An operator of coin-activated air compressors – used to inflate car tires at filling stations, general stores and other retailers – has successfully been able to retrofit its machines with embedded communications devices, providing the company with a real-time picture of its operations and revenue reconciliation for the first time.
The machine operator shares revenues with the retail hosts, and is convinced that it will be able to land more business by showing its retailers information about revenues and providing an improved service.
The lead vendor on the project has been Digi (Minnetonka, USA), an established provider of M2M hardware, software and integration services, which gave an insider’s view of a soup-to-nuts cellular M2M deployment at the Telit DevCon event, held on the eve of the CTIA’s MobileCon show in San Diego.
“The constraints that the customer had for the project were considerable, but not unusual,” said Matt Jennings, vice president of the Digi Solutions Group. Those constraints included a goal of keeping the price below $100 per device, a need for a bundled cellular package with single-digit hosting, an eight-month project completion deadline, 45,000 disparate locations, small data packets, difficult antennae locations, sometimes limited power availability and a need for two-way communications.
“The air compressors employed are relatively inexpensive machines – they cost around $700. It wouldn’t have made much sense to retrofit them with a $200 embedded package. They had tried to outfit the machines with credit card processing in the past, but that was unsuccessful. Among other things, they wanted to get increased uptime, easy installation and real-time revenue recognition – all from a single source,” said Jennings.
Jennings’ group developed the application and provided systems integration on the project, incorporating Digi’s own cloud services for device management, and partnered with telecoms carrier Verizon (New York, USA), module-maker Telit (London, UK), hardware designer Spectrum and enterprise software provider SAP (Walldorf, Germany) to craft the end-to-end solution. “Our first step was to look inside their machines and see what components we could make use of. Then we needed to look at their analytics – what data would they need to get out of the deployment to show a positive business result,” said Jennings.
The deployment used UDP communication protocol, which is better suited to low-data-transmission applications because of its lower data overhead, pre-shared passwords, in keeping with AES-128 encryption specifications and considered appropriate for the task, and 2G data transmission, to keep costs down.
Digi was able to deliver 250 beta units one month before deadline, though ultimately it failed to meet the customer’s target of keeping costs under $100 per unit. “We were close, but didn’t quite make it. Because we worked closely with the customer through the project, they came to understand the trade-offs involved,” said Jennings. He cited an iterative development process, with documented costs and plenty of customer buy-in and testing, as keys to success. In addition to its up-front fees, Digi gets recurring maintenance revenue on the project. The machine operator had 1,200 units in the field at the time of writing, with plans to retrofit all 45,000 of its locations.