the article during removal of the article from the storage bin.
In accordance with a further embodiment of the invention, in order to facilitate an efficient refilling/filling of the storage bins with articles, and at the same time preserve a “first in/first out” (FIFO) refilling/filling scheme, the article storage bins may be segmented and pre-filled with articles at a warehouse, or even at the facility of the article manufacturer, The segments may comprise at least a portion of a shipping container from the manufacturer or warehouse for use in refilling/filling the article dispenser. Among other benefits, the use of bin segments preloaded with articles enable the operator of the dispensing apparatus to realize significant savings in time and labor during the restocking process, due to not having to take the previously un-sold articles from the storage bins back to the warehouse.
In an even further embodiment of the invention, the storage bins themselves may have a full height which is appropriate for the storage area, and sleeves comprising prepackaged groups of articles can be inserted into the storage bins for refilling/filling through an opening at or near a bottom portion thereof. The inserted sleeve of articles is then pushed upward in the bin, using a slot opening formed along one side of the bin, or the pressure from a “next to be inserted sleeve” thereby allowing insertion of additional sleeves of articles, as appropriate, for completely refilling/filling the bin. In one embodiment the sleeves may include flexible article supports, such as the above noted flexible support tabs, or in a further embodiment the sleeves may have appropriate openings on opposite sides or corners thereof, dimension to facilitate engagement between the edges of the articles within the sleeves and the flexible article supports in the bins.
In an even further embodiment of the invention, the article intrusions/supports can comprise a plurality of longitudinally oriented strips having “steps” formed therein. The strips can be adhered to the inner walls of the article storage bins and their “steps” function to at least partially support the weight of the articles stored therein. Alternatively, the inside of the bin could itself have a profile which acts to support the product, such as an internal spring portion extruded integrally with the formation of the bin walls.
FIGS 2 and 3 are front perspective views of the vending machine of
Front door 14 includes a convex-shaped section 18 adjacent a flat section 20; however, these particular shapes are not necessary to the invention. The convex-shaped section 18 comprises a translucent plastic display panel 18, which typically has brand name and/or logo graphics displayed thereon, and may even include graphics which illustrate the individual articles that are vendible by vending machine 10, as well as the price and/or selection information for the articles. Panel 18 is typically back-lit using fluorescent bulbs, not shown.
A customer retrieval area 22 is formed in the panel 18 on door 14 so that articles stored therein can be discharged to a user of vending machine 10.
Various user interface features are mounted on flat section 20 of door 14. A customer display 24 may be a conventional fluorescent or LED display panel for displaying various items of information to a user of machine 10, such as feedback to the user of the selection made, the amount tended, and if the product is sold out or being vended. For accepting payments, a bill acceptor slot 26 accepts paper money into a conventional bill acceptor mechanism (mounted inside machine 10 so as to have its user interface portion extend through an aligned opening in flat section 20) for purchasing articles or for making change. A coin insertion slot 28 accepts coins into a conventional coin changer (also mounted inside machine 10 so as to have its user interface portion extend through an aligned opening in flat section 20) for purchasing articles or for making change. A coin return actuator 30 comprises a conventional push-button mechanism for activating a coin return portion of the coin changer mechanism which, upon actuation returns coins inserted by the current user, to a coin return well 32. The coin return portion of the coin changer mechanism also provides change to the coin return well 32 either in response to the purchasing of articles or for making change for paper money or larger coins. A credit/debit card slot 34 accepts a plastic credit/debit card inserted into a conventional card reader mechanism (also mounted inside machine 10 so as to have its user interface portion extend through an aligned opening in flat section 20) for allowing a user to pay for purchases via credit/debit cards. A door lock mechanism 36 enables front door 14 to be secured so that it cannot be opened without a key. For allowing user selections, display panel 18 may include graphics, as noted above, which indicates the various articles vendible by the machine, as well as their associated price and unique selection number. Alternatively, flat section 20 could include a group of graphic article displays and their associated price. A conventional keypad push-button mechanism 38 is provided for enabling a user to select a desired article from vending machine 10. Alternatively, push-button mechanism 40 could include individual push buttons for each article selection, as well as an associated price display; and even furthermore, a user operated touch screen could replace pushbutton mechanism 40 and display 24. Although not shown in
Referring first to
A control board 212 comprises a printed circuit board on which circuitry is formed and to which integrated circuit chips are attached. Control board 212 includes a microprocessor that is electrically connected to various sensors, motors, the above described user interface elements, as well as other devices within vending machine 10, to control the operation of vending machine 10 as described herein. When reference is made in this description to performance of specified functions by control board 212, it is to be understood that these functions are controlled by the microprocessor and the associated circuitry formed on control board 212. A power supply 214 is mounted on panel 202 and supplies power for the electrical components of vending machine 10.
