And Tomorrow

Dr Pepper is piloting wireless technologies to monitor its vending machines.

While comedians joke about "smart" refrigerators and televisions duking it out for control of the cellular phone, smart soft-drink machines are already practicing going online wirelessly to report data that will save money for soft-drink vendors.

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SPECIAL REPORT: WIRELESS

Wireless Today...
IT executives and analysts say there are some pioneering best practices for managing wireless rollouts, including running short trials, scrutinizing security and other techniques. more

...And Tomorrow
While comedians joke about "smart" refrigerators and TVs duking it out for control of the cell phone, smart soft drink machines are already going online wirelessly. Soft drink bottler Dr Pepper is piloting this technology to keep a remote eye on its vending machines. more

Commanding the Wireless Helm
IT executives and analysts say there are some pioneering best practices for managing wireless rollouts, including running short trials, scrutinizing security and other techniques. more

High Wireless Act
Adopting wireless technology puts new challenges on an IT staff, who must measure success by confronting and conquering a physical environment. more

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Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. in Plano, Texas, is a few weeks into a pilot in which a dozen vending machines are keeping Rick Harris, manager of channel research at Dr Pepper, apprised of how sales are going.
"For the first time, we're getting real data rather than ballpark figures on exactly what's going through those vending machines," Harris says.
The company owns 17 brands and franchises bottling territories for each, a Dr Pepper spokesman says. Tracking sales of a single brand at different locations and for different demographic profiles has been impossible, Harris says. Data is collected, he says, but it's "inconsistent from bottler to bottler."
Pilot Installation
For the pilot, Dr Pepper is using VendCast software, hardware and services from Isochron Data Corp. in Austin, Texas. Dr Pepper uses the VendCast sales and operations module. Other modules include dispatch, which is used for truck routing; cash accounting; and maintenance.
Isochron installs VendCast hardware - which includes its own software - and a Motorola Inc. ReFlex protocol two-way paging device in each vending machine. Harris says installation takes about 12 minutes and costs $340, while monitoring is $6.50 per month.
VendCast software collects inventory, sales and machine-health data via a connection to the machine's serial port.
Two-way paging lets signals shift between simulcast and local mode, or multi- and single-channel broadcasting, allowing immediate signal and response between vending machines and Isochron's Network Operations Center (NOC).
VendCast servers at the NOC typically poll vending machines daily, says Aruni Gunasegaram, president and co-founder of Isochron. A dome antenna atop the vending machine allows broadcast and reception in the 900-MHz frequency via the narrowband personal communications services wireless network run by Jackson, Miss.-based SkyTel Communications Inc. In sites with several machines, all report to a central unit, from which all data is sent, Harris says.
Isochron aggregates the data and stores it at the NOC. On PCs with VendCast client software installed, users go to personalized Web sites and use browsers to access their data, which is secured by 56-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption from VeriSign Inc. in Mountain View Calif., Gunasegaram says. Users can query their data, view preconfigured reports and generate new reports. They can also download data for import into their own applications, she adds.
Isochron's similar PolarCast system is in use by bagged ice vendors, Gunasegaram says. When internal machine temperatures rise, the ice machine generates an alarm to summon an attendant.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see service providers offering" such process-control applications as a service, says Stan Schatt, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "A black box at a site could periodically poll devices via Bluetooth [a wireless connectivity technology] and then forward the data under secure conditions to a data center, where the reports are generated."
However, use of such services over telecommunications networks adds new requirements, says Pedro Fernandez, senior vice president of corporate strategy and marketing at Concero Inc. in Austin, Texas.
New Requirements
When Concero helped build a similar implementation, using Reston, Va.-based Nextel Communications Inc.'s wireless network, the company found that "Nextel has its requirements that you have to meet," Fernandez says. "You can't be generating a million hits an hour. You have to architect a wireless application differently, and that application has to be Nextel-certified."
One benefit of the service is that it avoids adding management chores and communications traffic to existing networks, Harris says.
Such savings may be minimal, says Patrick Dryden, an analyst at consultancy Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.
Dryden says the anticipated burden is a common misconception. IT managers "think of vending machines, truck fleets and washing machines as PCs," he says. "The idea of taking on the support burden for a few hundred thousand additional PCs is frightening. Yet embedded systems aren't anywhere near as cantankerous as PCs; they lack the flexibility and the users, so [there are] no surprises."
Harris says that what is unquestionable is the business value of such data, both in daily operations and in the potential for data mining. Dr Pepper will use the data in "several ongoing research projects," he adds.
"Information like this is a great asset to have to consider new placements of vending machines, or locations where multivendor machines might be warranted, such as in front of a Wal-Mart or high-traffic supermarket," Harris says.
A machine operator can use the data "to plan loading of trucks and truck routes. Ideally, he'd like to spend his time filling an 80% empty machine rather than one that's maybe only 30% depleted," he says.
Savings from such systems "will far outweigh their costs," says Callie Nelsen, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. Even a small savings can be significant, she adds. For the vending channel, profit margins of 14% to 15% are common. Dr Pepper brings in 19%, Harris says.
Consumers will interact more with the vending machines, Nelsen says. "You can already buy a [soft drink] from a vending machine in Finland with your cell phone," she says. "It'll take a while here - the country is more spread out, and we're behind Europe in use of cell phones."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

 
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