CES: Pumping information as important as pumping gas for Dresser Wayne

From fuel tanks to marketing tools, via wireless and other network technologies.

In the predigital world, a gasoline pump was an electromechanical device that delivered fuel.

But digital data, networking, and now wireless communications is changing all that. Today, the gasoline pump, or “dispenser” as it’s called in the trade, is a solid-state, networked, multimedia, customer-facing, digital marketing system that has a critical role in boosting profits for local service station franchisees, and their corporate parents.

Pumping gas goes digital

That change reflects an unexpected and largely invisible shift in American business, a shift created by digital data and networking. It is transmogrifying industrial manufacturers, in this case Austin-based Dresser Wayne, into leading edge computer systems, network and software developers.

At CES, in a corner of Microsoft’s Automotive Business Unit tent outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, and almost hidden by Ford SUV’s and Mustangs, Dresser Wayne showcased the Ovation iX fuel dispenser, a towering, sleek, gleaming icon of industrial design that looked more like a combination New Age refrigerator and entertainment center than a fuel pump.

It certainly impressed Microsoft, which last year named Dresser Wayne its Windows OEM Embedded Partner of the Year for the Ovation’s innovations.

Ovation iX is the latest proof of a dramatic transformation. Founded in 1891 as the Wayne Oil Tank Company, the firm says it introduced the first power fuel pump, in 1927. Today, it claims to be world leader in fuel dispensers. Since 1968, it’s been a unit of Dallas-based Dresser, Inc. Besides its high tech fuel pumps, Dresser Wayne also offers retail electronic point of sale systems and peripherals.

Dresser Wayne executives refer to the Ovation’s digital heart as the “iX Technology Platform,” which for the uninitiated is a term that’s hard to associate with pumping gasoline. But the Ovation iX runs the embedded Microsoft Windows CE 5.0 operating system and powerful Intel XScale processor. It also sports a brilliantly clear, crisp, color 10.4-inch full VGA touch screen, which is only slightly smaller than the one on the laptop being used to write this story. It has a built-in 802.11b/g wireless access point.

It supports the ISO 14443 contactless payment standard, which is being aggressively backed by Visa, MasterCard and others. This standard is implemented in part through a set of protocols defined by the Near Field Communications Forum. The end result is that you simply wave a programmed embedded chip, often in the form of a small card or device added to your keychain, over a small panel, and the Ovation handles the transaction without the need for pressing buttons or swiping a magnetic card.

Dresser Wayne’s iX Media tools, based on Microsoft .Net Framework, let dealer chains and even local dealers customize the onscreen displays and create a wide range of multimedia applications. The company is partnering with EK3, a specialist in digital signage applications, based in London, Ont.

The pump's main data link is a wired Ethernet connection, over which run an array of diagnostic, monitoring, and increasingly ERP and general ledger application components, both to monitor the pump as a system and to integrate its transaction data with various backend enterprise applications.

The Wi-Fi link could be used as a hot spot to give cars and trucks a quick Internet connection. But its main purpose is to create a wireless connection to a range of vehicle-based computer systems and applications, says Dan Harrell, vice president, global product architecture, for Dresser Wayne. Harrell runs through a demonstration, using a nearby Ford SUV with an onboard Wi-Fi radio.

As the car owner swipes the contactless key fob, and makes his fuel selection, the Ovation screen asks “Would you like to purchase a song?” Touching the “yes” button brings up a group of individual songs. Pressing one selection adds the song’s price to the total tab, and downloads it over the Wi-Fi link to the SUV’s MP3 player or media server. The fuel pump can even download a digital receipt of the entire transaction.

But such seamless interactions would require car owners to download a small Dresser Wayne client application to the vehicle’s Microsoft Media Center or in the future to a handheld PocketPC or Windows smartphone.

In the economics of gasoline retailing today, says Dresser Wayne President Mike Carlson, retail stations make almost no money on gasoline itself. “They make more money selling a bottle of water than they do selling 20 gallons of gasoline,” he says. As a result, systems like the Ovation iX become a means to draw customers into the convenience store.

The multimedia capabilities let retail chains tout, using video and audio, a range of products and promotions, and measure the effectiveness of such programs. The Ovation could be programmed for example to show on cold mornings a steaming cup of coffee with a donut, and display a coupon button which when pressed prints out a 15%-off coupon that the driver uses inside the store. The Ovation’s high-resolution screen is clearly visible even in bright daylight.

One unexpected development with the 2,000 Ovation units currently deployed is that other local retailers, such as dry cleaners, hairdressers, and restaurants, have cut deals with the gasoline retailer to run their own multi-media advertising on the Ovation. So far, this has proven to be the biggest of several revenue streams that Ovation makes possible, according to Carlson.

The next phase for Dresser Wayne, says Harrell, is to use software from a recent acquisition to tie the Ovation transaction data streams back into corporate general ledger and ERP systems, giving the retail chains almost up-to-the-minute analytics on how coffee was been sold, and how successful specific promotions have been.

In the future, says Harrell, the wireless link with the customer could make use of both personal information the customer wishes to make known, as well as GPS location data, and marrying this to loyalty program data. “When you drive up to a pump, your vehicle system or smartphone announces ‘here I am and here’s who I am,’” he predicted. Because the pump “knows” you, it can set up the transaction, and then present information you might want, ranging from offering country-western songs if that’s your preference, to reminding you when you last bought motor oil.

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