Friday, 27 March 2009

The coin machine problem

Yesterday I saw inside a new machine and realised that its designers had solved an interesting multicriteria problem.

Many British supermarkets have introduced self-service checkouts; the shopper brings their basket to the machine, scans the items one by one without the need for a cashier, and pays by card or by cash at the end. I use one such supermarket regularly when buying a few items, because it is generally quicker than queueing for a cashier. As I have used it, I have been interested in the algorithm it follows for giving change for cash purchases. The first part of the algorithm is straightforward; if your bill is for P pence, then as soon as you have inserted any sum greater than P, the machine gives change. (So if you want to get rid of small change, then you must put that small change in before the larger coins.) But the second part concerns the coins that are dispensed as change.

British coins have values 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 (pence). My change has never included coins of value 2, 50 or 200. 9 pence in change is dispensed as four 1s and one 5. 90 pence in change is dispensed as one 10 and four 20s. So when I found staff maintaining one of the machines, I stopped to look (probably being labelled by the CCTV operators as a suspicious character). There were six storage receptacles for coins to be given as change, labelled 1, 5, 10, 20, 100, 100. So there is no way that I could be given a 2, a 50 or a 200.

The designers needed a design that worked with an algorithm. Have a stock of coins to give change in a logical way, and keep that stock inside a small volume. So they eliminated three coins from inclusion. So, objective 1: Be able to give change; objective 2: keep the number of storage bins to a logical minimum. But there was a subtle objective 3: use coins of small volume, to maximise the number of coins in the machine.

2 pence coins are larger in volume than those of value 1, 5, 10 and 20. 50 pence coins are larger than 2 pence. 200 pence (2 pound) coins are very large. So these were the coins to remove from the machine's design.

Now, was this design a multicriteria O.R. problem, or not? I think it was -- even if it has a solution that will not shake the world! But it does make the world a little better.

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