BRIGHTON, ON, Canada - Chances are excellent that you've already used technology known as Radio Frequency Identification or RFID, for short. If you've ever passed through store security and had one of those little tags set off an alarm; if you've paid for highway, bridge or tunnel tolls with an "E-Z Pass" or other automated system; or if you've been to an office where doors open after an employee ID card is waved over a sensor, then you've witnessed RFID technology in action.
In recent years, RFID applications have expanded at a nearly exponential rate. And with good reason , RFID is easy to use, provides a high level of digital accuracy and is inexpensive.
Now, RFID is coming to bulk vending. A Canadian company, Smartmech Corp., is currently marketing an RFID system that will allow operators to track sales, improve route efficiency and provide location management with a new level of accountability.
Designed specifically for bulk vending, the new, relatively low cost system requires no external power source, nor, it is reported, any fine-tuning by the operator. In fact, hardware is specifically designed so that operators or route drivers can't get inside. Considered to be essentially disposable technology, when components wear out, the operator simply replaces them.
Commercial RFID systems employ radio waves that interact with a chip or circuit. The technology comes in two distinct "flavors," each of which has found wide acceptance in fields ranging from retail to heavy industry. One is just as likely to find the technology in an upscale store that sells luxury items as a massive warehouse storing truck parts.
The first, and more basic of the two formats, is the "passive" RFID tag. Peel off the backing of a paper security tag common in many stores and you'll find a simple circuit that doesn't require a battery. The circuit is designed to interrupt the low-energy radio signal transmitted between the two security posts at a store's exit. An alarm is triggered whenever the tag alters that signal. Since the tag itself doesn't emit a signal, marketers of the technology have dubbed this configuration Passive RFID.
By reconfiguring the design, manufacturers can add more information, essentially turning the basic circuitry into something like a super-charged barcode.
The second category of RFID tags is commonly known as "active," which, as the name implies, interacts with the reader. Also called "transponders," these tags are battery powered and can handle a multitude of functions. For instance, when combined with simple memory chips, they can store a surprisingly large amount of information and transmit that data to nearby readers.
A system based on Active RFID technology is what Smartmech is currently bringing to bulk vending. Embedded in a tamper-proof and weatherproof epoxy seal is a simple RFID system that records each vend or, in the parlance of the industry, "vending event." With a total memory of 2 kilobytes, each chip can store up to 3,000 vends, though Smartmech officials say that number can be expanded if the need arises.
"The rotation of the handle triggers the chip to record the event (vend), then it dates and time stamps it," explained Smartmech's Jens Ronneberger. "An operator can then go to a machine with his PDA, which has a reader attached, and 'interrogate' the mechanism. Once information is downloaded, it resets. The counter resets to zero and an internal clock updates the time stamp."
Very simply, an operator using a device attached to a PDA would bring the edge of the device to within an inch or so of the coin mech and press a button. A short radio transmission would activate the RFID tag, in essence asking, "who are you and what do you know today?" The tag responds by sending a short signal burst of its own. This burst of data would identify the specific machine by a code and then transmit the recorded data for each vend occurring since the last service call. With its memory downloaded, the next round of sales can fill it up again.
Powered by a single "coin cell," identical to those used in a wide range of consumer electronics, the system embedded in the bulk head measures approximately 1 in. x 1/2 in., but can be configured to fit nearly any bulk vender. In Smartmech's beta test with Beaver Machine Corp., the system is embedded between the front and back plate of a vender.
Because the entire unit is embedded in epoxy, operators do not have to worry about changing the battery. With an estimated lifespan of 250,000 vends (or about seven years), an operator would simply replace the entire coin mech.
Smartmech's system is based on the approved RFID industry standard ISO 15693 and operates at a frequency of 13.56 megahertz. Real benefits to the operator become apparent once data is downloaded onto a PDA. Although data can't be changed on the PDA , as a security safeguard , it can be transferred and then manipulated on a laptop or desktop computer. Data from an entire route can be downloaded via a cell phone by a route driver in the field, or directly "hot linked" to a desktop or laptop. Data can then be used in a range of applications.
"You can plug the data into any Windows application," said Ronneberger. "The operator can read it out as a report, putting it into Excel, Word or even ASCI."
Ronneberger added that Smartmech is also introducing its own route management software package designed to tie together the data between the mechs and the back office. Current plans call for the software package to be offered on a subscription basis. The package will include such features as route management, location, inventory and commission structures.
"Benefits to the operator are numerous," declared Ronneberger. "Number one is the elimination of trade loss (theft); and number two is the ability to accurately audit collections. But those are just the direct benefits.
"The indirect benefits would be the ability to service a route faster, because you don't spend any time counting money. After locations realize that there is accountability, a lot of routes won't even require you to pay them on the spot. Therefore, a route driver can service more routes per day."
According to Ronneberger, operators using the system will also be able to merchandise more effectively, because they will know precisely what products are selling in what locations and have the ability to analyze that data over a long period of time.
Operators will also save time and effort on accounting functions, he noted. With an increasing number of operators using accounting and spreadsheet programs, transferring hard data from routes to databases has become a time-consuming function, whether done onsite with route drivers punching numbers into a PDA or at the home office, where operators must enter numbers from handwritten tickets.
And, because the numbers are verifiable and there are controls on the system, Smartmech believes operators will be able to more easily access traditional capital markets, which is a common problem for those in cash-based businesses. Verifiable numbers could also smooth negotiations when buying and selling routes.Presently, large chain accounts in search of accountability are driving the push toward RFID technology. However, if adopted by the major equipment makers, operators may soon be offered the Smartmech system as an option or retrofit upgrade.