Method and Apparatus for Refilling a Container with a Fluid

A method and apparatus for cleaning, sanitizing, and refilling reusable containers in order to reduce the non-biodegradable waste and environment contamination. The apparatus and process allows a person/consumer to refill the container with any fluid dispensed by said apparatus such as a vending machine. Depending on the fluid selection of the consumer the vending machine sanitizes the container before any fluid is dispensed in it. Further, the machine provides the branding of the container depending on the consumer selection allowing people and consumer recognition of the product and enticing manufacturers to participate.

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Description

RELATED APPLICATIONS

This application is related to U.S. patent application Ser. No. 12/060515 filed on Apr. 21, 2008.

STATEMENT REGARDING FEDERALLY SPONSORED RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

N/A

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

The invention is related to a method and apparatus for refilling a container but more specifically to the identification, user interaction, and sanitizing of a container and refilling of fluid having short shelf life fluids.

2. Discussion of the Background

Lately people are concerned about the environment and are looking for ways to protect it. For example, in order to reduce the use of plastic waste, reusable containers are now utilized. U.S. Pat. No. 4,929,818 to Bradburry, discloses a method of vending a containerized product using multiple fillings of the same container. The method includes the steps of placing machine-readable indicia or means for reading on the container indicative of the price charged for both the container and the product contained therein, and at the time of placement of said indicia, or subsequently to such placement, including at a location adjacent to said indicia, a stimulus-responsive machine-readable indicator capable of responding to a stimulus to undergo a change of state which is readable, conjunctively with said indicia, by a machine, to indicate a price to be charged solely for the product in the refilled container. After initial vending of the container and the product, the container is refilled with product at least once, while concurrently, during each such refilling, stimulating said indicator to cause it to undergo said change, whereby the customer buying a refill of product is charged, on the basis of the subsequent machine reading, only for such product as is placed in the container during the refilling thereof. The container can be used for refilling multiple times, however the container is limited to only be filled with the same fluid or long lasting products. No cleaning or sanitation of the container is done in order to provide for fluids of short expiration time such as milk, juice and others.

Another example of environmental awareness is U.S. Pat. No. 6,578,763 to Brown, which discloses a method and apparatus for vending a containerized liquid product to a vendee, after an original liquid container has been emptied, by successive refilling of the product and utilizing machine-readable indicia on the container, a discount ticket or coupon being dispensed to the vendee upon completion of the filling of the container. The same principles of Bradburry apply here with the only difference that a vending machine will provide a discount ticket upon the completion of the container. Again the product is limited to the use of long lasting fluid, since no sanitation process is disclosed.

Therefore there is a need to provide a method and apparatus such as a vending machine for fluid refilling of fluid having a short shelf life. The present invention provides a vending machine that sanitizes the container as part of the refilling process in order to reduce and avoid the contamination of the refilled product.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The present invention provides a method and apparatus for refilling a reusable container in order to reduce the non-biodegradable waste and environment contamination. One of the invention's objects is to allow a person/consumer to refill the container with any fluid dispensed by said apparatus such as a vending machine.

Another important aspect of the present invention is the sanitation of the container depending on the consumer fluid selection before any fluid is dispensed in it.

Further another important object of the invention is to provide a method for the branding of the container depending on the consumer selection allowing people and consumer recognition of the product and enticing manufacturers to participate.

Yet another aspect of the invention is to provide a container wherein the container is customizable and the identification means are physically protected.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

The accompanying drawings which are incorporated herein constitute part of the specifications and illustrate the preferred embodiment of the invention.

FIG. 1 shows the container.

FIG. 2a shows the container preferred embodiment with chip.

FIG. 2b shows the container preferred embodiment with bar code.

FIG. 2c shows an exploded view of section IIc from FIG. 2a

FIG. 3a shows a vending machine

FIG. 3b shows a segmented vending machine chamber

FIG. 4 container inside vending machine

FIG. 5a-5c shows the label detaching process

FIG. 6 show the container inspection process

FIG. 7a-7b shows container's cleaning process

FIG. 8a-8b shows vending machine locking arms

FIG. 9 shows container contamination revise

FIG. 10a-10b shows labeling process

FIG. 11 show the refilling process

FIG. 12 shows container final product

DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

The present invention overcomes all the disadvantages mentioned above by providing a method and apparatus for refilling a container with fluids having a short shelf life.

