Standing in a Community Centre’s badminton hall, Jeffrey Tong put the final touches to a set-up of funnels, containers and tables. It was March 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore. Across the island, volunteers from some 80 organisations made preparations, like Jeffrey, to receive the public.
Set-ups such as this was deployed across Community Centres and selected shopping malls over a two-week distribution period
To help Singapore residents stay safe during this critical period, Temasek Foundation worked with over 20,000 volunteers to provide hand sanitisers to the public over a two-week period in March/April 2020 through the #BYOBclean initiative.
The distribution exercise provided 600,000 Singapore households with hand sanitiser at a time when such products were short in supply. Residents headed to collection centres located in malls and community centres with their own clean bottles and collected up to 500ml of free zero-alcohol hand sanitiser solution for each of their households.
Volunteers handed out zero-alcohol sanitiser solution for residents who ‘bring their own bottles’ (BYOB)
After the campaign, Jeffrey, Programmes and Partnership Manager and a member of the project team at Temasek Foundation, gathered learning points with the operations team. Two things were clear: firstly, while volunteers were happy to do their part, relying on a large number of volunteers may not be sustainable in subsequent distributions. “Also, you want to reduce contact with people during a pandemic,” Jeffrey shared.
Secondly, future distributions should continue to support the ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’ (BYOB) concept as part of our collective responsibility in promoting sustainability and reducing waste.
“This was when the idea of using vending machines to dispense hand sanitisers came about,” Jeffrey said.
In Search Of a Vending Solution
Unlike a typical canned drink, toy or even mask vending machine, a machine that vends hand sanitiser solution would need to perform dual functions: ‘manufacture’ the solution within, and dispense to a user.
“In effect, it is like a mini factory,” said Jaron Bai, Assistant General Manager at Warburg Vending. Housed within the automated vending machine are sensors, tanks and pipes programmed to mix hand sanitiser concentrate with water in an optimal ratio (an otherwise labour-intensive job).
Temasek Foundation and its long-term partners Warburg Vending and Beep Technologies went in search of such vending technologies.
The hunt came with many challenges – from working against the clock while juggling multiple community projects, to resolving a seemingly harmless issue: the production of foam. “With more foam in the solution, the solution will overflow during dispensing into a bottle, and people would get less than the desired 500ml of sanitiser,” explained Jaron.
The team considered various machines, from beverage to sake vending machines and to those that dispensed liquid detergent. When none of the existing models could address #BYOBclean’s specific needs, it became clear that a custom solution was necessary.
First of Its Kind
Even though Jaron and his team at Warburg Vending had previously made modifications to vending machines, building one from scratch was a first. Drawing on expertise and years of experience in vending operations, they started designing a smart sanitiser vending machine.
As the world went on lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, Jaron sent the first drawings of the new machine to a manufacturer in China. With travel bans in place, they reviewed the machine as it came together over countless video calls. With the manufacturer’s help, they resolved the issue of froth by adding a nozzle to filter out bubbles that formed during dispensing. To minimise and contain the risk of mixing ratio error, they also added a mixture tank with a system that mixed water and the concentrate solution in smaller batches.
Housed within each vending machine is a mini factory designed to mix and dispense effective hand sanitisers seamlessly
While the Warburg team developed the hardware, Kristoffer Jacek Soh, CEO and co-founder of Beep Technologies, wrote software for the smart machine. “In the first few months, the main issue we faced was not having a prototype,” he recalled. “We had to write new software and fit it as closely as possible to the old (StayMasked vending machine) one so that they wouldn’t have to make as many changes.”
Unlike previous StayMasked campaigns that tracked redemptions by individuals, #BYOBclean offers hand sanitisers by households. This meant a new verification mode for collection, apart from using identification cards.
“Eventually, we landed on using the SP utilities account number as a means to verify households, as this is something all households would have,” said Jeffrey.
Effecting this required new coding based on SP Group’s database, a task that Beep Technologies undertook with SP Group. The result is a technology that allows users to collect the sanitiser solution via QR codes printed on their SP bills, which is as close to contactless as it can get.
Features such as bigger screens were added to make transactions as easy as possible for residents
Within the user journey, a key innovation stands out: auto-vending. “A QR code presented to the machine teaches the machine to dispense a certain item to the user,” shared Sean Ler, Project Director and Head of Programmes and Partnerships at Temasek Foundation. “We’ve deployed auto-vending at these machines both for ease of collection and to minimise the fear of contact with surfaces during a pandemic.”
Smart From End-to-End
With the user-end of the vending process automated, the team then added features for smarter back-end servicing and maintenance. The new #BYOBclean machines have been programmed with remote monitoring features that enable service crew to receive alerts, such as a full overflow tank. This, in turn, reduces the need for constant manning by staff.
Built-in sensors in the various tanks housed within the machine will also send prompts to technicians in the event of a fault or failure.
Thanks to a central circuit board which links up data from the various sensors in the machine, visiting serviceman will also be able to locate where any errors lie at a glance.
Development progress sped up after October 2020, when the first two prototypes of the vending machine arrived in Singapore. In January this year, a trial collection exercise with 900 residents was conducted at a Community Centre to get feedback from the public to improve user experience and smoothen the collection process.
The custom-made machines – the first of its kind in the world – are finally ready to serve some 1.5 million residential households in April.
First of its kind – the innovative, customised vending solution designed to continue #BYOBclean’s mission to keep the community safe and healthy
By Singaporeans, For Singaporeans
Over the one-year journey, from initial design on, deploying automation and technology to benefit the public has always been a key consideration. Today, the machines are capable of mixing the sanitiser concentrate with water to a precise ratio, and can enable 24/7, quick, contactless collection using a range of bottle sizes.
The machines are also able to split the sanitiser collection quantity over two bottles or more, and include a sticker dispenser to allow users to label their bottles – improvements made with the utility and safety of Singaporeans in mind.
In late March 2020, volunteers manually dispensed sticker labels for residents to mark bottles containing the hand sanitisers. Today, the labourious process has been automated.
“COVID-19 has been humanising and humbling. It teaches us many things. It teaches us to push the boundaries that we never knew before,” reflected Sean. “We are quite proud to say that we built this machine with Singaporeans, because it was their feedback and encouragement that pushed us to find the current design.”
Collect up to 500ml of free hand sanitiser for your household at any Community Centre/Club and Temasek Shophouse before 25 April 2021. Bring along your clean bottle, and your March/April SP paper or electronic bill with the #BYOBclean QR code or take note of your SP account number. For more details, visit https://stayprepared.sg/byobclean