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【Shanghai Daily】Cashiers chucked as canteens adopt check-out chips

November 24, 2012      Author: Victoria Fei

EVEN food service in schools is going high tech in Minhang District.

With the help of an "i-disk" developed by alumni Dong Jiawei, the Minhang campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University has installed a self-billing system in its canteens.

Gone are the most of the cashiers who once rang up purchases. In their place, price-chips are embedded in the plates, the cost of selected dishes is automatically tallied in less than a second and the amount deducted from meal cards.

The campus was among the first three in China to trial the new system.

Dong, who graduated from Jiao Tong about 25 years ago, donated the system to his alma mater.

The whole system comprises more than 5,500 plates, a multimedia settlement machine and a software management system. The total cost is almost 200,000 yuan (US$32,066).

According to campus officials, sales in cafeterias have risen almost 10 percent since the system was implemented. Part of that is sheer curiosity.

"It's fast and convenient," said a canteen cook surnamed Liang. "Everybody at the school wants to have a try. It doesn't mean manual check-out has been phased out completely. Some diners don't have meal cards and still have to pay in cash."

Feedback from students has been positive.

When the system started operation at Jiao Tong University in September, a student posted a notice about it on Sina weibo. It spread like rapid-fire online, reposted some 2,700 times.

Dong, now the general manager at Sovell Technology Development Co, helped develop and apply the new system.

"Currently, more than 20 universities have applied to buy the 'i-disk' system," Dong said. "The idea for it just popped into my mind one day, but it took my team five years to develop. We finally launched it last March."

In the past, cashiers at school canteens calculated meal costs using color-coding. Each dish with the same price was on the same color of plate.

"But now, the intelligent disk system can read chips implanted at the bottom of each plate and calculate the meal price in a flash," Dong said.

The plates are made of melamine - an unfortunate choice, perhaps, given the nationwide scandal about melamine-tainted milk in China. Dong said more than 20 materials were tested for imbedding the chips before they finally chose melamine as the best. There are no health hazards in the plates.

"It went through many tests, including high temperature resistance, corrosion resistance and shatter-proofing qualities," Dong said.

Dong's goal is to install the "i-disk" in 2,800 universities nationwide. His company also wants to expand sales into business canteens.

By next year, the company is forecasting orders valued at 5 million yuan.

Zhang Fengmiao, manager of logistics at Harbin Institute of Technology, said the "i-disk" system is not about raising efficiency or saving labor costs.

"Rather, it allows students to see first-hand the influence of high technology in their daily lives, which we hope will inspire their own creative thinking," Zhang said.

Ideas popping up at random

Dong attended Jiao Tong University, one of China's premier engineering and technology institutions, in the late 1980s, before the Minhang campus was built.

A native of the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu Province, he always felt a strong connection to nearby Shanghai and still visits the city several times a month.

His business is innovation.

The company has just received a 1.3-million-yuan grant from the state to continue its research and development.

Dong said he usually juggles five new projects at a time. The "i-disk" was the only one that succeeded from the last batch.

He said inventive ideas pop into his mind all the time.

"I keep notes, recording all the crazy ideas as soon as they occur to me," he said. "I look at them three days later and delete those that seem less viable. Then I talk to experts in related fields to bounce new ideas off them. It's important to determine if workable technology exists and can turn an idea into a product that is marketable."

He added, "I never go by what the majority thinks. If nine out of 10 people tell me I have a bad idea, my inclination is to go for it."

Dong said he is going to launch an "i-sushi" project next April that will be marketed to sushi shops to help them resolve management issues related to freshness, accounting and point transmission.


Source: Shanghai Daily