Referring now also to
An open-top container 219 is dimensioned to hold a plurality of article storage bins 216 therein, and used, for example to facilitate the simultaneous handling (i.e., removal installation and transportation) of the plurality of bins 216 into/out of the article storage area 215. Container 219 also facilitates rapid and accurate positioning of a plurality of the article storage bins into the storage area of the article handling apparatus. More specifically, the individual article storage bins can be pre-filled with fresh product and prearranged within the container 219 at a warehouse, and transported by the operator to the vending machine in order to rapidly, efficiently, and without error replace all or substantial all of the inventory of the vending machine by merely exchange a new container 219 with the old container 219 presently in the machine. The removed container 219 can then be replenish with fresh product by the operator back at his truck or at a warehouse, and then used for swapping in a subsequent vending machine. This “swapping” technique facilitates rapidly, efficiently, and without error changing all or part of the layout of the article selections, i.e., commonly called the “plan-o-gram”, of the vending machine.
A carriage 218 (which may be more generally referred to as an X-Y or planar positioning mechanism) is coupled to the interior topside of cabinet 12 and adapted for being controllably positioned by the control board portion 212 of machine 10, to a location centered over (so as to be aligned with) the open top-end of a selected one of article storage bins 216.
Although vertical (Z-axis) alignment of the article storage bins 216 is shown, non-vertical, i.e., slanted or even horizontal (X or Y axis) alignment may also be possible (such as found in the well know glass front vending machines of the type using a “spiral wire” type of dispensing apparatus). In the event of substantially horizontal alignment of the storage bins, the planar positioning mechanism will be appropriate changed so as to position carriage 218 for movement in the X/Z or Y/Z plane. In fact, a curvilinear plane, such as a cylinder, is also considered to be within the scope of the present invention. The combination of substantially horizontally aligned stacks of products with a robotically controlled article transport mechanism which moves in a vertical plane adjacent to dispensing ends of the stacks of products, is known, for example in U.S. Pat. No. 6,230,930 issued May 15, 2001 and entitled METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR VENDING PRODUCTS, and in U.S. patent publication US 2001/0000609 of Rudick, et al, published May 3, 2001. The article storage bins of the present invention could find use in an article dispenser of the type noted above, which has bins positioned so as to have a downward slope toward their dispensing ends, since the article supports/intrusions in the bins will function, during transportation of the bins from the warehouse or article manufacturer to the article dispensing apparatus, to prevent damage of the products due to the weight of the products stored above, and in the dispenser apparatus these same article supports/intrusions can function to: 1) maintain an orderly position for the products throughout the length of the bin , such as provided by the spirals of a prior art vending machine (which is particularly important in the event that the packages are flexible, such as bags the potato chips), and 2) prevent the articles from sliding out of the dispensing end of the downwardly sloped bins.
Use of a curvilinear plane for article transport is also known, for example in the videocassette vending art, wherein the videocassette's are stacked in an outwardly facing manner in a central storage carousel, and a robotic gripper encircles the carousel. Furthermore, although article storage bins 216 are shown to be an ambient environment, bins 216 could in fact the positioned in a refrigerated environment, such as a freezer located in the bottom of storage area 217, and the article transport mechanism enter the bins from a top opening the freezer, such as shown and described in the forenoted U.S. Pat. No. 5,240,139. Alternatively, in the event the refrigerated environment is of the type including a substantially horizontal alignment of the storage bins, a vertically oriented opening could be used to provide access to the dispensing end of the article storage bins.
