The development of new technology and its adoption by the vending industry (and others) tends to occur in cycles. The integration of new engineering concepts into vending operations and machine designs has progressed through relatively short bursts of innovation followed by longer periods of assimilation. On the trailing edge of one of these bursts, operators have heard about the innovation and have formed an idea of the benefits it can bring them. The usual question at this point is, "exactly how do I get started?"
This question was addressed at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's 2012 OneShow this spring, in particular at a panel discussion hosted by MEI. Moderated by Easitrax sales manager Cliff Fisher, the panelists were MEI's Doug Haddon and operators Scott Meskin, Black Tie Services (Baltimore); Stuart Riemann, D&R Vending (Rochester, MN) and David Sours, Coca-Cola Bottling Co. United (Birmingham, AL).
Fisher led off by noting that an innovative new technology often is seen as a "pot of gold," but this is a destination. The question for operators is how to lay out a path to that destination, and this process really is the critical part.
"There is no magic bullet," Fisher emphasized. "You don't suddenly find your life made easy. The reality is that you have to build the right processes; you start by running your present operation efficiently." He quoted Microsoft founder Bill Gates to the effect that automation applied to efficiency will multiply efficiency -- but automation applied to inefficiency will multiply the inefficiency. "You must align people, processes and technology," the moderator summed up.
D&R's Riemann recalled that, shortly after he began using Easitrax, "I saw that it was a great tool, but we weren't using all of it," he reported. "We had bought all this great technology; now we needed to put all of it to use."
He therefore appointed someone to oversee and coordinate full implementation, he said. "Get somebody dedicated to the project, and you'll see results."
Black Tie's Meskin reported that his company had begun by using Easitrax's audit capabilities, but found it difficult to move to the next level by also tracking line-item sales. "We realized that we needed dedication, a willingness to change and a desire to make it happen," he recalled. "Now we're about 50% of the way to where we want to be." Half the company's routes were being pre-packed ("prekitted") at the time of the NAMA convention.
Sours reported that CCBCU has been implementing Easitrax in its Birmingham snack vending operation, and last month began prekitting its routes, using LightSpeed Automation's "pick-to-light" system to improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency of warehouse order-picking.
"We've been going really fast," he reported. "But we found that Bill Gates was right: you can multiply inefficiencies.
"The two things we found essential were to document our processes, and to teach," Sours emphasized. "Tell the drivers what you're doing, and why you're doing it." For this reason, the operation developed a training program called DRIVE (Driver Requirements for Intelligent Vending Execution), he added.
"We've seen a return of better than 130%," Sours summed up. "And MEI has been with us all the way. The software is great, but you have to implement the processes."
A video of the session is available at meivending.com/technology-panel.html.
This is the latest installment in an ongoing series. In the 1970s, when operators were grappling with the difficulties of cash-to-inventory reconciliation in multiprice machines, minicomputer systems with vending-specific software were introduced; soon thereafter, the "personal" or microcomputer ancestors of today's desktop machines emerged, and vending management software was written for them.
Proprietary "management information systems" that captured machine transaction data for later printout and analysis came and went, and were succeeded by the vending industry data transfer standard, based on the DEX protocol originated for retail route deliveries. This DEX standard has overcome early teething problems, and is now commonplace. Intriguing foretastes of remote machine monitoring were provided by Rowe International in the early 1970s, Motorola in the mid-1980s and Real Time Data in the 1990s.
And, at every stage, people soon grasp the potential benefits, and wonder how to go about realizing them. The answer always has been the same: first, know what information is wanted, and what will be done with it. Second, determine how to get this information: who will collect it, and how, and who will use it. Third, design a system that actually starts collecting, assembling, analyzing and employing the data. And then find the suppliers who can apply automation to that system.
It has been said for four decades that it is easiest to apply new technology to an operation that really doesn't need it. A business that has good systems in place can adopt innovations at its own pace.