Shop-Floor Vending Machine: From Munchies to Microchips

THE good, old, all-American vending machine.

It gives us Almond Joy, Dr. Pepper, Tide, and now ... drills, safety goggles, computer chips, and language tapes? Yes, that's right.

Kent Savage, president of Cincinnati vending-machine manufacturer Electronic Merchandising Systems has taken the traditional concept, loaded the mechanism with items geared to manufacturers, and gone one better: He's added computer technology.

The result? Two kinds of vending machines that not only dispense products but also collect data. The Automatic Tool Dispenser and the Automatic Supply Depot, also available refrigerated, resemble oversized, royal blue refrigerators bearing fancy graphic designs.

``We've taken dispensing technology, information technology, and automated teller machine [ATM] technology and married them together,'' Mr. Savage explained at a recent Association for Manufacturing Excellence Conference in Boston. ``Our core philosophy is point-of-use. [Companies should] put [their] high-use items close to where they're needed.'' Savage is also president of Vertex Technologies Inc., the company marketing the new machines.

Dispensers are needed on the factory floor, because every time workers leave an assembly line to fetch a tool, whether it cost 65 cents or $1,000, it could mean halting production for 20 minutes or longer while the worker waits in line at a tool crib, where tools are stored. The result is a drop in productivity and lost employee time, and that gets costly.

``We're working with nuclear power facilities in which a 99-cent battery could cost $100 to get,'' Savage explains. ``It's the availability of the tool that's important here.'' He claims that the dispenser systems - which cost a total of $30,000 to $35,000, and $27,500 for an extra vending machine - pay for themselves in improved productivity alone in about six months to a year.

For about one year, tool vendors have been in operation at several American manufacturing companies, including Westinghouse Electric Corporation, United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney division, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, and Chrysler Corporation. Negotiations are under way with distributors in Europe and Japan as well, Savage says.

Zimmer Inc., a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb in Warsaw, Ind., uses three Automatic Tool Dispensers in a plant that makes artificial hips and knees. Linda Scott, a group leader in the company's central supply division, says employees were skeptical about the machines at first.

``But, soon after, it went over really well,'' she says. ``We've been able to cut manpower on the [night] shift by two people - those babysitting the tool crib. At about $30,000-a-year salaries, that's a savings of $60,000.'' Also, the computerized tool-tracking system is more efficient than the previous one, Ms. Scott adds.

To access the vending machine, a factory employee puts his work identification card through a bar-code reader or slides a wand across a bar-coded work order. He then answers a few questions: Dispense or return? What's the code for the item to be dispensed? What's the worker's job title and department? Any other transactions? The desired item then falls to the retrieval bin or, if large or fragile, becomes accessible by sliding up a door on the auxiliary bin attached to the machine.

During the transaction, the machine's data-collection system records such information as who has obtained which items, how many items of each kind have been dispensed that day, how many have been returned, and how much stock is left.

The data are sent to a host computer linked to a mainframe, personal computer in a company manager's office, and PC at an off-site supplier. When stock of an item is low, a message flashes on the manager's PC, like a low-fuel warning light in a car; reordering the item can be automatic through the supplier. The data program, which is customized to each company, runs on Microsoft Corporation's Windows.

For Savage, his invention is a tool to help manufacturers compete globally. ``We're trying to look at what makes manufacturing flow - cutting down retrieval time, stocking time, reducing inventories, and controlling the flow of material and information,'' he says.

``We gather real-time data on who used what,'' Savage continues. ``Each job has access to certain tools, and manufacturers can put limits on what's dispensed. The manager can see what's going on, so he can make more informed decisions about inventory.''

Not only do the machines dispense batteries, fuses, and office supplies, but they also take back used items, such as empty cans from solvents and gloves used in chemical processing. This way, a company can easily track its waste and comply with safety regulations, such as those pertaining to changing gloves frequently, Savage explains.

The dispensing machines are currently designed for companies only. But Savage foresees a future in which his brainchild becomes handy to consumers generally, for the vending of such items as books and compact discs. ``Electronic kiosks at airports could sell language tapes,'' he adds.

``If I'm going on an excursion cruise, and I realize I've forgotten my camera ... there on the dock could be waiting an Automatic Supply Depot made for Eastman Kodak that dispenses disposable cameras.''

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