Operator interest in the seemingly arcane world of technology protocols often is tied to their future potential to save money by supporting the convergence of computers, networks and equipment.
Emerging protocols and specifications will help operators "get the data and information they need to run their foodservice operations more efficiently and effectively," said Richard Mader, executive director of the Association for Retail Technology Standards.
ARTS is a division of the National Retail Federation and is collaborating with NAFEM on protocol development.
Over the past decade, the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers of Chicago, or NAFEM, and its member manufacturers have been challenged to piece together an integration program for foodservice equipment and technology that would operate with a centralized computer network using a single standardized language. The result of that work is the NAFEM Data Protocol, a standard based on existing and open Internet protocols. The nonproprietary protocol enables bi-directional communication with an industrywide set of rules for the exchange of data between independent pieces of equipment and personal computers.
The NAFEM Protocol, if implemented by all parties in the supply and users chains and supported by specialized software applications, would give operators the ability to network and then control and monitor equipment. It also would support automating the management processes for inventory, labor, food safety and energy consumption.
Further pressing for the power of technology to be incorporated into the entire foodservice environment, NAFEM and ARTS recently announced the development of a technical specification linking communications between point-of-service and commercial kitchen equipment. This new ProCon Technical Specification, which incorporates the NAFEM Data Protocol, sets data protocol conversion standards for messages between XML-based systems, including point-of-sale terminals and payment systems, and Simple Network Markup Protocol-based foodservice equipment, including refrigerators and fryers.
"By providing the means to link commercial kitchen equipment and back-office systems on a network, ARTS and NAFEM have addressed one of the operator community's primary communication goals," said NAFEM president Carol Wallace, president and chief executive of Cooper-Atkins Corp., of Middlefield, Conn.
Industry experts agree that by automating management processes in the areas of inventory, labor, food safety and energy consumption, operators will optimize communications between back-of-the-house equipment operations and front-of-the-house systems. Such protocols also can help identify and lessen operational inefficiencies, improving profit margins.
"We have been requested by chains to find a solution for foodservice equipment to be linked to," said NAFEM director of member services Charlie Souhrada. "For example, a retailer with a food court needs to program and monitor cooking and storing of food, external lighting, [heating-ventilation-air conditioning] and POS systems. All of these can operate off a centralized system using the protocol."
The protocol, if fully realized, also would enable multitasking. Cash register terminals could serve as training devices, with instructions and updates viewed at the stroke of a key.
"In an industry with high turnover, instruction on how to clean equipment and what to look for to prevent equipment trouble, or video presentations that can all run on the cash register computer terminals, [are boons] to business," Souhrada said. "We are hoping to get to a point where operators can control and monitor inventory and use the standardized system as a suggestive selling tool. There will come a time when counter associates will receive alerts from the kitchen equipment to tell customers that the fries are hot and ready."
Work continues at NAFEM to implement software protocols for monitoring equipment. "Keeping food inventory safe and wholesome is key," Souhrada said. "If a walk-in fails, an alert would be sent to a pager or cell phone to help operators manage food safety, energy and inventory. " Such capabilities also can help cut energy usage, Souhrada added: "Next to food and labor, energy is up there in terms of overhead."
With continued convergence enabled by the new protocol, ice makers could be programmed to operate at night when utility rates are lower and put into a holding cycle during peak price times. Fryers' cook cycles and temperatures could be monitored and adjusted remotely to keep operators informed about energy usage and aid them in conservation efforts.
Similarly, when heating elements are nearing the end of their life cycle or operating below specified levels, the equipment could alert managers or a manufacturer's service center so that the replacement part and service call could be ordered before a failure occurs.
"There has been a push for the NAFEM Data Protocol," said Eran Bernstein, chief technology officer of E-Control Systems, in Chatsworth, Calif. "Operators might have one vendor for their oven; another piece of equipment has software that doesn't work with that, and the operator does not want to hire a tech. A standards-based system solves those sorts of issues. Now, with the NAFEM Data Protocol, there is a system for either wired or Wi-Fi networks."
What the standardized data protocols do is put the power of flexibility into the hands of operators. They can select various manufacturers' equipment and software paired with support services that best suits their needs.
"More equipment is coming on line that is communication-capable," said Matt Allison, vice president of engineering at Scotsman Ice Systems, based in Vernon Hills, Ill. "Companies are integrating the protocol into their products, but it is like a thousand-foot ship. It's moving slowly and deliberately, but with force."