Why Choosing Purpose-Built Restaurant Hardware Makes a Difference
You are charged with selecting technology solutions for deployment to your restaurant chain’s kitchens. On the surface, the task and array of options can seem overwhelming. This is the time to be very clear on what ‘success’ looks like for your project.
Consumer or retail solutions may seem to work in a lab, and attractive price points may make you consider them more than you should. But, for the sake of your support group, your operations folks, and maybe your sanity, you should pursue purpose-built hardware for use in your kitchens.
What is purpose-built restaurant hardware?
By ‘purpose-built’ we mean items specifically designed and produced to survive and thrive in the target environment where it will be installed. There are a few key considerations in selecting purpose-built equipment that lesser manufacturers or consumer/retail solutions can never provide, including:
- Simple configuration
- Easy support
- Clean deployments
- Survival in harsh environments
“You get what you pay for” proves true again and again. With purpose-built solutions, your return on investment will be clearly evident over time in a production environment where the stakes for failure are relatively high. Be diligent and find the answers to these significant questions as you look for the right products.
Will the chosen restaurant hardware be easily supported across the enterprise?
If you can’t easily support it, don’t roll it out. The coolest technology quickly becomes a detriment to your business if it takes continual care and maintenance to get it to provide the value that it promised. Consider how much it has to be touched to keep it running.
Remote tools for configuring, management, diagnosis, and upgrades are critical pieces to the “easily supported” rule. The soft costs and operational disruption caused by having to physically manage systems in a commercial kitchen far outweigh any perceived savings in acquisition costs. Make sure the support tools are mature enough to easily handle the tasks. For multi-unit chains, be sure you can manage the restaurants in bulk and from a central location.
Seek minimal downtime to avoid disruption of business operations. The issue of downtime reminds me of someone recommending an individual based on their integrity, saying “they are honest – most of the time!” That completely undermined that value of the integrity. To say “the restaurant hardware stays up and running for the most part!” does the same. Suddenly you are put in the position of worrying about when the next not-so-up time will happen. The integrity of the system should not be compromised by its use nor the environment in which it is used. Don’t accept a calculated risk. Rather, seek high availability – and high integrity!
Is this hardware built to withstand the environment over the long haul?
Remember, you aren’t dealing with your lab environment. You now have to introduce the effects of heat, humidity, airborne grease, and cleaning solutions throughout the life of your deployment. That means you should think twice about moving parts. Cooling fans or the spinning platters in a hard drive are increased opportunity for failure. Purpose-built hardware for a kitchen environment should use passive cooling solutions. That means no fans, no moving liquid, and no/minimal venting.
Cooling some of the processors in this equipment can be a challenge but dealing with it needs to be a purposeful focus for its long-term survival in a kitchen. Some of the higher performance embedded processors may actually be heat-sinked to its case or enclosure. Some enclosures are ribbed extrusions and have the additional thermodynamic property of heat dissipation through its ‘chimney’ effect. That means when the ribs or fins are vertically mounted, the heat will rise through the ribs making a cooling current of air and helping to dissipate the heat from the working electronics. There are clever ways that purpose-built overcomes the stresses encountered.
These kitchen controllers and bump bars should be located correctly to help minimize the ill effects of heat in these harsh environments. But you should also have support tools that can report on heat issues. It is important to be able to monitor not only the CPU heat but also the ambient temperature inside the enclosure itself. Placing the electronics in strategic locations to help minimize heat affecting the life of a controller is important, that’s why embedded temperature sensors in the electronics and having software to monitor it can be a very important consideration.
Instead of a typical hard drive (HDD) for storage, consider memory technology like NAND flash in Solid State Drives (SSDs) or even something like embedded multi-media card technology (eMMC). Your choice will depend on the use case, but there are good options now to avoid a typical HDD. There are usually “industrial” versions of each that can provide additional heat tolerance.
What to look for when considering heat tolerance
You may want to consider conformal coating. In some situations, for example keypads which may be exposed to the elements more than other components, there would be benefit from this additional protection. Conformal coating material is a thin polymeric film which ‘conforms’ to the contours of a printed circuit board to protect the board’s components. It can be applied to electronic circuitry to act as protection against moisture, dust, chemicals, and temperature extremes.
Higher IP ratings are a good hedge against harsh environments. IP (or “Ingress Protection”) ratings are defined by international standard committees. They are used to define levels of the sealing effectiveness of electrical enclosures against intrusion from solids and liquids. You may see an ‘IPxy’ rating for a particular device in its’ spec sheet where x = (0-6) protection against solid objects from 50MM or more down to dust particles, and y= (0-8) protection against liquid from moisture droplets to complete immersion in water under pressure. The higher each number, the greater protection afforded.
Mean Time Between Failure numbers can be useful but only if they were derived in the environment similar to your target. That’s why consumer electronics are rarely a fit for a commercial kitchen. They aren’t tested nor rated to survive that environment for any significant period of time. The savings in initial costs on some of these items will quickly be lost on repair, replacement, continued support, and being a general nuisance to the business operations. If you want your support desk to experience a call storm, deploy consumer goods or lesser electronics across the kitchens of your multi-unit operation.
Where will this hardware be installed?
Don’t forget convenience in restaurant mounting and deployment solutions! You want your hardware to not only be functional but easy to access, easy to use, easy to clean, and also protected from the general hustle and bustle of your kitchen.
What about power? Isolating your equipment from other kitchen appliances is important. But purpose-built restaurant hardware should also have tolerance features built in. That means if power is less than consistent, the equipment should be able to regulate the differences in order to keep running. What about overvoltage situations? Purpose-built devices are developed with the understanding that many restaurant kitchens’ power, especially in mall situations, are unpredictable. So, resettable gel fuses (positive thermal coefficient devices) can be used in circuit boards which will protect that hardware from power spikes, self-heal once the over-voltage is removed, and then continue normal operation without having to be sent in for repair.
Purpose-built mounting solutions will be important for conveniently bringing together components, providing a neat storage location at kitchen prep stations. They should be easy to access and also aesthetic, especially when considering open kitchen concepts.
So, what does selecting purpose-built restaurant hardware really buy us?
Among other things, purpose-built equipment will get you:
- Operational effectiveness without inordinate lost opportunity due to disruption in the kitchen production environment
- Easier deployment with remote configuration, and system monitoring and management
- Minimized support issues
- Quieter stress-free kitchens
When you choose the best system for your kitchen, your later decision to upgrade will be a matter of value and features, rather than trying to mitigate growing maintenance issues during a short life span. Choosing the wrong restaurant hardware is your own self-inflicted form of ransomware. You’ll be holding your kitchen operation hostage to the expense and frustration of ill-working or non-working equipment, until you pay up to fix or replace.
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About the Author
As COO, Andy is involved in our hardware design, production, assembly, and repair depot in addition to overseeing internal Information Technology for QSR. He graduated from the University of Louisville with his Master’s in Engineering and has been involved in restaurant technology for years. In his spare time, you can find Andy training and trialing Retrievers in field work.