In the environment of the present invention, an air hose 220 is continuous from a point before it's exit from a hose storage area 222 over orthogonally positioned rollers 213 (or other low-friction arrangement), to its free end 221. Free end 221 includes a weighted portion 225 in combination with a bellows extension tip portion 227. Depending upon the physical characteristics of the articles to be dispensed, article pickup head 224 may comprise only the weighted portion 225, or this portion in combination with a fitting specifically adapted to the type of packages to be dispensed, such as the bellows tip 227 (serving as an active suction cup) or a compliant tip without a weight. Hose 220 has one end coupled to a source of negative air pressure, i.e., suction, which source of suction comprises in the preferred embodiment a blower motor 226, and a free end coupled to the article pickup head 224. In the present invention, the word continuous is intended to mean a hose which is connected and acts between it's end points, in order to accomplish the functions required by it, as a unitary/single hose, i.e., one than one hose can be coupled together to act as a single hose. An air hose portion 235 provides suction from blower motor 226 to one port of an air junction box 229, while continuous hose 220 is connected to a second port of air junction box 229. Air junction box 229, included at a top portion of hose storage area 222, includes an airflow sensor and vacuum breaker assembly. The airflow sensor is used to develop a signal which is applied to the controller of the vending machine and is representative of the airflow through air hose 220. The vacuum breaker assembly is used to quickly bring the air pressure in hose 220 to the ambient pressure, thereby facilitating a “quick-release” of an article transported by the article pickup head, into the dispensing chute 210. It is noted that a quick release of the products does not have to occur at the top of dispensing chute 210, and in the event that it is desirable to avoid subjecting the article to forces which result from jarring or dropping, the article pickup head could proceed to the bottom of the dispensing chute 210 before providing release of the article, with or without the use of the quick release valve. In one embodiment, the airflow sensor arrangement may comprises a two-part switch, a first part includes a reed switch mounted on a top portion of box 229, and a second part includes a magnet mounted at the free end of a swinging arm mounted inside box 229. As the arm swings inside box 229 due to changes in airflow, the switch is “toggled”, thereby indicating changes in airflow. The use of this airflow signal will be described in greater detail later. In an alternative embodiment, the functions of the airflow valve and quick release could be built into the blower motor enclosure. With this arrangement, hose 220 would be continuous from the picker head all of the way to the blower motor.
In the environment of the present invention, as shown generally in
Note that although carriage assembly 218 only moves in a single plane, it is responsible for precisely positioning pickup head 224 in each of the X, Y and Z directions. More specifically, carriage 218 includes a roller arrangement (not specifically shown, but which may comprise three orthogonally positioned rollers at the point where hose 220 enters carriage 218) for redirecting the movement of hose 220 from a substantially horizontal direction along the top interior portion of machine 10 (i.e., in the X,Y direction), to a direction perpendicular thereto (i.e., in the Z direction). Thus, movement of carriage 218 will move the free end 221 of hose 220 so that it can be axially aligned with a selected one of bins 216. Thereafter, a hose drive mechanism (not specifically shown, but which may comprise a set of conventionally operated “pinch rollers”), is driven by a reversible motor 508 for driving pickup head 224 into/out of the selected bin 216 in order to retrieve articles stored therein. In the illustrated embodiment the hose drive mechanism is mounted in carriage 218, but in a further embodiment motor 241 and the pinch rollers, or some other drive mechanism, such as an articulated arm, could be mounted so as to act somewhere else along the length of hose 220.
This arrangement, where hose 220 travels in the same X,Y plane that carriage 218 travels, facilitates a compact hose positioning and drive mechanism embodiment for the present invention.
Additionally, since hose 220 is formed of a continuous material from its connection to the source of suction at one end (which connection is described later in this description to be at a vacuum junction box 229) to the pickup head 224 at its other end, means are necessary for providing hose storage and/or retraction during travel of the pickup head 224 in the X, Y and Z directions during the article dispensing operations.
