Re-engineering a Machine to Make, Store, Package, and Vend Ice
Siemens components enable Kooler Ice to offer reliable operation while eliminating wiring and components. iPhone app informs machine owners of bags remaining and funds collected, and notifies when there’s a jam.
In Byron, Georgia, a little town of less than 3,000 in Peach County, the world of ice making is changing dramatically. The principle architects of this change are Kerry Seymour, president of Kooler Ice, Inc., and his partner, Jeff Dyson, vice president for marketing and sales. Along with Scotsman Ice Systems, Prism Systems, and Siemens Industry, they are changing how people buy and sell ice.
Kooler Ice produces a self-contained ice vending machine that manufactures, stores, and dispenses fresh ice. “This whole space is new,” says Dyson. “It’s new technology.” But when the company built its first machine, it was anything but that.
“When we originally met Kooler Ice, they were taking parts designed for a Coca Cola machine and repurposing them to work inside their ice machine,” says Keith Jones, president of Prism Systems, a Siemens solution partner. “They had a Coca Cola controller board inside their machine, and they were fooling it to think that it was running a Coke machine when it was really vending ice. They used relays and a PLC to do that. When we met them, they were spending a lot of money on cabling and relays, because what they had to do was very complex.”
The meeting Jones refers to, in 2008, helped change the course of Kooler Ice. “Once we started working with Prism, we began looking at what we could do with Siemens technology to really fit in an ice-vending application, which at that point was virtually a new industry,” says Dyson.
The Kooler Ice machine has a Scotsman icemaker on top; it makes the ice and drops it into a storage bin, which has an opening in the bottom. A blower fan is positioned below the opening, where a bag is blown open, and then ice is dispensed into the bag. The product comes out when a customer pays for the product at whatever the machine owner sets their price.
Working with Prism, Kooler Ice simplified the machine’s wiring, eliminated the relays, and pulled them all into a PLC. Then they incorporated an off-the-shelf cellular modem to transmit data from the machines back to a database and developed a website where they could be monitored. This was the first generation of “Ice Talk,” the world’s first remote access system for ice vending machines. Machine owners could log on to the Ice Talk website with a password to track sales and monitor their machines 24 hours a day.
Stepping into the Future
Kooler Ice was still spending too much money for the electronic hardware on its machines, and those Coke controllers were problematic. When a button was pressed, the Coke controller expected to take 8 seconds to vend a bottle of Coke, and it expected feedback that the vending operation was completed. It takes approximately 12 seconds to vend a bag of ice, so what was really needed was a vending controller that could work that way. To use the Coke controller, they had to tell it that the vending operation had completed long before it really happened, and there needed to be a lot of logic in there to trick the controller.
“We removed the Coke controllers and helped them come up with a solution based on a proprietary board that allowed them to access all the vending, ice maker and program functions with a controller that’s specific to Kooler Ice,” says Jones. “Then we integrated the cellular connectivity onto that proprietary board.”
The whole concept is to keep machine owners always in the loop, always knowing what is going on with their machines. It makes the owner-operator experience much more enjoyable and less stressful, because it takes away worries about whether, unknown to them, there is a coin jam or something else wrong with the machine that causes missed sales. “That was the whole intent behind designing this system,” says Seymour.
Once the information is in a database, the machine owner receives a log on ID and receives access to a website where they are presented with a friendly interface to check on their machine sales history, alarm history and operational information. It is a relatively natural progression to give owners access to this information in the field. So Kooler Ice also incorporated an iPhone application for the machine and a mobile phone application that works on any smart phone, which Prism developed for them. The iPhone Application is available at the iTunes store today, and allows Kooler Ice machine owners to get all essential information offered on the website to their iPhone or iPad.
Owners of the ice machines now get instant feedback on sales or operational issues. They also get alerts. If a door opens or the ice machine faults or the bill processing device jams, they get an alarm message transmitted to their phones immediately. They can get these messages via text messages or emails, options they set up themselves. One very unique feature of the system is that operators can actually provide a free vend over the phone, in the event an ice customer calls with an issue at the machine.
In most vending applications, a driver travels a route to service the machines. The drivers replace the consumables, which on an ice machine means plastic bags. They take the money out and make sure that the machine is functioning properly. Because these ice machines may be many miles apart, it may be an hour or more from the owner’s home or office. With the Web and iPhone interfaces, they can monitor the machine and know how many bags are in it. Consequently, they only have to replace bags as needed. They also know how much money is in the machines, so they only need to collect the money when it reaches a collecting threshold. Furthermore, they know that the machine is working on any given day, because they can see that sales are occurring.
“We began with the S7-200 PLC, but have since migrated to the S7-1200, the
latest generation of micro-PLC from Siemens,” says Seymour. “Along with the PLC, we have the latest version of Siemens’ basic HMI panel line, which came out probably 15 months ago. We’re using the full-range panel.”
In the past, Kooler Ice had very complex wiring harnesses that went to the vending controller and came down to relays and then to the PLC. A wiring harness went to the mechanics that controlled the machine. When they put the new controller in, the vending network became a modified type of serial bus, so it just plugs in as a serial bus. There are serial connections to the ice machine. So now a single Ethernet connection goes to the PLC.
The complex solution made of relays and wiring harnesses, and all the cost of fabricating them, were eliminated. The Coke machine controller was also removed—a $300 or $400 item—so that cost offsets the cost of the Kooler Ice controller board.
On the PLC side, the PLC is now only wired to the sensors and the motors, the components it needs to operate the machine. There’s a small HMI as part of the system that they can use to change settings; of course, it’s got Ethernet going back to the controller board.
According to Dyson, the Siemens technology Prism helped incorporate not only improves the ownership experience, but provides exceptional product differentiation compared to the competition. “Our competitors don’t have these capabilities at the same scale and with the detailed functionality that we have,” he says. “This system is a key component driving our sales.”
“Machine owners now want features like these,” adds Seymour. “Technology is everywhere, so they expect to be empowered to know what’s going on with their machines at all times.” Siemens technology and the advanced system that Prism and Kooler Ice have developed enable the provision of that information to the user, which makes him more efficient. There’s no more wondering about status—what’s going on is a cold, known fact.Have an Inquiry for Siemens about this article? Click Here >>