Frank Olea On The Role Of Kiosks In The Middle Of A Touch-Wary Pandemic

June 24, 2020 by Dave Haynes


I love kiosks when they serve a real purpose – making it faster, better and easier to do something.

Olea Kiosks does just that – making high-utility but also good looking kiosks that exist to make something easier – like speeding you through an airport or checking in at a hotel or health care facility.

The company started decades ago as a moonlighting woodwork shop, through Frank Olea’s grandfather. It grew into a thriving business doing a ton of work on trade show exhibits. Over time, those exhibits added more and more technology, and gave Olea a lot of direct experience with electronics and software.

Now the company is squarely in the kiosk business – with standard lines and a fair amount of custom work.

Olea grew up in the family business and eventually took over as CEO. We spoke recently about what his company is doing, the challenges presented by a pandemic, and how even when touching things can seem scary, a kiosk makes more sense than one to one contact with people you don’t know are healthy or contagious.

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Frank, nice to meet you virtually. We can talk a little bit about what your company does. But I’m curious right out of the gate to find out how you and your company defines the term kiosk? 

Frank: How do we define the term kiosk? That’s a good question. 

It’s one of those terms that kind of gets used and abused and things are called kiosks that maybe shouldn’t be. 

Frank: Yeah, I would agree. And there’s a lot of, you know, other things that people call self-service systems and the lines between everything, I think, gets blurred.

Well, I mean, I think that for us, by definition, when we call something a kiosk, we’re talking about a device that you’re going to interact with, right? So we’ve done several projects where there’s really just digital signage inside of a box, right? So that box may be as complex to manufacturers as what we would consider a kiosk but because it’s just displaying information and you’re not actually interacting with it, then we’d more call that, you know, digital signage or furniture.Where if all of a sudden it had a touchscreen, and now you were interacting with it, we we’d call that a kiosk, even though it may only be a touchscreen monitor and nothing else.

Yeah, and that’s how I think of it. I have often run into display companies that says, you know, come over and have a look at our kiosk. And I’m looking at it and saying, “Is this a touchscreen? No.” I’d say well, it’s not a kiosk. “Well, yes, it is.”

Frank: Right. Because it’s in a box and not hanging on a wall. We just did a bunch of units for JCDecaux that are inside of the new LaGuardia terminal. And, they’re huge, you know, I mean, they’re 10-12 feet tall with 86 inch displays and all that but you can’t touch them. So we don’t consider them to be a kiosk.

Right. So your company, what all do you do and how large are you? Like give me a rundown on what Olea is all about.

Frank: Let’s see what else we do. So we design, engineer and manufacturer kiosks of all sorts, all shapes, all sizes. We do indoor, we do outdoor. We’re in a lot of different vertical markets. The company, let’s see, we’ve got about 60 employees right now. I believe we’re in a 50,000 square foot facility here in Southern California.And our design, our engineering and our manufacturing is all done in house here in the factory. 

And you’re down in Orange County, right? 

Frank: We’re actually in LA County. We’re right at right across the street from Orange County. 

Ah, all right. It’s a nice little part of the world. 

Frank: Yes. Yeah, we like it. 

The company started as doing woodworking, right?

Frank: Yeah, about 45 years ago, just about the time that I was born actually, the company was founded. My grandfather started it. They rented a small RV garage in Downey, California, really as a way to earn extra money. My grandfather has always been a master woodworker. My father and my uncle had just graduated trade school. And they all had jobs. They all worked in the construction industry where they would do cabinetry and things for these new buildings that were being built, you know, like UCLA at the campus there, that company erected a lot of buildings there and they would do all the cabinetry for that. 

And then they started, you know, in the evening, this woodworking company that they would take on different projects and it evolved through a lot of different things over the years and mainly fell into the trade show exhibit world where the company was for, you know, over 30 years designing and manufacturing that, and that was where where I grew up, in that world, you know, helping to build the exhibits, traveling with the exhibits, setting them up, tearing them down, eventually moving into sales and helping to sell the exhibits. 

And so we always came from a design perspective. You’re always, you know, thrown into these jobs where you had to design the booth and then bid on the booth in order to win the projects. And so when we got into the world of kiosks, I just kind of took what I knew from that and brought it to the kiosk world. And at the time, there really wasn’t a lot of a lot of style, I would say to the kiosks that were out there. And so, you know, we tried to differentiate ourselves coming from that perspective.

Yeah, just about every kiosk that I can recall seeing for the longest time look like an ATM machine or one of those machines where you get your boarding pass.

Frank: Right. Yeah, a lot. A lot of companies were founded, you know, I mean, no fault of theirs, but they were founded by engineers and engineers have a certain style, right? Everything’s efficient. And everything’s in its place. And we took it from a different perspective.

