The effect of new technology seldom is experienced gradually and progressively. More often, an innovation - the television set, the home microwave oven, the glassfront snack machine, the desktop computer , moves into the marketplace and is purchased by more and more people over a period of time. Then, suddenly, the world recognizes that the installed base has grown to the point at which everything has changed. There is a flurry of activity, and nothing ever is the same again.
The difficulty in benefiting from these dramatic transformations is to avoid the exposure of being too far ahead of the curve, as well as the expense of falling too far behind it and incurring heavy costs to catch up rapidly. Examples of failures in both regards can be found in the "dot-com" shakeout that began last year, and those with long memories will recall other examples.
Vending operators should keep this in mind when considering the new technologies that make it possible to network vending machines. No one doubts that there are real benefits to doing this: more efficient route delivery and maintenance scheduling, consequent reduction in service cost and increase in customer satisfaction, the availability of cashless payment options, and the prestige which always accrues to professional organizations on the vanguard of change. What presently is being debated is the cost required to attain those benefits , not only the expense of the hardware and software, but the prolonged technical overhead required to resolve startup difficulties, make sure that everything works smoothly with everything else, and maintain good service while dealing with these problems. Vendors who have implemented automated data retrieval from their machines are very familiar with these costs.
Twenty years ago, when business computers became a practical proposition for companies not listed in the Fortune "500," it was observed that vending operations which already had well-thought-out manual control systems in place found it much easier to computerize than did their less well organized competitors. Thus, there were things that every operator could do right away that would simplify and streamline the process of computerizing, whenever the time came to make that move.
The same principle applies to remote data monitoring and networking. The operator who can foresee a time when it will be desirable to add this capability, whether in the immediate or the more distant future, can begin preparing for that transition tomorrow.
The first step is to decide what information will be wanted from the networked machines, and to see how much of that information already is being collected by drivers, supervisors and technicians. Nearly every operating company has several generations of equipment in the field. Most new machines store transaction data for automated retrieval. These will be easy to adapt for remote monitoring. Most older equipment can be fitted with accessory devices to gather all or some of this information. The complexity of adding those devices varies by the age and type of machine.
The next step, therefore, is to make a list of the machines in use and the ease or difficulty with which each can be adapted for remote data transfer. This list can serve as the basis for a modest, ongoing program of upgrading some machines and retiring others.
Retrieving information from machines by use of handheld computers fitted with DEX connections is very similar to collecting that information over a remote data link. Today's handheld route data collection systems make it relatively easy for drivers to upload stored information automatically from DEX-capable venders, while entering the same information manually for older equipment. This makes it relatively simple to upgrade the equipment on routes in a methodical way, over time, without needing to maintain two different management information systems while doing it.
A grave objection to the telemetry systems that were prototyped two decades ago was that they required the operator to make a very substantial investment in converting all the machines on the route in order to use them. That is no longer the case. A well-planned upgrade program not only will continually improve the flow of management information, but will make it easy to take the next major step.