Making The Invisible, Visible

Aug. 5, 2016
The benefit of electronic locks is in the insight they provide and the protection they offer.

Whether you own a few dozen vending machines or thousands of micro market food coolers, electronic locks should be on your mind. It’s the next step in security for both vending machines and coolers, but it offers more than security. The return on investment of an electronic lock comes in being able to identify behaviors invisible with a mechanical lock or non-locking cooler, at least in part. Plus, electronic locks are getting smarter, with many companies enabling the keys to be programmed with smartphones, and some eliminating keys altogether, opting instead for locks opened by mobile device.

When to switch

Mechanical locks offer security and are an excellent way to prevent many types of vending machine theft and vandalism. However, they don’t restrict access in any way, nor record the “who, what and when” of access to the vending machine. There are many instances where this information can be quite valuable in loss prevention, cash accountability and even route efficiency.

“More so than ever before, the evolution is increasingly about data and the analytical tools to grab what you need,” said Mark Imhof director, engineered security solutions with Medeco Security Locks.

Imhof says an increasing number of operators are using electronic locks to recognize behaviors that could be affecting profitability such as if a vending machine is opened more than once when a driver should be prekitting, and the time a driver has the machine open at a site. It can help vending operators decipher which drivers are using their time efficiently, for example, or which routes might need reworking because the time between vending stops is too long.

“The analysis of the data can be a productivity enhancer,” explained Imhof. He stresses the importance of reporting and being able to customize the data analysis for it to be really effective. Operators should be able to drill down into the data by electronic lock key, specific timeframe, location or even an individual vending machine. “It can very granular — every access or attempted access,” said Imhof. And once the data has been analyzed, changes need to be implemented to increase efficiency. “The typical vendor that is working with us is looking for more than physical security and that is in the cost savings and information electronic locks provide.”

John Moa, director of sales and marketing, at Cyberlock agrees electronic locks provide data that can be harnessed to produce better efficiency and uncover issues. Moa recalls an example where after installing electronic locks, an owner discovered a route driver whose key was activated at 7am, but whose first stop was never logged until 10am. In another instance, a route driver was given 50 machines to service, but the locks showed he only reached 48. Management was unaware of these delays before the switch and therefore couldn’t address whatever issue was the precipitant.

Eliminates rekeying cost

In addition to data reporting and building efficiencies, another positive aspect of electronic locks is the elimination of mechanical lock rekeying. Imagine a key or set of keys goes lost or missing — any vending machine accessed by that key or key ring is at risk until the operator takes on the time and expense to rekey each vending machine. With an electronic lock, the risk is mitigated. One day, and the key expires, or sooner depending on the system and remote access to the lock. This can be an especially powerful ROI, saving operators quite a bit of money and anxiety over security.

William Denison, CEO of TriTeq, reports an increase in interest concerning electronic locks from large bottlers and universities where keys are changing hands often and frequently copied. “It’s especially growing from outside the U.S., where there is a focus and conscious spending of money on security,” said Denison. Within the U.S. there has been a big trend towards system interconnectivity, according to Denison. Operators want an electronic lock that can communicate with a telemeter. It allows a single system to collect all the data about the vending machine, including the lock and lockout data.

Security reigns

Despite this added return on investment available to electronic lock users, the big value in electronic locks still remains security. There is no way to create a duplicate or copy and the reports offer valuable insight into what is happening to vending machines in the field, such as unsuccessful attempts to open the vending machine and accountability of who opened the machine and for how long.

“Vending operators are still looking for accountability in an electronic lock solution,” said Moa. The basics of an electronic lock give operators an audit trail of inventory and cash in and out. It allows them to reduce shrinkage and aids in loss prevention. This is especially important as more operators adopt dynamic scheduling where there is no set route or schedule for a driver. “You can get close to real-time communication about what’s happening at the vending machine and control access,” said Moa.

Not theft, but safety

In micro markets electronic locks are making their debut in food coolers to ensure safe temperatures for perishable foods in these unattended foodservice locations. “Food safety is the driving forces of sales of our locks on coolers and freezers,” said Chris Strong, vice president, sales and marketing, for Minus Forty Technologies. The company services several verticals, but has seen the most lift in sales in the locking 22 cubic foot cooler/freezer, which is almost exclusively used in micro markets. “I can see the locking 22 cubic food cooler/freezer surpassing the unlocked version as our best seller for the first time ever this year,” said Strong. Local health departments oversee unattended foodservice and many don’t yet have requirements for micro markets; however, notable exceptions include Ohio and California which mandate the locking coolers. Strong believes the requirement to install electronic locking systems for perishable items will quickly spread across the U.S. And it will be a problem for vending operators currently purchasing non-locking coolers that also don’t have an NSF food grade certification, yet are using these coolers for more than beverages or shelf stable snacks.

“If I were an operator, I would adopt a locking cooler,” said Strong. “It’s a guarantee to customers you’re offering the best in food safety. Consumers are demanding freshness and a quality guarantee. We don’t want to disappoint them and let them develop the same perceptions they already have with food vending machines,” he said.

Perception isn’t the only worry for operators not investing in a certified locking cooler. Denison with TriTeq, which sells a certified retrofit for coolers to make them lock, cites the insurance battle a large brand name fast-food restaurant is in over its recent foodborne illness issue. “The insurance company asked if the fast-food restaurant did everything in its power to prevent the customers from getting ill,” said Denison. If the answer is no, the insurance company doesn’t plan to pay the claims and damages of the victims.

“You don’t want to give micro markets a bad name, a dark perception, but also don’t want to create an incident with customers — and then insurance won’t pay because you didn’t do everything possible — you didn’t opt for the certified locking cooler,” warned Denison.

In the future, TriTeq is looking to advance its system to store data in the cloud for customers. “If there is an incident, operators can retrieve the data [about cooler temperature and locking state] at any given time and date,” Denison said. And if operators need more convincing, Denison believes the NSF will create a specification exclusively for unmanned locking food grade coolers in the next year. The standard will be based on the existing NAMA standards for food vending machines. “I don’t believe any equipment will be grandfathered in,” added Denison.

The future is mobile

In the coming years electronic locks will get not only smarter, but more mobile friendly. Already new this year, Medeco started offering an electronic lock that doesn’t have to come back to the headquarters to be programmed. The MedecoXT BLE (BLE for Bluetooth low energy) allows a driver or service tech to go into an app and program the key virtually, explains Imhof. Security is maintained because the programming of the key still needs to be initiated from someone at the headquarters, but it saves time when unforeseen service is needed.

“On the fly remote programming of keys can be a real cost and time saver,” explained Moa with Cyberlock. Cyberlock allows an administrator to send a change in the permission for a specific key. Then a driver pairs his key to the phone to achieve near real-time programming changes and data transfer.
Recently, Cyberlock has also introduced a new elock concept that could in the future apply to vending.

“As an engineering company, we developed and recently launched a keyless solution, the FlashLock. It uses a mobile device as the key and sends an encrypted Morse code to the receiving device,” said Moa. In essence it’s a keyless electronic lock, eliminating electronic key replacement costs while maintaining security. A new concept that could be a win-win.

For micro markets too, mobile is quickly changing the landscape. “The generation 2 locks add connectivity that shows high temperature, signal issues, and offer data around a lockout via a mobile app,” said Strong.

As operators add more vending machines, vending drivers and micro market coolers, it makes sense to utilize enhanced locking technology to ensure accountability as well as efficiencies. Plus, it can be used as a selling point with customers. It’s not just about having the latest and greatest, but about what this technology can offer the operator. Peace of mind and revealing data about their vending machine business could be extremely valuable.