So that must have been a bit of a challenge though, because you’re coming out of from an aesthetics and fabricating point of view, but not necessarily having a lot of IP or experience when it comes to electronics.

Frank: Actually, you’re wrong. 

I’m never wrong. (Laughter)

Frank: Most of the companies we were building trade show exhibits for were electronics companies, so Pioneer Electronics was one of our customers and in their booth, we would have over 1000 active skews. Olea actually, if you recall, if you’ve ever gone to a car stereo shop or a Best Buy and you would go in and you remember these big displays that had all the car stereos and you click the buttons and switch between, we actually manufactured that product. We had our own line of circuit boards, and we would build a lot of those rooms. That was one of the products that we did. 

And before we got out of that business, we actually created the first touchscreen powered switching system. So we were always doing wiring and upgrading electronics, designing enclosures. And putting that stuff in. We also worked a lot in the old tradeshow, COMDEX, if you recall, back in the day, with all the computer companies, we did a lot of that as well. So integrating touchscreens and building a lot of that stuff really wasn’t new to us. We actually built our first kiosk in 1983. I was eight years old when we built our first kiosk. 

Wow. I was older than eight in 1983, I can tell you that. So the business has kind of evolved into the kiosk side of things. Are you still doing exhibits and all that or is it primarily kiosk now?

Frank: That’s all gone. Ten years ago when I took over as CEO, I completely shuttered that part of the company. We got out of that industry altogether. We had up until that point, the factory was mostly woodworking. I sold off all of that equipment. We brought in all the sheet metal equipment. That was life altering, you know, growing up doing everything in woodworking that was, you know, quarter inch tolerance, eighth inch tolerance was completely fine and then getting into sheet metal and realizing that tolerances were down to, you know, millimeters.

Yeah, and how did that go over with the family?

Frank: It actually, gosh, till this day, we still maintain a small woodshop here, that only myself, my father and one other person are even allowed to go into and do anything. The three of us know how to use the equipment. Primarily we’ll cut some plexiglass parts or things like that for some of the kiosks. Usually it’s used to make things like jigs and fixtures. So my father, he’s still here, still active in the company. He does a lot of things. He’s out on the factory floor every day. But yeah, he tends to be a little bit of a fish out of water. You know, he’s a classically trained fine Craftsman woodworker. So dealing with metal is a whole different thing for him.

Yeah. Well, I would imagine there’s still a bit of a demand for that when you get into older buildings where they, you know, let’s say that it’s a hotel check in kiosk and they want to make it look like, you know, the fine wood paneling all through the lobby. 

Frank: From time to time. Yes, we do. We do still incorporate wood components and some different techniques that we brought from the tradeshow industry to things that we’re doing today.

So, what have been the vertical industries that have, you know, let’s for the moment set aside what’s going on right now with the pandemic and talk about leading up to Q1 of this year, what was really driving business. Was it QSR, retail or transport? All of the above?

Frank: Kind of everything, all of the above. I mean, you know, QSR is definitely a market that, you know, once McDonald’s started deploying, I think people started to take notice of that. And yeah, I mean, it’s been a possibility for over 20 years to be able to do what they’re doing. But I think finally now all the numbers on both sides are starting to align themselves where it makes a lot of sense. So that that market definitely expanded and really blew up. 

But you’re seeing bleed over into a lot of different industries where, you know, new uses for kiosks are still taking place. Transportation obviously has always been a big user of self service technology. So you’re seeing a lot of new uses there with like, backdrop or biometrics. You know, we’re seeing things in healthcare. Healthcare is really growing. I think hospitality will grow where we’ll see a lot of hotel check-in types of applications.

Yeah, it’d be nice if they work. I’ve tried them a few times. I’ve never had much success and ended up okay, I’m just gonna get in this line because this is a complete waste of time.

Frank: There is nothing worse than that. I got a hate to see stuff like that happen. It just makes everything else look bad.

Yeah. Now let’s talk about what is going on right now. When this all first bubbled up. There were lots of people, me included, who started openly asking what does this mean for the touchscreen industry and I’ve done roundtable discussions and everything else and kind of landed on the idea that this whole fuss around touchscreens is really overblown because any public environment you walk into, you’re touching door handles, handrails, any number of things as you go through your journey, so to speak. 

So why is everybody fixated on that screen that you touch, therefore not deal with a human being who may sneeze on you?

Frank: Right, well, you know, that’s an interesting one. We had a healthcare customer, I won’t say their name, but a very large healthcare company that’s nationwide that we’ve got kiosks for all over the US and they are used to check-in and, you know, it was a little alarming in the beginning. You know, they called us and they were panicked asking about what type of chemicals they can use to clean the touchscreens on the kiosks and, you know, come to find out they really weren’t cleaning the screens as often as they should just in general, right? 