The main components of the preferred embodiment are a container 1 and a vending machine 3. FIG. 1 shows the container 1 having a label 2 which is made of durable material, is easy to handle, capable of maintaining a certain temperature, should not exhibit carryover flavors and has readable means in order to acquire information or/and identify the container.

The container 1 is configured to interact with the vending machine 3 in such way that a smoother cleaning and refilling process is provided. FIG. 2a-2c shows the preferred embodiment of the container 1 comprising readable means 1′-1″, an opening 1b, lateral grooves 1d and bottom grooves 1c. The readable means 1′, 1″, are embedded in the container 1 structure in such way that it is protected from the environment. The container 1 readable means, such as a chip 1′ or barcode 1″, allows the apparatus to obtain usable information from a database. The readable information can be implemented through wireless RFID, wired connection by contact with the container's surface, infrared or optical communication with an electronic device inside the container, or barcode reading. The information obtained from readable means 1′,1″ or electronic identification includes, but is not limited to, consumer information, bottle information, production information, last fluid inside the container, etc. The container can be of several sizes, shapes and materials including, but not limited to plastic or any other material or combination of material that fulfills the limitations presented above.

As shown in FIG. 2a and FIG. 2c, the bottle has an RFID chip 1′ as a readable mean placed at the bottom, protected by enclosing it inside the plastic or material substrate of the container 1. FIG. 2b shows an alternative for the readable means such as a barcode 1″ placed inside the container 1 protecting said barcode 2b from scratches; however, it can be placed in any other part as long as it remains protected.

As mentioned before, the container 1′ is provided with lateral grooves 1d and bottom grooves 1c used as engaging means for the vending machine in order to rotate or manage the movement of the container during the process.

The vending machine 3, as show in FIG. 3a-3b, is used to clean and refill the container 1 and comprises at least an opening 3d to the inner chamber 4, display 3a, information access mechanism 3b and/or a pay mechanism 3c. The vending machine 3 may contain inside of it the short life fluid or be connected to a fluids storage system F having a short shelf life. Also the vending machine 3 is provided with a container detection mechanism, cleaning, labeling and a refilling systems controlled by a computer. The container 1 with one or more sealable openings 1d is positioned inside the vending machine 3 through the opening 3d inside the chamber 4 for cleaning labeling and refilling. After the container 1 is positioned and the chamber door is closed, the process starts with a signal. In the instant case the starting signal is generated by a button outside the chamber located at the information access mechanism 3b. Mainly the cleaning and refilling process is as follows:

    • Container is positioned and engaged inside the vending machine's chamber.
    • Access and Acquire user information through the readable means and/or data base.
    • Container label is removed
    • Verify damages in the container
    • Exchange of information with user
    • Clean container
    • Branding/Labeling
    • Refill Container
    • Seal container
    • Edit and Store information regarding user, product and others

The chamber 4, as shown in FIG. 3b, is divided in three main sections A, B and C, wherein certain steps are performed as part of the cleaning and refilling process.

As mentioned above, first the container is positioned inside the chamber at section A in such way that protrusions 3e engage bottom grooves 1c and lock the container in position while controlling the rotation of the container 1. The vending machine opening 3d is closed and the start button is pressed in order to begin the cleaning and refilling process. At this point the container cap has been removed manually.

The information at the readable means 1′, 1″ is accessed by means of a reader such as a RFID reader 5, as shown in FIG. 4, in order to identify the customer and acquire information from a database. The information obtained such as user personal information, fluid contained, credit card information and other is edited, used or stored for future reference. The information selected by customer is used, but not limited, to edit previous information, make a payment and refill the container with the new fluid.

