Tips For Installing And Troubleshooting Telemetry And Cashless Devices

Feb. 12, 2018

The number of connected vending machines continues to grow. Cashless devices are on more than a million machines, and telemetry-enabling devices are on even more. Yet operators and their service technicians continue to struggle with installing and troubleshooting these devices in the field due to so many different makes and models of equipment. From firmware issues to cellular signal strength, there are a number of factors that contribute to the successful, or unsuccessful, implementation of cashless and telemetry devices. Here are the best practices from the industry’s top technology suppliers to combat some of the most common issues fielded by service departments.

Machine capability 

The Multi Drop Bus or MDB for short, refers to the interfacing of a payment system and the vending machine using the vending machine controller, or VMC. MDB is required for telemetry and cashless, but it doesn’t guarantee compatibility with all of today’s devices.

“It’s not enough for a machine to be MDB-capable in order to support cashless,” explained Patrick Richards, Crane Connectivity Solutions’ global product manager for cashless solutions. “Early equipment with MDB was designed prior to cashless availability, so a firmware update from the vendor is often necessary to support cashless.”

The firmware runs on the VMC, on essentially Eprom memory chips,” explained Dr. Felix Gutierrez, vice president of hardware engineering at Parlevel Systems. “If that firmware is very old and outdated, it requires you to pull off the chip and install a new one with upgraded firmware. That new firmware allows the machine to have cashless capabilities.”  

To determine the firmware and compatibility of your machine, it’s best to check with the technology supplier. Each one keeps a list of vending machine makes and models that can help an operator identify if the machine/firmware is compatible with a device, or will need an upgrade both with physical components and the firmware. For example, Crane offers the information in its Crane Cashless mobile app and Cantaloupe Systems offers a PDF that includes a chart of various vending machines and tips for installing based on the manufacturer. Nayax keeps an in-house document providing step-by-step instructions for each type of connection and Parlevel Systems does an assessment of an operator’s fleet and firmware on a per customer basis.

Machine specifics are a must 

For effective installation and troubleshooting, consideration of the specific machine and firmware are imperative. It can reveal a simple fix, or more substantial one. Steve Scheiderman, senior director of customer services for USA Technologies shares one very common tip unique to Crane National vending machines. “In all of these machines, you actually have to go in and enable card reader support,” explained Scheiderman. “Every model of these machines, it seems, is set to no card by default.” While the programming steps to set the machines from no card to MDB card vary slightly depending on the model, it is a fairly standard and simple fix.

In other instances, installing a connected device might mean buying a new universal control board to replace the original VMC. “Some older snack machines may not be MDB capable,” said Gutierrez. Because MDB is necessary to allow cashless communication, those machines would require that a new control board be installed.

There might also be cases where the vending machine MDB should accept multiple cashless devices, but in reality, doesn’t. Gutierrez has seen times when two or more cashless devices are plugged into the MDB, the machine works intermittently. “This can be troublesome in certain locations, such as those machines on college campuses, in which a vending operator has a machine that already accepts campus cards, but wants to install a traditional cashless reader,” said Gutierrez. Instead of installing a second card reader, the best solution, in this case, is to use a single cashless reader that accepts both campus cards and credit/debit cards, he says. 

Machine inventory means better planning  

Knowing if you have a machine that will need a new control board can be very beneficial in calculating costs and returns on investment of your fleet. It will also save technicians time in the field.

Some vending equipment naturally requires longer or special installs. “Typically, a refrigerated vending machine will take a little more time to setup because of the limited room available in the machine to mount the hardware,” said Richards. “Older equipment may require an aftermarket electronic controller.”

Carly Furman, chief operating officer of Nayax explains that special considerations are needed for pulse machines. “These machines are very ‘low tech’ and direct wire-to-wire connections must be made,” she said. “We offer a document explaining which wires from our own equipment are responsible for what, and have found that most operators are able to install our devices into pulse machines with ease.”

Where the cashless or telemetry device is within the machine can also cause disruption. “We recommend installing cashless first in line or closest to the main board,” said Scheiderman. If it is between other devices, especially a bill recycler and another device, the signal can get crossed and disable all the time or randomly. It can even cause power fluctuations. Instead, the best practice is to plug everything else behind the cashless device, says Scheiderman.

Having some of these best practices and information for specific vending machine models can be extremely helpful, says Kathy Erbes-Mrsny, director of customer care, professional services and internal IT, Cantaloupe Systems & USA Technologies. “Cantaloupe offers a PDF meant to be printed out and carried by technicians,” she said. Even more important is to get this information out to every tech. “Often this information doesn’t get filtered down from the person in charge of implementation, adoption and installation of devices to all the technicians,” she said. Because service technicians turn over often at many vending companies, new technicians can be left without this helpful information. It can be time-consuming and problematic when installing and troubleshooting. This information also contains a list of recommended installation tools.