And so we got into this conversation about what chemicals you can use. I mean, they were going nuclear level, right? They wanted to just destroy whatever was on the screens. And so we settled on something and, you know, went back and asked them what the plan was. And in their case, they decided to lean very heavily on the kiosks. And they wanted everybody to check-in on the machines. We had other health care providers, because we’re in about 50 of them nationwide. With other ones, they shut down their network of kiosks. And they said, “No, we don’t want to do virus transmission on the machine”, where this particular group said, “No, we would rather you work on the machine and check-in we’ll ask you some questions, we’ll determine what your ailment is, at least best to our ability on the machine and avoid person to person contact because we know that it’s going to spread more easily through a conversation as opposed to touching a screen and we’ll continue to clean the screen during the day.” 

So, you know, you have one group too, and that other groups that are shutting their product down. And then everybody else coming to us and asking about, you know, contactless touchscreens and, and putting hand sanitizer on the screen or doing UV lights or antimicrobial coatings. And, you know, there’s 10 different things you can do with this. And at the end of the day, I mean, it really comes down to just like everything else in the facility, keeping stuff clean, right? Having a regimen, including your hands, you know, and I always say, if there is sanitizer next to the kiosk, it’s extremely easy to sanitize one finger after you’re done using the kiosk.

Yeah, I know. Tom Milner from Pristine Screen, his concern with sanitizer or the gel, at least by the kiosk is, if people squirt that stuff on before they use a screen and it hasn’t completely dried out then it’s getting the screen all gooey and everything else and logically, it makes more sense that you don’t sanitize your hands before you use it. You do it after, not both.

Frank: Right. Agreed.

And are you seeing displays coming back in for service that they’ve used god knows what on, and if it’s too caustic and flogged the display or done something else to it?

Frank: Not yet but I do expect to see something. It’s got to happen, right? I mean you talk about thousands of kiosks in the world and somebody’s out there cleaning a screen with something that’s not approved. That’s a given.

As you might imagine, I get a lot of emails from companies saying, “Hey, we’ve got this. Hey, we’ve got that.” And one of the things that’s been coming up lately is this whole idea of contactless using touchless IR or using Voice and I’ve seen the demos and with the touchless IR, I just think unless you’ve got somebody standing right there saying, “No, don’t need to touch it”, people are going to touch it anyways. 

And with Voice, the demos I’ve seen, even the ones that they put up on YouTube and show how you walk through this, the guy says “warranty” three times to make the damn thing work. I just don’t think it’s there yet and I wonder if it’s ever going to be there.

Once this all kind of settles down, do you think it’ll just settle back into good old touch screens that you know pretty reliably work?

Frank: I think it will, yes. But again, you know, we are testing the contactless touchscreens, I’ve got several of them here. We’ve got a few with some of our more trusted partners that are deploying products all the time and they’re trying some tweaks with their software to work with that. And then, you know, the next step is we’re going to go to a couple locations and actually replace hardware with the contactless touchscreen to observe, you know, because, again, you get that real weird effect, where here in the lab, you know, everybody’s like, “Oh, this thing works. It’s great. We love it”, you know, let’s start selling these things. 

And it’s like, no, let’s see what the public does with it, you know, do they realize that that’s what it is? Or do they continue to just touch the screen? And so I’m a big believer in, you know, what the public does with it. I mean, we can say everything we want here in the factory. The reality is, what the public does is what’s going to happen.

Yeah, I’ve had companies come to me with solutions around, “Scan this QR code”, and you can get the controls for the screen on your smartphone and do it right there. And prior to this pandemic, I’ve said well, why would somebody do that? The screen’s right there. Just blink away with your index finger and you’re done. 

Now I can see it, for certain things, in terms of accessing information, you know, like a menu and so on that you can sit down and use, as opposed to getting something that needs to be cleaned or replenished all the time. There’s a lot of it, and, you know, the same thing goes with gesture based technology where there’s such a learning curve. Yes, it’s theoretically safer, but it’s also a giant pain in the ass.

Frank: Yeah, it’s fun. It’s gimmicky. But yeah, getting the public to change their behavior is gonna be really hard. I mean, it ‘s about the path of least resistance, right? So unless it’s easier, it’s not gonna happen.

Yeah, I always say if this isn’t faster, better, easier, why are we even doing it? So with the pandemic, as it bubbled up about three months ago, and it’s still kind of percolating along. What has this meant for your business? Has it caused a slowdown or are you still dealing with orders that were already there?

Frank: No, it definitely caused a slowdown. I mean, we had a pretty significant slow month in April, slowed down quite a bit. I think, you know, everybody experienced the same thing where customers, they didn’t know what was going on. I mean, we’re pretty diversified in the industries that we supply. But when you get, you know, multiple industries that are all taking a hit, you know, we do a lot of theme parks, a lot of movie theaters, a lot of healthcare, retail, you know, and so multiple groups took massive hits

Yeah, a lot of places that aren’t open.