The customer exchanges information with the database using the information access mechanism 3b in such way that the container is customized to identify the person/consumer and provide a quick menu for this customer based on the customer preferences. Also since the container 1 needs to be customized the user may then have to confirm or submit a PIN (personal identification number) or password which is related to the container for future refilling. In order to have customer information available for future refilling or any other uses or features, when the container is customized for the first time, information is requested from the user in order to provide the database with usable data such as payment method and preferences, including a submission of a PIN or password. Every time the container 1 is inserted in the machine's chamber 4 the machine will ask for the identity by personal identification number (“PIN”) or some other means. In other words, a user profile can be created, which resides in the database located outside the machine 3 and is pulled up by placing the container in the machine, and can be used or altered after placing the PIN or password.

It has to be understood that removing the label is necessary since the label needs to be updated in order to provide visible information for the customer such as the expiration date of the new fluid usually marked at the new label. The label can be removed and attached manually to the container 1, for example, using labels made of PVC Film or any other material which sticks to the container surfaces without any adhesive and removed without leaving behind any residue. The new label provided by the vending machine 3 after the payment and selection of the fluid is performed will display information such as but not limit to the brand, expiration date and nutrition facts. Another option is a vending machine 3 with a label detaching process which after the fluid selection and payment is performed removes the old label from the container's outer surface as shown in FIGS. 5a-5c. Cutting means 7 are used to remove the label, such as a razor or blade 7a. During the label detaching process a label remover 8 extends toward the container in order to contact the label at the container's surface. The cutting means 7 also extends towards the container but more specifically towards the lateral grooves 1d. The label is cut at the lateral grooves 1d area avoiding damages at the container 1 from the cutting process. The tension created by the label remover 8 makes the cutting process easier.

After the cutting is performed the container is rotated clockwise until the area pierced by the razor 7a reaches the label remover 8. Subsequently, the label remover 8 starts removing the label, for example, by suction while the container rotates in a counterclockwise direction. Next the label remover pulls back and the label detaching process is completed.

Before the container is refilled and to avoid the new fluid being spilled a container's damage inspection is performed. A light emitter 10a is inserted through the container opening 1b and a receiver 10b is positioned outside in order to receive the signal from the emitter and discern if the container is damaged. The receiver 10b may be static while the container rotates or the receiver may rotate while the container is static. As mentioned before the rotational motion of the container is controlled by protrusion 3e. If the container 1 is damaged the vending machine will finalize the process and an alert the customer. It has to be understood that in case the customer let the container with the cap on, the light emitter will remain outside the container and therefore the receiver 10b will recognize the container as damage.

After the damage inspection is completed the container moves to the B stage wherein the cleaning process begins. In the instant case the cleaning process is performed by turning the container upside down. FIGS. 7a-7b show the use of two locking arms 11 in order to turn the container 1 upside down. Each arm extends parallel to the container, and comprises a vertical extension 11b, a rotational portion 11c and locking extension 11a. The locking extension 11a engages the lateral groove 1d and controls the upside down movement of the container 1. As shown in FIGS. 7a-7b, the vertical extensions 11b move vertically and horizontally in order to engage and control the container's movement. After the container is flipped upside down a pipe is inserted through the containers opening 1b. A cleaning agent, such as vapor, hot water, soap or any other cleaning agent is applied to the containers inner walls through the pipe 12. A vacuum 9 connected at the container's opening 1b removes all the residues after applying the cleaning agent. Subsequently, as shown in FIG. 9, the container is turned to its original position and checked for contamination using a light emitter 10a device and a receiver 10b. If the receiver detects contamination the vending machine repeats the cleaning process for several times until the container is clean or a pre-determined number of tries is reached. If the number of tries is reached the vending machine 3 will finalize the process and alert the customer. The container may also have a material which may be altered to show graphics on the bottle, specifically brand names. The said material will be able to be cleared and altered in circumstances where the liquid used to refill is different from the previous liquid, or a new graphic or information is wanted or needed on the container.

