Internet of Beer? Avnet Helps iKeg ‘Tap’ Into the Internet of Things
You might think that running out of beer is only a major concern if you are the “refreshment coordinator” for a college fraternity, but it turns out that beer inventory management is actually a pretty big deal for bar and restaurant owners these days. Tough economic times have caused a substantial dip in patronage and an increase in operating costs, intensifying the competition and bottom line pressures in an already fierce industry.
Since bar patrons will drink a third less beer per outing if their brew of choice is unavailable, according to Indianapolis-based SteadyServ® Technologies, bar owners often struggle with finding the balance between keeping adequate stock of popular sellers available and minimizing the risk of getting stuck with kegs of unsold, expired beer.
As a craft brewery co-founder looking to sell – and occasionally partake in – his signature brew in local venues, Steve Hershberger witnessed this challenge first hand. As a software and marketing professional, Hershberger’s gut told him there had to be a better way.
In 2011, Hershberger and business associate Steve Kremer, a software engineer by trade, founded SteadyServ Technologies, and began brainstorming an alternative. The goal was to replace the unreliable and cumbersome “shake” method for monitoring remaining keg volume with a more precise technology-based solution. After more than two years and extensive design and supply chain support from Avnet, a local engineering house and suppliers including NXP Semiconductors, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. and Identiv Group Inc., Hershberg and Kremer’s SteadyServ® iKeg® inventory management solution is now in production. iKeg helps users track information including how much beer is remaining in a keg, when it will run dry, how much is in inventory, when the next delivery is due and a wealth of other valuable data intelligence. The industry response has been tremendous.
The iKeg system includes a weight sensor ring with a built-in RFID reader that attaches to the bottom of the keg, an RFID tag that fastens to the handle of the keg, and a hosted SaaS application that provides real time inventory intelligence and automatic replenishment capability to the retailer and the beer distributor via mobile app and Web portal. The snap-on sensor ring includes a Freescale MC13224V microcontroller with a 2.4 GHz wireless transceiver, serial memory for the program, an instrumentation amplifier to condition the strain gauge weight sensor, a voltage regulator and a battery. The custom RFID tag uses a passive high frequency 13.56 MHz RFID inlay from Identiv Group Inc., and an NXP Semiconductor MIFARE UL transponder chip. Data collected is transmitted to a local gateway inside the establishment using ZigBee and then uploaded to a cloud-based server, which bar owners and distributors can access via smartphone or PC.
Early in the development phase, Hershberger and Kremer brought their concept to a design house in the area, which in turn reached out to their local distributor sales rep – Mary Faucett, Great Lakes account manager for Avnet Electronics Marketing Americas. Faucett and Avnet field application engineers (FAEs) including Curt Coffee, worked with the design house and SteadyServ to narrow down the vast array of potential supplier offerings.
"The design house knew what technology they needed to accomplish their target performance, but they did not have the intimate knowledge of the industry players and their offerings,” said Coffee. “There are always tradeoffs, some are clear from the data sheets but sometimes top players measure and communicate their specs differently, so it makes it very difficult for a designer to do an ‘apples to apples’ comparison. Having the experience with these various devices, we could tell the customer the pros and cons of each. And, if we had questions, we could always escalate it to our contacts at the supplier."
In addition, there is more to specifying a component than simply finding a part that fits a technical requirement, said Faucett. “There’s cost, availability, access to design tools, supporting software – these elements are all critical to making a thorough evaluation of the potential suppliers and their offerings. Trying to wade through all those variables while keeping to a tight development timeline can be nearly impossible. We did a lot of the leg work so they could focus on the end product.”
One key component of the iKeg solution was finding a way to tell the sensor exactly what kind of beer the keg contains, said Kremer. Clearly, just knowing you are low on beer only helps if you sell one brand, which no bar does. Avnet brought in supplier Identiv, who was able to provide direction on near-field communication (NFC) tag technology that enables users to tap the sensor ring against a label tag as each new unit is installed, thereby pairing the sensor and the keg and establishing an association with the brand of beer and date of delivery to the retailer.
These tags employ NFC technology, a groundbreaking subset of RFID tech that allows enabled devices to connect when in close proximity, generally less than four inches. Because the technology is still emerging and evolving, there is a fair amount of uncertainty among designers about how to discern the optimal process flow, radio range, transponder choices, the type of chip, the size of the antenna and form factors.
Avnet demonstrated a number of options to help SteadyServ do a high-frequency (HF) versus ultra-high frequency (UHF) performance comparison and a build-versus-buy analysis. In the end, SteadyServ went with a passive high frequency 13.56 MHz RFID inlay from Identiv using an NXP Semiconductor MIFARE UL transponder chip, which is integrated into a label by RR Donnelly.
“Avnet’s introduction to Identiv really was a breakthrough step for us,” said Kremer, SteadyServ co-founder and director of user experience. He added that Avnet’s ability to get the development team quick and low- or no-cost access to samples and evaluation boards was instrumental in keeping the development process moving forward on schedule and keeping overhead down – always critical for a startup. Avnet’s Faucett also coordinated Lunch and Learns and technical conference calls with supplier resources to address specific questions throughout the design process.
"One of the things that impressed me throughout this project was that every time we would go to Avnet and describe some very specific parameters we needed, the answer was always the same: ‘yup, we’ve got that.’"
Avnet’s global reach was also a tremendous value add for SteadyServ, which works with a manufacturing partner in China. “We connect the dots in the SteadyServ supply chain with the contract manufacturer in Asia,” said Faucett.
The iKeg system is currently deployed in locations throughout the greater Indianapolis region and the company plans to expand rollout of the iKeg product within the Midwest, then on the East Coast, followed by the West Coast.
As the team works on the next iKeg iteration, Avnet continues to provide technical and supply chain support. Currently, Faucett said, they are working to replace one of the sensor components which has gone end of life.
Bringing iKeg to market was most definitely a team effort and SteadyServ is fortunate to have Avnet as a part of the team, Kremer concluded.