A hose storage area 222 is formed by placing an interior wall 246 parallel and adjacent to an exterior wall 248 of cabinet 12. Walls 246 and 248 are shown partially cut-away so as to illustrate a gravity feed self retracting loop 250 in hose 220. Loop 220 is constrained for movement within hose storage area 222, and made self retracting by providing a rolling weight 252 having a groove 253 along its periphery in order to provide constant centering of the weight within hose storage area 222 and providing a constant “loop forming” tension on hose 220. Furthermore, centering of the grooved rolling weight 252 within hose storage area 222 results in centering of hose 220, thereby preventing hose 220 from rubbing with the walls of hose storage area 222 during X,Y and Z repositioning of pickup head 224. In order to prevent binding of hose 220, rolling weight 252 is dimensioned so as to be slightly larger than the diameter of hose 220 and the width dimension of hose storage area 222 is dimensioned to be only slightly larger than the width dimension of rolling weight 252.
It is also noted that this gravity-based retraction/hose storage technique meets the storage requirements needed for both the X and Y movements of carriage 218 (left/right and front/back), as well as for the Z movement of pickup head 224. Of course this gravity-based retraction/hose storage technique would work equivalently well in an embodiment wherein the robotic hose positioning mechanism used a rotary type device (R, θ), an articulated arm, telescoping or scissor system, or other technique. Furthermore, the illustrated gravity-based retraction/hose storage technique is not necessary for the present invention, and in fact a fully or partially motorized retraction technique could also be used. Furthermore, in other embodiments, it may be desirable to place hose storage area at another location, such as parallel to the top or rear portion of cabinet 12.
In the environment of the present invention, it is noted that
It is noted that by using a centrally positioned article ID device 254, only a single article ID device 254 is needed. This is particularly appropriate for a robotic type dispenser, since the robotic apparatus can controllably position, and re-position if necessary, the article in the vicinity of the article ID device 254, thereby helping ensure a reliable ID of the article. It is noted that a specific type of article ID device is not required, and depending upon system constraints, such a device may comprise, for example, a bar code scanner, an optical imaging system which identifies the article being dispensed using image and/or pattern recognition techniques, or even an RF identification tag system. Such article ID devices are well known to those of ordinary skill in this technology, and therefore further description of them is unnecessary.
A bin holder 260, shown in
It is noted that position sensor 412 may include the airflow sensor of junction box 229, or in a further embodiment, comprise a mechanically operated plunger-type position sensor associated with pickup head 224. Even furthermore, position sensors 412 may also include a reed switch mounted on a front wall of the cabinet, and a magnet mounted at a leading edge of carriage 218.
Accurate control of energization of blower motor 226 is particularly advantageous in the event that the inside of the cabinet, or a portion thereof, is refrigerated, since accurate control would decrease the amount of refrigerated air being displaced by blower motor 226. In the preferred embodiment, the microprocessor 402 will energize blower motor 226 as the pickup head 224 approaches the desired article, and in fact only when it is in the immediate proximity of the desired article (and not earlier), due to control system 400 maintaining updated information about the height of the stack of articles in each bin 216. The height is assumed to be at a predefined level upon article refilling/filling of the vending machine 10 by the operator. Control system 400 may confirm the assumed height by moving the pickup head 224 at a reduced speed towards an article at the top of a bin 216 on the first retrieval attempt after the storage area has been refilled, and then compare the assumed height to the actual height. Memory 404 can be pre-programmed with specific article heights in advance, or the heights can be learned by control system 400 by comparison of prior vend heights in each bin. Once the height of the top article is known, control system 400 will be able to always know the height of the next “top” article in that bin. Subsequently, control system 400 may cause the pickup head 224 to approach the articles in that storage area at a higher speed, and only slow down when in the immediate proximity of the next “top” article in that bin. The technique to slow down upon the pickup head 224 approaching the next article also helps ensure that the stored articles will not be damaged by the pickup head 224.
It is noted that in an alternate embodiment, a simpler way of controlling operation of blower motor 226 and the approach of pickup head 224, without knowing the specific article height, would be to turn on the blower motor 226, or slow down the pickup head 224 just prior to the learned stack height of the prior vend.
When a “reset” switch (not shown) is activated by the machine operator, control system 400 automatically defaults to using the above height detection technique since it can be assumed that the operator may have changed the product load levels and consequently the product heights in each bin.
