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'Smart' technology applications loom for new frozen food vending machines.

Imagine...The bell rings in the hallway marking the end of a seemingly interminable class in econometrics. Students want to make the most of their 30-minute break and stampede toward the lunch room.

When they arrive, the brightly-lit area is filled on all four sides with vending machines offering a broad choice of foods. Several machines represent well known brands like Stouffer's, Healthy Choice and Chef America. Others vend pizza, tamales, burritos and hot dogs.

Machines from McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken offer some of those chains' perennial favorites. A breakfast vending section serves warm donuts and French toast.

All of this pre-cooked food, preserved frozen at 0 |degrees~ F, rests in recyclable microwave plates.

A student inserts his debit card in the slot and selects a serving of French-bread pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni, the machine's display shows quickly how much credit the student still has after deducting the cost of this meal. About 30 seconds later, the machine's door opens to reveal his chosen entree. The cheese is bubbly and the crust is crisp.

Concurrently, about 25 miles from the campus, a computer operator at the headquarters of the vending company servicing these vending banks notices a blip on her screen.

"Mmmmm," she thinks to herself. "At this sales rate, this machine will be out of French bread pepperoni pizza by the evening." The computer agrees and suggests she replace one of the two rows of spinach lasagna with another one of the faster moving products. She quickly clicks the "OK" button to signal that she wants the automated route manager to adjust deliveries accordingly.

This scene is not a vision of a far away future. Actually, the technology exists today to perform these tasks. Although such a frozen food vending machine has not been created yet, there is little doubt that such machines will be built in the future. These machines will be capable of five key abilities:

1. Storing frozen food at 0 |degrees~ F so that it can remain in an optimal state of preservation for several months. Several U.S. companies already market such machines (such as ECC in Orlando, Fla.).

2. Reading a debit card with an imbedded microchip containing all the relevant credit information of the card's owner. Such cards are common in Europe and some Asian countries.

3. Identifying the food it is requested to re-heat. The machine then can determine if the package is that of a product it has been programmed to re-heat and, if so, choose the optimal sequence of microwaves and/or radiant heat (infrared), per the manufacturer's specifications. This can be done with a simple but relatively expensive bar-code reader (Litton markets a microwave oven with this feature).

A newer method is under development by S.T.H. Systems, a subsidiary of France-based Moulinex Group. It uses a simple, inexpensive miniature camera that can be programmed to recognize the graphics (like the brand's logo and product's name) of more than 200 different packages in less than a second.

In addition to its lower cost, this "opto-electronic" image recognition system is far more difficult to fool than a bar code reader. Bar codes can be copied; but, if one does not know what part of the package the image recognition system identifies, the machine won't start. This gives total control of the machine to whomever has the programming code. If the programmer is a food company or distributor, the system restricts the machine for use only with those brands and products.

4. Uniform and complete re-heating of a frozen serving in 30 seconds. One can re-heat frozen foods in 30 seconds today with a powerful enough microwave oven. But anyone who has re-heated a leftover pizza knows that the crust comes out chewy with cold spots in some places and overcooked spots in others.

The new technology used in the Whiz microwaver, marketed by S.T.H. Systems, allows for fast, uniform re-heating of frozen foods and will restore crispness to the crust, all in about 30 seconds.

To understand why it works, here's a quick lesson on "heat" -- defined by physicists as the agitation of molecules or particles. Some food ingredients have more particles susceptible to agitation when subjected to microwave radiation. They become hotter faster than other food ingredients around them -- one reason why microwaved foods have hot and cold spots.

Chewy crust occurs because, with some doughs, the outer surface is less "agitable" than the inside. The microwaves then will go through the crust without heating it significantly. When the microwaves "find," inside the dough, some ingredient that will become hot, steam is created. That steam builds and migrates toward the outside and toward the colder crust, where it condenses. The moisture accumulates on the outer crust, resulting in chewyness.

To prevent this, S.T.H. Systems scientists have added very powerful infrared generating halogen lamps inside the cavity of the oven, above and below the food. The moisture is vaporized as soon as it reaches the outer surface of the crust and is quickly pulled out of the cavity by powerful fans. The result: crisp crust in a microwaved pizza.

This new microwave oven also eliminates those hot and cold spots that come from the uneven distribution of electromagnetic waves inside an oven cavity. Most microwave ovens attempt to "randomize" the energy distribution using stirrers or in-cavity turntables.

This doesn't always work. If one point in the cavity is hit by two waves (as a result of the "random" bouncing on the cavity's walls), and if those waves are in opposite phase, there will be a cold spot. If the waves are in synchronized phase, there will be a hot spot.

S.T.H. Systems took a radically different approach. Random wave bouncing is kept to a minimum. Instead, the unit directs the energy very precisely to the place where the food is located in the cavity. There, it creates a controlled "hot" spot by systematically assembling, directly on the food, two beams of microwaves arriving from opposite directions, in a synchronized phase. This greatly improves temperature distribution inside the food which, in most cases, is ready for consumption as soon as it leaves the oven.

The Whiz already is marketed in Europe and should be available in the United States this year in its counter top version. Several major American food manufacturers are preparing or adapting a full range of frozen foods and packaging to meet its specific requirements.

5. Vending machine inventory management by remote telephone link. Adding a modem to a vending machine or to the optoelectronic image recognition system of the Whiz is not technically difficult nor expensive.

There is no doubt that all these technical advances will be brought together in the future. There is a consumer demand for high quality food served fast. Vending operators believe it is crucial to find ways to minimize food spoilage and improve stock rotation and profitability of food vending.

To date, the combination "frozen food/microwave oven" has not been the answer. It doesn't deliver on the "short time" promise and requires too much a compromise on food quality. The concept was sound, but the technology did not exist.

The technology now has arrived. And it's a good bet that it will reach the lives of all food vending operators very soon.

|Editors Note: The author is vice president of Chicago-based S.T.H. Systems USA, marketing representative for France-based S.T.H. Systems. A related story on vending begins on page 186.~
COPYRIGHT 1993 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Frozen Foods in North America
Author:Chevron, Jacques
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Previous Article:'Breakfast of champions' in the USA is apt to be frozen or refrigerated.
Next Article:Japanese and other consumers have yen for Petrofsky's frozen raw dough bagels.

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