Scanner ScaleContemporary Scanner Scale - NCR Corporation

NCR and technology partner, Spectra-Physics, invented the in-counter checkout scanner in the 1970s under a joint development agreement.  After the expiration of the agreement, both companies continued to develop the market independently, NCR selling to its retail customers, and Spectra-Physics becoming an OEM supplier to many of NCR's competitors. Starting from a common design, development teams in both companies proceeded to out-innovate each other in a relentless pursuit of improved bar code reading performance.

Whereas Spectra-Physics was a technology company focusing on laser optics, NCR had the advantage of a hundred year relationship with the point of sale.  As such, NCR provided many other peripherals for its checkout systems, including scales, which it procured through an OEM relationship. Retailers would typically mount the scale either beside or above the point of sale terminal, requiring the checker to lift items off the belt for weighing.

Inspiration Strikes

A visit by the scale manufacturer's rep introduced one of NCR's engineers to a new load cell design.  Upon seeing the low profile design, the engineer asked if a load cell could be positioned on either side of the platter and then followed up with his deduction "so you could have a hole in the middle of the platter."  Knowing that the engineer was a key member of the scanner development team, the young product manager in the room (guess who!) almost fell off his chair.  There was never a request from a customer, never a written requirement, and yet the idea of putting a scale inside a scanner made perfect sense.

NCR 7824 Scanner ScaleA minimum amount of concept testing was quickly done with favorable results. While the cost estimates showed the initial scanner scale design would be more costly than the two products separately, NCR's management was not deterred. The gut feel factor was extremely high - this was a good solution to the clutter at the point of sale, and should speed throughput by not requiring items to be lifted from the belt for weighing. The development proceeded by integrating the scale into the existing (7820) scanner design, with the new integrated scale version being called the 7824. 

Market Killer

The 7824 scanner scale exceeded all expectations.  Throughput performance for weighed items improved by 40%.  In addition, retailers placed huge importance on the ergonomic benefits from minimizing lifting motions and checker workload.  It was good for the checkers. Grocery retailers rapidly shifted their demand to the scanner scale. The 7824 not only dealt a severe blow to Spectra-Physics, it destroyed the market for front end (point of sale) scales within six months of its release.  As a case in point, NCR's front end scale business dropped from several thousand per year to zero.NCR 7870 Scanner Scale

The scale integration was improved with the next generation scanner design, the 7870 Bi-optic scanner, by replacing the slotted cover with a stainless steel platter and a hardened glass window - the common design in use today.  Since the bulk of the grocery market volume shifted to the scanner scale, all in-counter scanner competitors were required to incorporate an integrated scale to remain competitive.

Analysis

Good ideas come from good problem understanding. Typically a customer will describe a problem, a product manager will document the requirement and an engineer will develop a solution. In this case, the engineer was a seasoned developer who had spent a significant amount of time in the field. He inherently understood the problem, and conceived of a solution the instant he was introduced to an enabling technology.  Often customers will not identify an established method of doing business as a problem - until there is an awareness of a better solution.  It is therefore critical for product managers and engineers to spend time in the customer's environment to better understand problems and accelerate problem identification.

Also of interest in this case was the rapid adoption of the innovation. This was due to high ROI from more rapid throughput, the retailer's concern for employee welfare (ergonomic benefits) and freeing space at the checkout - which is often described by retailers as the most valuable space in the store. There was no need to go through a lengthy early adopter stage since this was an integration of two fairly mature products/technologies with little apprehension from retailers.

 

Submitted by:  Michael Kapp

Role on project:  Product management team member