The container moves to the next and final stage C wherein the container is labeled and refilled with the new fluid. FIGS. 10a-10b show the labeling process comprising a label provider 14 and a roller 15. The label provider 14 moves towards the container and applies the label of the product selected by the customer. The roller 15 also extends towards the container 1 and assists in the labeling of the container. After the labeling is completed the refilling process starts. FIG. 11 shows a pipe 16 inserted through the container's opening 1b and the new fluid L is served. The pipe 16 may be provided with level sensors. Next, as shown in FIG. 12, the container is closed, the information associated with the readable means 1′, 1″ is edited and stored and the customer is charged providing a reusable container with a new label and fluid. The vending machine will exhibit the product with a new label displaying information regarding the fluid and the new fluid ready for the customer.

While the invention has been described as having a preferred design, it is understood that many changes, modifications, variations and other uses and applications of the subject invention will, however, become apparent to those skilled in the art without materially departing from the novel teachings and advantages of this invention after considering this specification together with the accompanying drawings. Accordingly, all such changes, modifications, variations and other uses and applications which do not depart from the spirit and scope of the invention are deemed to be covered by this invention as defined in the following claims and their legal equivalents. In the claims, means-plus-function clauses, if any, are intended to cover the structures described herein as performing the recited function and not only structural equivalents but also equivalent structures.

All of the patents, patent applications, and publications recited herein, and in the Declaration attached hereto, if any, are hereby incorporated by reference as if set forth in their entirety herein. All, or substantially all, the components disclosed in such patents may be used in the embodiments of the present invention, as well as equivalents thereof. The details in the patents, patent applications, and publications incorporated by reference herein may be considered to be incorporable at applicant's option, into the claims during prosecution as further limitations in the claims to patentable distinguish any amended claims from any applied prior art.

Claims

1. A reusable container used in a vending machine comprising:

a hollow body,
an opening, wherein said opening is located at a first distal end of said hollow body,
a plurality of grooves, wherein the grooves are located on said hollow body surface having a parallel and perpendicular pattern with respect to said opening,
wherein said perpendicular grooves are configured to have a non-circular shape,
wherein said parallel grooves are located at a second distal end of said hollow body,
wherein each groove has a predetermined depth; and readable means.

2. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein said plurality of grooves are configured to engage said container in a pre-determinate arrangement with a locking mechanism which controls the translation and rotational displacement of said container and wherein each groove assists to limit undesired movements of said container.

3. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein at least a pair of grooves is spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate.

4. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein at least two grooves are spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate upon itself.

5. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein at least two grooves are spaced apart and perpendicular to each other.

6. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein at least a first pair of grooves is spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate upon itself over a first axis and a second pair of grooves is spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate upon itself over a second axis, wherein said first axis and second axis are perpendicular to each other.

7. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein said readable means is embedded in the container and protected from the environment.

8. A reusable container as in claim 1, wherein said container material comprises a durable substrate material not exhibiting carryover flavors.

9. A reusable container used in a vending machine comprising:

a hollow body,
readable means,
an opening, wherein said opening is located at a first distal end of said hollow body,
a at least a first pair of grooves configured to have a non-circular shape located on said hollow body surface,
wherein said first pair of grooves is perpendicular with respect to said opening and each first pair groove is spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate upon itself over a first axis,
a at least a second pair of grooves located on said hollow body surface at a second distal end of said hollow body,
wherein said second pair of grooves is parallel with respect to said opening and each second pair groove is spaced apart to assist the hollow body to rotate upon itself over a second axis, wherein said first axis and second axis are perpendicular to each other; and
wherein said first pair of grooves and said second pair of grooves are shaped to engage said container in a pre-determinate arrangement with a locking mechanism which controls the translation and rotational displacement of said container, wherein each groove assists to limit undesired movements of said container shape limits undesired movements of said container when engaged.

Patent History

Publication number: 20110000923
Type: Application
Filed: Jul 3, 2009
Publication Date: Jan 6, 2011
Inventor: Manuel A. Morales (San Juan, PR)
Application Number: 12/497,617

Classifications

Current U.S. Class: Circumferentially And Axially Extending (220/673)
International Classification: B65D 8/00 (20060101);