For the embodiments described herein, it is assumed that energization of the blower motor or other suction creating device, is meant to be equivalent to the appearance of a prompt package securing force, i.e., suction, at the pickup head 224.
A communication system 414 is connected to control system 400 so as to provide article inventory and vending machine operation information to a remote location, as well as to allow for control of the operation of the vending machine from a remote location. In this regard, communication system 414 may include a connection to means for making a wire-line and/or wireless transceiver interface through which a communication link with a remote computer can be established. Additionally, the communication system 414 may communicate with a plurality of other similarly connected vending machines in the same general area and communicate therewith using the wire-line interface or wireless communication. Even furthermore, communication system 414 can provide for communication with multiple vending machines and/or a local server/controller, in a local site along a LAN (local area network), LAWN (a local area wireless network) or a WAN (wide area network). The remote computer may comprise a database which receives and/or accumulates the operational data from one or more vending machines, which data is then accessible (via, e.g., the Internet, using a wired or wireless connection) using appropriate encryption, to others, such as route drivers, machine operators, machine owners, product suppliers, etc. Furthermore, the remote site may give feedback to the vending machines, such as authorization information, which can control its operation, such as allow its continued operation.
In the embodiment illustrated herein, blower motor 226 provides a relatively high volume of airflow but relatively modest negative air pressure. The illustrated embodiment is particularly useful for picking up flexible packages since a momentary or even sustained leak in the coupling to the packaging to the article will generally not result in dropping of the package, while at the same time offering extreme versatility due to the ability to pick up a wide variety of shaped objects of varying weight and size. In some applications it may be advantageous to provide a negative air pressure source which provides a relatively substantial negative air pressure but low rate of airflow, such as is provided by a vacuum pump, alone or in combination with a storage tank couple to the suction hose via a valve and air hose. Alternatively a compressor could be used in combination with a venturi device to create a vacuum. To get operational performance with a vacuum pump that is similar to that of blower motor 226 would require a storage tank and/or vacuum pump of substantially larger size.
Alternative embodiments for the robotic hose positioning mechanism described above are contemplated to be within the scope of the present inventions. For example, instead of using a combination of left/right slides 234 and support beams 236 a and 236 b, a roller/guide rail combination could be used. Support beams 236 a and 236 b may comprise a support plate having two outwardly facing, i.e., opposed, L-shaped rails, along its edges. The function of slides 234 could be accomplished by fixing a pair of brackets to opposed ends of beam 230, each bracket including a pair of spaced apart and inwardly facing rollers which engage and follow the opposed rails on the support plate. Furthermore, the spaced apart and inwardly facing rollers could each comprise a set of rollers positioned to be angled 90 degrees with respect to each another, so as to engage or follow the two orthogonal surfaces of the L-shaped rails. Such arrangement may result in a coupling of carriage 218 to beam 230 which needs less adjustment for proper operation. Furthermore, as previously noted, the event of substantially horizontal alignment of the storage bins, the robotic hose positioning mechanism can position carriage 218 for movement in a vertical plane which is substantially flat (i.e., in the X/Z or Y/Z plane) or in fact a vertical curvilinear plane. Additionally, as previously noted, in some aspects of the invention, it may be desirable for the robotic hose positioning mechanism to include a rotary device (R, θ) of the type including an I beam of fixed length (or telescopic sections), for establishing the “R” movement of the gripper/pickup head, which pivots for establishing the “θ” movement. Alternatively, in other environments for the invention the robotic hose positioning mechanism may include an articulated arm or scissor system, or other technique.
Furthermore, the inventions described in the illustrated embodiments could also be of benefit in apparatus using other types of robotic positioners, such as a rotary type device (R, θ), an articulated arm, telescoping or scissor system, etc, as may be beneficial in a specific combination of the various elements described herein.
Even furthermore, although only a single storage area 215, hose 220 and carriage 218 are shown in the illustrated embodiment, the invention described herein could also be used in a dispensing apparatus/article handler of the type having multiple storage areas and/or robotic article handling mechanisms, such as two robotic mechanisms (both positioned vertically or horizontally or mixed, and one vertically and one horizontally) each one serving a different storage area. Furthermore, when multiple article handling mechanisms are provided, each can be tailored for a particular operation. For example, one may have a relatively large diameter pickup head and use a high airflow/modest suction vacuum supply device, while the other may have a relatively small diameter pickup head and use a low airflow/high suction vacuum supply.