“Having a resource that operators can refer to that can empower them instead of having to pick up the phone each and every time — we have seen it be very useful,” added Adrian Austin, product marketing manager, Cantaloupe Systems & USA Technologies.

“We have a compatibility chart we have been compiling over the years,” said Schedierman, “with different makes and models and what firmware we have found works best for us.”

Connections and errors 

A benefit to MDB is that it sends errors to the VMC, which allows operators to identify problems such as bill jams and coin mechanism malfunctions. However, when dealing with a cashless or telemetry device, these errors interfere with proper installation. “Clear any existing machine errors before attempting to add any complexity to a machine, such as telemetry or cashless,” said Erbes-Mrsny. It is also a good idea to restart the vending machine to ensure the VMC syncs and errors are indeed eliminated.

The next step is to ensure all the connections are solid. “Ensuring all cables are connected securely and in the right spot saves a lot of time and frustration,” said Furman.

A cable that is reliable is a must when performing troubleshooting. “We try to isolate the system or component having the issue, so lots of times we recommend using a known, good cable in order to isolate exactly what may be happening or going wrong,” explained Gutierrez. He said operators and technicians should have a “bag of tricks” that includes either bringing cables in known working condition to the location or temporarily using a cable from another vending machine in the same location that is working. It is handy to have a MDB cable and DEX cable or DEX harness. Many older machines have cables that may have developed mechanical stress or fractured solder joints, so operators should examine cables carefully and ensure cables are fully connected.

Also in the troubleshooting toolkit should be a test swipe card to verify the reader can read a credit card and that the telemetry device is sending data to the payment gateway; a multimeter (if the technician knows how to use it) to determine correct voltage and current within the machine; and basic tools such as a ratchet set and screw drivers. “At the end however, you might still be scratching your head or wondering what to do next, so it’s important to find a cashless provider with great customer support,” added Gutierrez. “Often times it’s an issue that with a phone call, or via chat, can be a 5-minute resolution.”

There are best practices inside the machine as well. Gutierrez recommends good cable management with zip ties or twist ties to neatly bind cables together and prevent them from getting pinched or closed by the door or door hinge. This includes all the low voltage, non-radio frequency cables. Gutierrez does warn that the antenna cable is the exception and should not be tightly bound to itself which would cause interference.  

Richards agrees that operators should take steps inside the machine to ensure proper working devices. “Route persons are opening, DEXing and shutting doors, which can cause cables to become disconnected, disabling the cashless [or telemetry] device,” he said. It is important to ensure the devices are installed securely.

Consider the signal 

The placement of the device antenna is a crucial point. “We always recommend that operators keep the antenna outside of the machine,” said Scheiderman. A vending machine is essentially a metal box that cuts off the signal to the antenna inside. Scheiderman admits there may be areas where the signal is powerful enough inside or out, but outside is best for the strong, consistent signal necessary for cashless.

“Cashless devices, in order to carry out the cashless sale, need to be connected to the carrier 24/7,” said Erbes-Mrsny, “whereas telemeters only needs to report in every 4 to 12 hours.” Therefore telemeters can be in an area with a weaker signal.

In fact, with the use of dongles and keys, telemetry can be achieved without a vending machine being online at all. “The Seed Key, for example, allows for us to connect devices offline to give the same functionality of connected machines,” added Austin. However, this is not the case for cashless.

“Signal strength has to be the top concern for cashless,” said Richards. “Just because you have a good signal outside a location does not mean it will be acceptable once inside.” A weak or intermittent signal can frustrate customers and cause errors.

Many of the technology providers have diagnostic tools that allow operators to measure the signal strength. There are also a number of ways to boost cellular strength in a location, such as placing repeaters, but the costs might not be justified.

“It is possible to get signal into any space,” said Scheiderman, “it just depends on how much you want to spend.” There are times he has talked to operators who would be willing to put in a repeater to strengthen the  signal in a basement or area with poor reception, however the location won’t do it. Prisons are an example, that Erbes-Mrsny shares, of locations that usually stop cellular signals.

The lack of a cellular signal means cashless might not be an option. “It is not considered PCI-compliant to use ethernet or local area networks for cashless,” explained Erbes-Mrsny.

“Ethernet or local networks are more susceptible to security breaches,” added Austin. “That is why only the cellular is PCI.”

There are many specifics to troubleshooting cashless and telemetry devices. However, it is best to start with the basics of capability and firmware moving on to connection best practices and signal strength. It’s imperative to work with your technology service provider and pass on the tips and information to technicians in the field.  


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