LAS VEGAS - Developments in the networking of vending equipment for remote monitoring, cashless payment validation and enhanced customer service have received extensive publicity over the past six months. These fast-evolving technologies were showcased at the National Automatic Merchandising Association's Spring Expo here, and a variety of new capabilities were introduced.
Among companies demonstrating online vending systems were cStar Technologies. Inc. (Toronto, ON, Canada), which produces a mix-and-match line of embedded wireless transmission systems (also adaptable to wire, if desired). Exhibiting with cStar was Computer Associates International, which showcased its "Unicenter TNG Optimal Vending Solution" management information system. The "OVS" can handle vending machines as devices in an intelligently managed network; and cStar's wire-or-wireless, highly scalable system makes vending machines into such devices. cStar's modular components permit operators to assemble machines in a location into a local-area network that can be polled by an approaching route vehicle at curbside, or into a wide-area network communicating directly with a computer at the company's headquarters.
"OVS" takes advantage of several patented cStar communication "gateway" technologies, including those embedded in its "SkyGate," "DirectGate" and "ThruGate" products. Among capabilities provided by these devices are wireless network interfaces for vending machines, combined with the ability to use existing power lines within a location to network banked and free-standing machines. Modulating data onto power lines eliminates the logistical difficulty and expense of cabling machines together, and the technical difficulties of establishing reliable wireless LANs within a wide variety of location environments.
cStar chief executive officer Solbyung (Stella) Yoon, who demonstrated the system at the Spring Expo, explained her company's insistence on scalable, modular architecture. "A great high-tech solution which offers many benefits to customers remains only a great dream if customers cannot afford to buy it, or to use it," she said. "The 'Optimal Vending Solution' that cStar and CA have created by combining our core competencies delivers an end-to-end infrastructure that the vending industry professional can afford."
On display at the Spring Expo was CompuVend, Inc.'s "Buzz Box," an economical wireless device that permits a route driver to poll the machines in a location from the parking lot, generate a pick ticket, and pull merchandise without the need to walk past the equipment first.
Shown in prototype at last year's NAMA National Expo, "Buzz Box" is a small module that resides in the vending machine, connected to its DEX port , on the controller board of newer machines, or in a retrofittable module in older ones. It responds to a securely encoded signal transmitted from the route truck by dumping current inventory data to the truck. CompuVend software organizes the data and directs it to a mobile printer, which creates the list.
CompuVend demonstrated this simple time-saving system in a variety of configurations at the Spring Expo. CompuVend president Alan Kronenberg, himself an operator (Food Management, Inc.) explained that "Buzz Box" was developed under CompuVend's traditional "keep it simple" philosophy, and is designed specifically to help operators improve route productivity, generating the increased revenues they need to attract and retain capable route sales personnel by enabling those personnel to accomplish more useful work without increasing the time or effort required.
Also showcasing new capabilities was e-Vend.net (Kennett Square, PA), which has been working with Eastman Kodak Co. to deploy a cashless vending system for Kodak film and one-time-use cameras. The remote diagnostic and audit features of the e-Vend.net system also are being put to use in a major test of new-generation milk venders in schools (see V/T, January).
Unveiled at the NAMA Spring Expo was e-Vend.net's new operating system, designed to extend the benefits of networked points of sale to all types of equipment and products, offering operators great flexibility in determining the information they need to improve sales and productivity.
The object, according to the company, is to enable vendors to set their own criteria for success, then work proactively toward improvements in such areas as optimizing space to sales, minimizing stops per asset, and reducing machine downtime. Also available are cash accounting and audit capabilities, as well as noncash payment options.
The new operating system has expanded e-Vend.net's vending machine capabilities to include configuring venders to accept both cash and credit cards; to monitor two machines from a single telemetry device; and to offer operators the option of employing handheld computers to retrieve data uniformly in situations where a wireless signal is not available, or not practical.
Giving vend patrons the choice of using cash or a credit card results in substantial sales increases, e-Vend.net reported. A recent side-by-side test of cash-only and cash-and-card venders demonstrated that people do appreciate the option of making a cashless purchase; and, when given that option, they often use their cards to buy more than one item. In that test, 47 percent of sales from the card-enabled machine were multiple purchases.
The ability to allow two venders to share a single telemetry device also expands operator capabilities, e-Vend.net pointed out. Its "reDEX" device contains the proprietary technology that allows machines to be remotely monitored. Previously, each machine was equipped with its own "reDEX" apparatus, and each sent its own unique signal to the e-Vend.net platform for data collection.
The new "reDEXdp" system allows two side-by-side machines to be monitored through a single "reDEX" device, reducing hardware expense while maintaining the benefits.
In its extensive tests and pilot projects, e-Vend.net has identified and overcome most signal difficulties by increasing the flexibility of its platform and continually working to expand its network of communication providers. Nevertheless, the company recognizes that "signal" remains an issue in some remote locations. The introduction of the new handheld device permits machines in such areas to be monitored in the same manner as online equipment.
Dave Goodman, president and chief executive officer of e-Vend.net, pointed out that this is a real-world solution. "We recognized the need to develop an alternative for those machines beyond the reach of a wireless signal," he said. "This handheld device bridges the technology gap and enables the operator to monitor a vending route as a single unit through the e-Vend.net system."
Also showcasing wireless data monitoring and noncash payment capabilities for vending equipment were Marconi Online (Atlanta, GA) and USA Technologies (Wayne, PA), which have teamed up to offer operators the conjoint benefits of Marconi Online's "Intelligent Vending" and USA Technologies' "e-Port" systems.
At the Spring Expo, Marconi Online also announced that it has formed a partnership with AES-IntelliNet that will offer more cost-effective wireless monitoring options for the vending industry.
On display at the show were a variety of machines equipped with "Intelligent Vending" and "e-Port" systems, exhibiting a wide variety of options. As implemented in vending applications around the world, "Intelligent Vending" technology transmits inventory, audit and status information to a central point. It also is being tested in "m-commerce" roles, particularly to enable vendible product purchasing with a cellular telephone. This capability was demonstrated at the Spring Expo.
USA Technologies developed its card-based micropayment systems in conjunction with its pioneering self-service office centers, then built this capability into a small interactive multimedia terminal, the "e-Port," two years ago. Designed specifically to increase vending's merchandising ability, "e-Port" not only can effect credit-card purchases, but also can display advertising messages and facilitate a wide range of promotional and market research activities.
Marconi Online explains that its new partnership with AES-IntelliNet further increases the scope and flexibility of the new technology. The AES-IntelliNet system permits a network to be established anywhere and to cover whatever territory is required, from a campus of several hundred acres to a major metropolitan area spanning thousands of square miles. It is said to combine the "low-cost agility" of a private wireless wide-area network with the broad band reach and power of the Internet.
"This new solution, which can be more cost-effective and reliable than using some cellular networks, enables all vending operators , whether they own thousands of machines, or only a few , to take advantage of our 'Intelligent Vending' services and improve their efficiency and profits," explained Brian Quarendon, president of Marconi Online.