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Issue Date: Vol. 41, No. 10 / August 25, 2001 - September 24, 2001, Posted On: 8/25/2000


Vender Network Concepts Multiply As NAMA Expo Nears


Tim Sanford
Editor@vendingtimes.net

U.S.A. - Network technology developers continue to focus on the vending industry as a strong potential market for a new generation of small, cost-effective data transmission and reception devices and an increasing range of interconnection options.

Among recent developments is the announcement that Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc. is testing a remote wireless vending machine monitoring system, Isochron's "VendCast," in the Charlottesville, VA market area. This follows the announcement by The Coca-Cola Co. earlier this year that it has formed an alliance with Marconi PLC to apply Marconi wireless technology to half a million Coke machines around the world (see V/T, May).

"VendCast" is one of a number of technologies being proposed to use the Internet as a medium for routing and storing data for transmission to and from vending equipment in the field. The availability of this medium is being studied as the potential key to three long-discussed potential enhancements to the vending machine as a product delivery system:

·Telemetry, or the ability of the operator to receive information from, and send instructions to, machines in the field. Isochron's "VendCast" is, in origin, a telemetry system.

·Non-cash payment, or electronic funds transfer, by the use of media that require real-time verification. Major credit cards, the new debit/credit cards, and bank ATM cards would find much wider application in vending if the verification process could be made simpler and more cost-effective.

·Consumer interaction. Vending machines are widely distributed in locations frequented by large numbers of people. Those people represent a very attractive audience to marketers and market researchers.

In following the rapid developments that are taking place now, it may be helpful to keep those three applications in mind, while remembering that they are not exclusive. Once a reliable, economical bidirectional data link is in place, the uses to which it can be put are determined primarily by software.

USA Technologies, which teamed up with IBM Global Services last year to introduce a network terminal for vending machines, "e-Port" (see V/T, December 1999), will exhibit the latest refinements to this system at the upcoming National Automatic Merchandising Association national expo in New Orleans.

Payment Flexibility

In origin, "e-Port" is an instrument for applying USA Technologies' cashless payment system, "TransAct," to vending equipment. "TransAct" was developed for self-service travelers' business centers. "e-Port" combines the ability to use card payment media for regular vending purchases with consumer access to the interactive terminal. This can display advertising and promotional messages, among other things, and allow patrons to respond to them.

The current implementation of "e-Port" is said to combine these noncash payment and interactive marketing capabilities with remote sales monitoring. It uses a touchscreen display panel as the user interface, to make selections, authorize cashless transactions, and present interactive advertising. The small "e-Port" terminal is designed to connect directly to a vending machine's multi-drop bus-compliant controller board, and to coexist with existing coin and bill mechanisms.

"e-Port" was first shown as an enhancement to a packaged cold-beverage vender. At the NAMA National Expo, USA Technologies plans to demonstrate the compatibility of the "e-Port" terminal with a wide range of full-line vending machines.

VEHICLE MONITORING, TOO

DPL Telemetry Technologies (St. John, NB, Canada), which showcased its wireless data communications capabilities at this spring's trade shows, has introduced a mobile communications unit (MCU) to supplement its "VEN-100" vending machine monitoring system. DPL also has formed an alliance with Aeris.net to strengthen the service package it can offer the vending industry.

"VEN-100" is a machine-resident data formatting and transmission system. Aeris.net provides a cellular packet data utility called "MicroBurst," which permits short "bursts" of information to be transmitted over the control channels of existing cellular networks and routed to Aeris's hub facility. The hub identifies the service provider, retransmits the data for access by the subscriber, and can notify the end-user of activity by radio pager, cellular telephone, Web page or e-mail, depending on need.

According to Aeris.net, "Micro-Burst's" ability to use the control-channel infrastructure of the existing cellular network allows it to provide coverage anywhere that network is available, and to do so at low cost.

DPL's new "MCU-100" complements the "VEN-100" vending machine module. The "MCU-100" device installs easily in any delivery vehicle and allows the driver to poll each "VEN-100"-equipped vending machine as he or she approaches its location. The data is transmitted over the cellular network and the Internet to the operating company's host computer, where it's stored and retransmitted to the route truck. The "MCU-100" receives the information and generates a pick list by means of a vehicle-mounted printer. This permits the driver to pull precisely the stock required from the truck, prior to entering the location.

While the "MCU-100's" primary function is improving driver productivity by eliminating wasted steps at each site, it also can perform other tasks. It can monitor the route trucks mileage, engine run hours, and precise location by use of Global Positioning System (GPS) data. This allows the operator to determine the position of each vehicle and to collect useful maintenance information. Automatic vehicle location (AVL) thus is combined with vending machine sales and inventory data collection. Finally, the "MCU-100" is supplied with a cellular telephone handset as well as full-sized keypad and display. It is said to be compatible with all hand-held units.

DPL also offers a dedicated wireless vehicle monitoring system, "VMS-100," which similarly uses Aeris.net "MicroBurst" encoding to route information to subscribers.

cStar Technologies, Inc. (Toronto, ON, Canada) has demonstrated a vending machine wireless monitoring system, "SkyGate," in conjunction with Computer Associates' management software, the "Unicenter TMG "-based "Optimal Vending Solution" (see V/T, May).

