Japanese vending machine maker Sanden revealed its new eco-friendly, hand cranked vending machine this month. Ostensibly designed to work during blackouts, particularly in the wake of earthquakes and aftershocks, the new machine has the potential to be an extremely useful emergency aid.
Japan has thousands of vending machines, and you've no doubt heard of some of the stranger variations that you would never find anywhere else. Banana dispensers, underwear dispensers and vending machines that scan your face.
At the end of 2010 there was an estimated 5 million vending machines all over Japan, and with companies like Asashi planning to roll out new Wi-Fi hotspot vending machines, that number is only getting bigger.
Within a minute's walk of my apartment, for example, there are 5 vending machines alone. As a result I am in no danger of running out of quick, convenient soft drinks or cans of coffee.
Following the disastrous Tohoku earthquake last March, Japan underwent rolling blackouts and power shortages as it recovered. A year on from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Japan has only 2 of its 54 reactors online. That is only 4.6 percent of full capacity.
With these discussions in the air, Sanden's hand cranked vending machine seems like a logical step towards fixing a real problem in Japan.
The machine takes 70 rotations to power up, and can dispense six or seven bottles before needing to be charged again.
Many have commented that this unfortunately means many customers could get tired out and thirsty just trying to reach their drink, and it would definitely make the machine off putting outside of power shortages.
Sister site CNET commented: "You'd probably still be thirsty after all that cranking. The only thing to do, however, is keep cranking."
Commuters are not likely to choose the machine over quicker alternatives, which suggests to me that the vending machine's functionality might be limited. Except for those who are serious about energy conservation, the entire idea of a quick effortless drink gets mitigated by having to sweat for it.
In cases of emergencies, however, a hand-cranked vending machine could become essential.
It might seem as though soft drinks and canned coffee would be at the bottom of people's priorities in the event of a natural disaster. However, bear in mind that vending machines are also likely become a convenient source of water and snacks with lengthy expiry dates.
A smashed vending machine is often visual shorthand for the aftermath of a disaster, and it doesn't surprise me that the Japanese would find a way to make that easier and more civilized.
This machine is obviously designed to be primarily used during blackouts, but also to function as just another machine. You still have to pay for your drinks like any other, and the energy efficiency rarely outweighs convenience.
I'm not suggesting that during energy shortages people shouldn't have to pay for their drinks, but it did make me wonder if the creators aren't missing an opportunity to use the machine as a disaster aid.
If they could get government backing, having a hand cranked machine to dispense bottles of water and high-energy snacks could be a good way of remotely assisting people during a blackout.
If during a disaster you are unable to get home, you might well be stranded a long way from any of your emergency supplies. Shops will not necessarily be open to help you, and would be of no use anyway if you were low on cash or had mislaid your belongings.
Concerns that people might exploit these emergency vending machines seem moot in Japan, where most shops don't even have security cameras to stop potential shoplifters.
There is a communal sense of trust that convinces me most people would only use the machines in emergencies, not least because of the effort it would take to crank them up to power.
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