Make Way for the Kiosk Invasion

Need a train ticket, DVD, or even a slice of pizza? Increasingly, you'll make that purchase from an automated kiosk controlled from afar by a cadre of managers analyzing cloud-based data. This invasion of automated sales clerks has become so pervasive that kiosk-based transactions in North America alone are expected to hit $1 trillion next year, according to the IHL research group.

Behind this boom is industry's drive to protect and extend its brands in the face of a mobile society whose tastes can change with lightning speed. Automated kiosks also give companies a presence in non-traditional locations, such as airports, train stations, and stadiums, without the cost of brick and mortar or additional staff. Perhaps even more important is the ability of companies to remotely manage these kiosks in real time, thanks to the growth of cellular communications and cloud-based computer data centers.

Remote kiosk management offers companies opportunities for mining data on consumer preferences and machine operation. Design of such devices demands close cooperation between engineers and IT professionals.

Mining a Data Treasure Trove

The two-way flow of data between kiosks and cloud-based servers offers companies unprecedented opportunities to fine-tune machine operations and make swift marketing decisions. Equipped with a network of sensors and onboard computing power, kiosks can track everything from sales transactions to the functioning of motion-control components, and then transmit that valuable data via cellular networks to servers in the cloud.

By reviewing this captured data, sales and marketing managers can spot buying trends. They can alter the mix of products sold in a kiosk or send advertising messages, including video, to a kiosk's human interface. A vending machine operator might also share sales data with a partner, such as the box store that leases space for the kiosk. In addition, sales trends from vending kiosks may lead companies to launch higher volume products in stores and other traditional outlets.

Data collected in the cloud also gives vital direction to repair and service personnel. If data reveals problems in operational parameters, such as the heating cycle in a food vending machine, staff can do predictive maintenance, often remotely, to prevent expensive downtime. Cloud-data guides serve staff in optimizing a kiosk's inventory control. In short, smart management of remote kiosks makes for a greener, energy-efficient operation. Supply and repair staffs go onsite only when needed and can bring the precise tools and inventory required.

Decision Time for the Designer

One of the fastest growing segments of machine design, remotely managed kiosks offer plenty of challenges for design engineers. In a small footprint, engineers must integrate a whole host of technologies, such as robotics, human-machine interfaces, vision systems, computer processing and storage, RFID or near-field components for mobile payments, and wireless modems. Some kiosks are pioneering new technologies, such as the 3D printing of consumer products. Others, including the new Let's Pizza machines, contain heating and refrigeration units, plus actuators that dispense a variety of toppings for a made-to-order product.

Beyond internal kiosk components, engineers also help determine the best kiosk-to-cloud solution. If time-to-market is crucial, some designers may choose an off-the-shelf platform to manage this communication. Otherwise they may want to build their own customized system. An alternative that offers many benefits involves pairing a proven machine-to-machine communications platform with business intelligence software tailored to a company's specific needs.

You also need to decide what types of data will be transmitted between the kiosk and the remote server and how often. Transmitting secure data on a real-time basis can be expensive, so you may want to aggregate certain types of data and transmit only at prescribed times. But there are trade-offs here, such as risking a machine malfunction by delaying transmission of operational data.

In making such decisions, engineers need to develop a close working relationship with their company's IT professionals. Since kiosk data often links directly to a company's enterprise IT system, device design must proceed hand-in-hand with IT design from the very start of a project. To do otherwise is a recipe for failure.

Tim Ingold, Jr. is the director of technology and innovation at Jabil Circuit Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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