The company also has addressed the challenge of setting up a reliable data link with one or many vending machines, even in a sub-basement. cStar thus has coupled its wireless transmission capabilities with a proven system for using building powerlines to send the information to the best available place in or on the building to install a wireless transmitter.

"SkyGates" can be configured as up to 250 nodes in a local-area network able to concentrate data from each node, for convenient retransmission to the wireless network. A companion product, "DirectGate," can be employed as a wide-area network server when necessary.

cStar's in-machine data collection module can monitor not only the effect of transactions on the inventory level and the collection, but also the functional status of critical components of the machine. It can, for example, detect an impending compressor failure by measuring the inrush current to the compressor as well as its temperature. And it can monitor door-opening events and send an alarm signal, if desired.

LOW NETWORK COST

Computer Associates and cStar have formed a technology development partnership with American Mobile Satellite Corp., present operator of the "Ardis" wireless data packet network. cStar reports that the benefit of this accord to vending operators is that the "Ardis" network offers coverage of more than 93 percent of the urban business population in the United States, including more than 11,000 cities and towns. And cStar's "SkyGate" data formatting includes compression that minimizes bandwidth requirements, so the cost of sending it over the "Ardis" network is very low.

Zeus Wireless (Columbia, MD) reports that an independent bottling company in Texas has used Zeus' long-range radio-frequency local-area network technology to monitor nearly 100 vending machines. The equipment is placed primarily in office buildings, some of which are nine stories tall and present real challenges to wireless data transmission.

The system has proven to work reliably, Zeus said, and has produced significant improvements to route productivity by minimizing out-of-stocks and machine downtime, reducing inventory requirements and increasing driver productivity by optimizing service schedules.

The idea of installing monitoring devices in vending machines to collect audit information dates back to the 1970s, and Motorola experimented with wireless data transmission of this information over a proprietary data network, "VendNet," in the mid-'80s. Until recently, deploying an effective solution of this kind for vending involved not only developing the necessary monitoring and transmission system for the machine, but also implementing a data network with the ability to route this data to subscribers and to buffer it until needed.

INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY

The appeal of the Internet is that it provides such a network, with all the necessary provisions for data routing, secure storage and restricted access from virtually anywhere.

Remote Vend Data (White Plains, NY), which introduced its "vendonline.com" service at last year's NAMA National Expo (see V/T, November 1999), reports that the system is now in daily operational use and has proven its reliability. Nestl© Brands has participated in the deployment of the system.

A turnkey application, "vendonline.com" includes telemetry devices for DEX-compatible vending machines (or machines retrofitted with an upgrade kit from Audit Systems Co. to collect data in DEX format), as well as to link these devices to the Internet. Operator subscribers receive software that runs on a desktop computer in Microsoft's "Windows" environment, and their own secure page at the vendonline.com website. Data transmitted by each machine is formatted and stored on the subscriber's page, for access whenever wanted. The operator can poll machines as often as necessary.

RVD's Allan Weintraub reports that the company will demonstrate the current version of the "vendonline.com" package at this year's NAMA National Expo. The company is exploring a variety of possible system extensions, including control applications involving transmission of program instructions to vending equipment.

From one perspective, then, the vending machine can be regarded as one sort of "non-Information Technology" appliance that can benefit by linking to the Internet. A company that has developed methods for doing this is X-traWeb, Inc. (Englewood, CO), a subsidiary of World Wireless Technologies.

X-traWeb has introduced two devices designed for wide applicability to the task of "Internet-enabling." The "X-node" is a one-square-inch chip that can be "embedded" in the appliance , for example, a vending machine controller board , and linked to the "X-Gate," an Internet gateway that completes the data transfer. The connection between "X-nodes" and an "X-Gate" can be a cable or a wireless link; and the "X-Gate," in turn, can connect to the Internet by cable or wireless transmission. One "X-Gate" can serve many "X-Nodes" in a local-area network; for example, a bank of vending machines.

Once the links are complete and each "X-Node" is on line, it can send data to its own web page for access by subscribers using any standard Internet browser. And, because the X-traWeb system runs on standard HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) or XML (Extended Mark-up Language) platforms, "X-Node"-equipped machinery can be accessed from any Internet-capable cellular telephone or wireless personal data assistant (PDA), such as the "Palm Pilot."

According to X-traWeb, this system is now in use by a vending company in Pennsylvania to monitor inventory levels in its snack and cold-beverage machines. This real-time data collection allows the operator to schedule service when necessary to avoid out-of-stocks, thus maximizing productive use of route drivers' time. Other clients include a home security company in Utah, which employs the technology to give its customers the ability to monitor and control their home installations from any computer. The use of the Internet to look in on warehouses and money-rooms after normal business hours is a capability yet to be explored by the vending industry, but likely to prove interesting.

It is worth noting that the implementation of any sort of system for collecting information in one place and delivering it to another involves hardware, software and operating expenses. End-users must justify these expenses by the benefits produced by the system, either lower costs or higher revenues, or both.

As technology advances, the hardware and software costs come down. And, as a single technology begins to offer multiple benefits, the sum of those benefits makes it easier to justify the cost. This may be something to think about while touring the exhibits at the NAMA National Expo.


Topic: Vending Features

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