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Managing a Nationwide Deployment of Vending Machines
By Jeff Goldman
LTT Vending, the UK's largest independently owned vending machine company, manages approximately 5,000 machines providing everything from hot drinks to snacks and candy. To keep those machines running, LTT employees refill each one on a weekly basis, remove any money from the cash box, and check counter readings.

For years, the company had provided its employees with Symbol devices to track data on each machine, but those devices had no wireless connectivity. "We'd only get an information update once a week when the guys came back to the office," recalls LTT group financial director Chris Sutcliffe.

When LTT began exploring options for mobile data connectivity, Sutcliffe says, BlackBerry seemed like an obvious choice. "[Symbol] devices are knocking on the door of eight, nine hundreds pounds each, whereas the deal we did with T-Mobile, who are our carrier in the UK, essentially meant the devices were free," he says. "So there was a fairly compelling business case there."

Sutcliffe says the ease of replacement was another strength. "With the Symbol device, we had to keep a stock... at our office in Leeds, ship it out, which would be two days to the south coast, then wait for somebody to come in to pick it up -- you're looking at three or four days where somebody was without a device," he says. "With a BlackBerry, ring T-Mobile, assuming it's before five o'clock in the evening, they'll courier the thing overnight... we provision the device, upload the applications, and they're out and working."

The company now has approximately 130 BlackBerrys deployed (a mixture of Curve 8310s, Curve 8900s and Bold 9700s). About 75 of the devices, Sutcliffe says, go to the employees who fill the vending machines, about 20 go to machine repairmen, and the rest are used by sales and senior management.

LTT worked with Manchester-based NoString Networks to develop three key applications for the devices. The first app serves -- and closely tracks -- the employees who fill the machines. "When they wake up in the morning, they turn the BlackBerry on and log into the application, and it tells them what machines they've got to visit that day and broadly in what order," Sutcliffe says.
"As they arrive at the machine, they clock onto it so we know what time they've arrived, they start cleaning the machine, they put ingredients into the machine, and they're actually logging those ingredients into the machine so we know how much stock we need to order to fulfill what's being used," Sutcliffe says. "Once they've cleaned the machine and filled it, they take any money out that's due to be cashed that day, and log a unique serial number against the money they've taken out."

The second app provides machine repairmen with similar information. "They get all their calls through an application and not through email -- so they know where they've got to go, and when they arrive at the machine, again, they log onto the machine, they can see what the call was logged as, what the customer thought the fault was, and they can then hopefully rectify the fault and actually log it back into our back office system... or if it needs parts ordering, that can be done electronically as well," Sutcliffe says.

The third app, Sutcliffe says, is specific to Mars Flavia hot drink machines. "The guys know what route they've got to go round that day to deliver the ingredients, and once they actually deliver and get a signature, they say, 'I've done that -- it can be invoiced now,' and that goes straight back to the back office, and we can send the invoice out the same day," he says.

To help the company's employees make the initial transition to BlackBerry devices, Sutcliffe says, LTT found a few business champions. "We got half a dozen people we gave a BlackBerry to and said, 'Go out and use it, and tell us what you think'... and they were addicted," he says. "So then we've got our business champions, and we took them to each of our rollout meetings. Then you've got somebody talking at the same level to say, 'Okay, you can see this issue: I've overcome that by doing this.' And it just worked -- suddenly, we were rolled out."

One of the key results of the deployment, Sutcliffe says, has been a vast increase in efficiency. The company has been able to reduce its finance processing team from six people to five, and has cut about five percent of the employees who refill the machines. "And we can now invoice quicker," he says. "[Previously], our invoices would take three or four days beyond month end to send out. We're now sending those invoices out within one day of month end, because data's coming in all the time, and it can be validated all the time."
And in a broader sense, Sutcliffe adds, the entire pace of LTT Vending's operations has increased. "BlackBerry is now the lifeblood of our business," he says.
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