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In this series, we have been discussing why the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's Wine Kiosk project failed. In this post, we will focus on the more than 1,000 kiosk malfunctions that served as a critical blow to the project.

Complex kiosk system

First, let's discuss the process of the wine kiosks. As we mentioned in the previous post, the kiosk system was extremely complex requiring numerous I/O devices.

Here is how each kiosk was intended to work:

To purchase wine from a kiosk, customers were required to insert a driver's license into a scanner and pass a breath alcohol test. In addition, each wine kiosk was equipped with two cameras so that a Board employee at the call center could observe customers as they made their purchases.

After the customers swiped the credit card and signed the signature pad, a Board employee at the center would unlock the wine display case door. Within the display case itself, there were metal shields surrounding each bottle to prevent product theft. Once customers took the purchased wine from the case and closed the door, it was then to be re-locked immediately.

Continued malfunctions

During the first seven months of operation, customers reported nearly 1,000 malfunctions, which eventually forced the Board to shut down the kiosks during the 2010 holiday season for longer than a month.

According to the report, the vendor, Simple Brands,  found "the cause deep within its kiosks in the operating system and in the interactions with the hardware, including the dispensing mechanisms". During the shutdown period, the vendor attempted to fix the problems by rewriting the software related to four components of the kiosks: The touchscreens, the identification scanners, the card readers, and the printers, and "modifying the power distribution to the dispensing system to remedy the non-dispensing issues related to the kiosk doors and the shields".

Unfortunately, the kiosks began to malfunction again almost immediately after they reopened, and the issues were essentially the same as the ones that occurred before conducting the repair. Overall, the Auditor General estimated that as many as 1 in every 21 transactions was problematic.

The box was nice, but...

A common misunderstanding is that a kiosk system can be built by simply placing off-the-shelf hardware and software components together like Lego blocks. Afterward, cover them with a handsome enclosure, attach a nice application interface, and it is done!

The manufacturer of the wine kiosk might have allocated its development resources based on this misunderstanding. Indeed, they seem to have put a lot of effort into the look of the kiosk. As we can see here, the designs of the enclosure, wine display and touchscreen were beautiful and sophisticated.

We agree that aesthetics are very important, but with better planning they could have anticipated the difficulty and risk of development upfront, and focused more resources on the integration of components, development of a reliable and fault-tolerant kiosk system and testing.

In our next post, we will continue discussing technical issues and lessons learned from this kiosk project.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Michael Ionescu
    It was really neat to read about this topic in depth, especially after having covered it briefly. Did you see any information about how some of the Wegmans stores are testing a "wine-by-the-glass" vending machine in their cafe area. I'm curious to see if that type of machine has seen better success.
  • Stephanie Kropkowski
    Good info! I live in the Central PA area and the local news covered this quite a bit. From what I remember, Simple Brands was also a start-up company with no previous kiosk experience and had some sort of political ties to decision-makers. Also likely contributing factors to failure...
  • Natsumi Nakamura
    Michael, thank you for your comments. I always enjoy reading your blog. It is very interesting and inspiring! I couldn't find much info about the "wine-by-the-glass" vending machines, but those seem to be less technically challenging to implement and operate than the failed wine kiosks.
  • Natsumi Nakamura
    Thank you for your response, Stephanie. I agree with you. The company's lack of experience and the political tie both could have resulted in the poor risk assessment in the early stage of the project.
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Natsumi Nakamura
Natsumi Nakamura is in charge of the product marketing for kiosk hardware and software solutions at PFU Systems. She has also played a critical role in hardware/software development as well as business development for several kiosk projects.
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