New stamp machines are smart and give change

August 12, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

The stamp vending machine is getting a lot smarter.

Thanks to some rather sophisticated electronics developed by the local Westinghouse Electric Corp. division, the next generation stamp machine in Towson, for instance, will be able to tell a service technician in Baltimore, "Hey, I've run out of 29-centers" or "Ouch, my $20-bill intake is jammed."

"These kinds of problems can be solved immediately, instead of waiting a couple of days before an irate customer gets around to calling us," John Ralstont, manager of acquisition for the U.S. Postal Service's vending equipment office in Merrifield, Va., said yesterday.

He said the Postal Service is in the process of a $200 million, five-year effort to replace approximately 40,000 outdated machines with wiser models that offer customers additional services while eliminating some irritable features.

The Westinghouse Electronic Systems in Linthicum has a piece of this business. It has been awarded a $7 million contract to produce 2,000 of the new stamp machines, which will feature telecommunication systems linking them with command monitoring centers.

Kenneth Stockman, the Westinghouse marketing manager on the program, explained that when something needs attention, the machine's microprocessors will send a signal back to a host computer in a monitoring center saying, "There's a problem. I need maintenance."

The message will travel through the electric wiring that the machine is plugged into and then into a modem that will transmit it over a telephone line back to the service center, where the message will be printed on a computer screen.

Mr. Ralstont said a feature that is bound to make the new machines more user-friendly is their ability to provide change. With current machines, a customer buying a 29-cent stamp would put 30 cents into the machine and receive two stamps -- one valued at 29 cents and another for one cent.

"People hate that," Mr. Ralstont said. "What do you do with a one-cent stamp? Most of the time people left them at the machine."

The new machines will also take $1, $5, $10 and $20 bills. Mr. Ralstont said that if a customer is due $10 in change, they won't get 40 quarters back. The change will be in the form of Susan B. Anthony dollar coins.

"We had to go to the Federal Reserve Board to get them," Mr. Ralstont said of the little-used coins. "We have 4,000 machines in service at this time and there have been no customer complaints."

The new machines -- which actually resemble the ones they are replacing -- will also report in each night saying how much they sold that day and if there is a need to restock the change dispenser.

Westinghouse will provide the telecommunications devices and do the final assembly of the stamp machines at its facility adjacent to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

This is a new line of business for the local Westinghouse division that is seeking to lessen its dependence on military sales.

Mr. Stockman said the company is looking beyond its current contract and has its eye on capturing more of the money the Postal Service will be spending on advances in its stamp machines.

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