How does a vending machine work?

Written by stephen byron cooper Google
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How does a vending machine work?
Drinks and snack machines are commonplace. (Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Vending machines have been around since the first century AD. You are most likely to encounter one selling snacks, drinks and tickets. The key element of a vending machine is the ability to take payment. This relatively simple task has to be approached in different ways depending on whether the machine accepts coins, paper money or credit cards. There are three more essential tasks for the machine: storage, display and dispensing of goods. These four factors interplay to ensure the successful vending machine sales transaction.


A traditional snack machine can only deliver goods if they are loaded into slots in the cabinet. These slots enable many examples of the same product to be moved forward to the front of the cabinet each time a customer buys one of those items. Many channels in the cabinet allow the machine to sell different goods. A ticket machine needs a supply of black ticket, which are either pre-printed or printed on demand. Pre-printed tickets have to be stored in separate channels according to their value, as though they were separate items in a snack machine. Tickets that are printed on demand need only a roll or stack of blank tickets.


The display of a vending machine references each item to a selection keypad. In snack machines, the keypad only contains an array of numbered buttons and a row of alphabetical buttons. Each channel in the display cabinet makes the front item visible and a label below the channel gives the reference code for that item. A connected display echoes the buyer’s key presses and then displays the price. In ticket machines the display is a list of ticket options which may require the user to go through a series of selections to arrive at the required ticket. Again, a display panel shows the selection and the expected price.


Coin operated machines receive coins through a slot, which leads down a channel. The coin passes through an electromagnetic field which reports the properties of the coin to a controller. This controller assesses the value of the coin based on its dimension and metallic composition. Paper money readers use scanning techniques to look for specific characteristics of the bill. Some machines accept credit cards and these operate in the same way as the card readers in ATM machines.


Once both the selection and payment functions have been passed a specific product is flagged for delivery. In coffee machines, specific nozzles are opened inside the machine allowing liquids to flow and compose the drink. Snack vending machines use a metal spiral that turns to push forward the items trapped within each turn. The front item will tip over the front edge of the channel and the buyer can then grab the item through a flap at the bottom of the machine. Ticket machines turn a roll of perforated tickets, pushing forward a unit into the path of an activated printer, or directly out through a slot to the buyer.

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