In this regard,
Additionally, separate hoses and hose positioning mechanisms can also be useful in order to speed up retrieval and delivery of stored articles to a customer.
A further one of such arrangements is shown in
In the above arrangements it is noted that the article handling mechanism can have other configurations such as the forenoted telescopic tubing, scissors, or R,theta arrangement. Additionally, the articles can be consumer goods, such as office supplies, printer cartridges etc.
Referring simultaneously to
Conventional techniques can be used for forming the basic shape for article storage bins 1000 and slots 1012. Automatic assembly equipment can be used for inserting the tab portions 1010 into the interior of the bin and securing the base 1008 of article supports 1002 to the exterior of the bin walls using an adhesive applied to base 1008. Article supports 1010 are manufactured with a crease 1014 across to for a the airway so that tab portions 1010 operate as a flap. Note that the length of tabs 1010 is such that significant space is available between the tabs intruding into the interior space of bins 1000 so that the article gripping mechanism (which in the previous Figures comprises a suction pickup head 224) and pass therethrough in an uninterrupted manner, yet they are long enough so as to catch opposed edges of the article packaging 1005 (shown in
To facilitate loading of bins 1000 with articles to be dispensed, in one embodiment of the invention, sidewall 1016 includes openings 1018 and 1020. In operation, since retrieval of products is from the top of the bin, loading of the bin must take place from the bottom in order to preserve a first-in, first-out (FIFO) product dispensing. Accordingly, the service person will insert the articles into the larger opening 1018 at the bottom of bin 1000 and then using his/her hand, push them upward in the bin. Opening 1020 is provided to assist movement of the inserted products towards the top of bin 1000. In an alternative embodiment, base 1001 may merely comprise an opening, it may comprise a pair of article supports 1010, or even one large flexible support which has a shape substantially similar to the cross-sectional shape of bin 1000, in order to help bin 1000 keep its rectangular shape.
Many of the benefits of the inventions described herein could also be particularly useful in an article dispensing apparatus of the type having a refrigerated compartment, such as a chest freezer including various doors thereon (such as described for the ice cream dispenser in U.S. Pat. No. 5,240,139), in combination with the forenoted controls for creating and/or maintaining suction at the gripping end of the suction hose
While this invention has been particularly shown and described with reference to preferred embodiments thereof, it will be understood by those skilled in the art that various changes in form and details may be made therein without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention as defined by the appended claims. In fact, many such changes are already noted in this description. Those skilled in the art will recognize, or be able to ascertain using no more than routine experimentation, many equivalents to the specific embodiments of the invention described specifically herein. For example, although supports 1002 are indicated as being constructed of a flexible plastic, in fact other materials, such as cardboard, could be used. In the event that the thickness of the sidewalls of bins 1000 is insufficient to provide the above noted “biasing” effect, additional “flat strips” could be adhered to the underside of each hole to provide a desired “thickness”. Such strips could be formed by a solid panel having a longitudinal shape corresponding with that of the inner side wall of a bin 1000, having cut-outs therein corresponding to the position and dimension of slots 1012, or a Even furthermore, instead of supports 1002 having flat tab portions 1010, the article supports could instead comprise “rod-like” intrusions into the bin, such as found in a brush. Additionally, instead of providing a separate element for forming supports 1002, bins 1000 may be manufactured using a multi-layer material, and tabs 1010 can be formed from an inner layer of the bin material. In an even further embodiment, the article intrusions/supports can comprise a plurality of longitudinally oriented strips 1900 of flexible material, such as polyethylene, having “steps” formed (such as by die-cutting) therein, as shown in
Furthermore, although substantially rectangular article storage bins have been described, circular/curved-walled bins can be used. It is also noted that although a suction providing air hose 220 has been disclosed in the described preferred embodiments, in fact a solid element having a gripper at its free and, such as a mechanically operated claw (or an electromagnetic device or even a self-contained suction generator), could also be used. Such equivalents are intended to be encompassed in the scope of the appended claims.