Frank: Yeah. I had several large projects in the works with theme parks that we actually just had to put on hold. I mean, production was midway through and we just stopped, right? Everything got wrapped up and mothballed, and we’re just now waiting until those groups even open back up to even decide what the next step is, you know. If a product was gonna roll out this year, it probably won’t happen realistically until next year.

That presents a challenge. A couple things that I’ve heard for companies is one, this slow down period, because they’re not focused on just getting stuff out the door. It’s allowed them to look at their processes and re-architect some things. They suddenly have the luxury of time and use that to their benefit. And the other thing is companies have pivoted or diversified into products that maybe they weren’t even thinking about before, you know, in some cases, temperature or fever screening kiosks or devices of some kind.

Frank: Right. Yeah, and we’ve done that too. We’re selling a temperature screening product with a group that we’ve worked with for several years. And that’s going really well, we’re selling a lot of that product. But you know, I did look at the time it was funny, the way things work out. Several months prior to the whole pandemic hitting, you know, we were talking about our scheduling system and some of the issues we were having with it. And my VP of Engineering said, you know, well, if you stopped selling products for three months, we can get this figured out. And, you know, we all kind of laughed, and it was like, well, he’s not wrong, right? I mean, if we stopped running 100 miles an hour, and just fixed these things, they would get fixed, but there was no way to possibly do that. And the pandemic kind of handed that to us, right? 

I mean, it put it right in our lap. And so, after all, the panic went away, you know, we sat down and we said, look, you know, this is handing us an opportunity to fix a lot of things. Let’s sit down and map those things out and talk about what they are, and really get on top of them. And the team was able to do that and the nice thing was, with most of the office working from home, it afforded several people to be here in the office, away from each other in their offices working on these processes and we fixed a lot of things. I mean, I was amazed at the way that it allowed us to really focus on those issues.

So you’re better set up now to deal with the ordering and fulfillment process?

Frank: Yeah. We’ve been experiencing growth year over year for several years. And catching your breath in those times is difficult. So this really gave us, I mean, heck, we didn’t even catch our breath, we got out of the pool, ate some lunch and everything. So yeah, it worked.

How much of your business is custom? Do you have standard units that you just sell over and over again, or there’s a lot who come in saying, you know, we need it to be this tall, this wide, this Color, this shape?

Frank: That vacillates back and forth year over year just depending on, you know, like you get a custom project that’s big and drawn out one year and you know, as a contract manufacturer, it’s going to bounce back and forth. 

We do have a whole line of standard products that we sell, which probably, you know, at the end of the day makes up 50% of what we do. And then we do have other products that were custom designed for a customer that we would call like an OEM that we’re constantly manufacturing for so, you know, groups like Clear, for example, we manufacture all their product, so it’s custom and it does account for a portion of our business but it’s repeat. Oce it’s designed to your cookie cutter then you’re just you know stamping that stuff out over and over.

As soon as custom, does it tend to mean that you’re no longer competing with offshore products from China or elsewhere?

Frank: I think one of the advantages that we have that we bring to customers is, you know, communication. You’re here in the States, we’re in the right time zone. They’re able to fly out here, see the factory, go through everything. So taking them through that, that design, engineering and prototyping process, and everything is very interactive, lot of contact. And then when we get into production, and we’re done, and we’re ready to ship, it doesn’t have to go on a boat from China, right? 

So if you were buying tens of thousands of kiosks, and you know, it’s really cookie cutter, China, they’ve got some advantages, right? Lower labor cost and all that stuff where that may make sense, but in certain volumes, you know, we’re delivered and installed by the time some of that stuff is even coming off of a boat, you know, in the port of Long Beach, and then it’s got to get shipped across the United States. So we’re seeing, you know, that that’s always been a strategic advantage for us I think, is just being here makes it a lot easier to deal with.

You’re dealing in this sector, I would imagine the same kind of issues that it may be for the pure commodity side of “I need a 50 inch panel. I don’t care who makes it”.

Frank: For some customers, yeah. Some customers are very price conscious and then other customers, I mean, nobody has unlimited budget but I think it depends on the group and what type of product they want to build. You know, we’ll look at what we did at the Empire State Building with their ticketing kiosks, I mean, those things were over the top, right? I mean, they wanted a number three grade brushed finished stainless steel, we’ve got CNC etching, there’s 55 pound solid brass bars that are mounted to the unit that are CNC machined and hand polished and the units got quartz on them. I mean, they’re just over the top. Because they wanted to match an environment, right?

And so you do have certain brands that really do go all out and they want everything a certain way, you know, and then other groups, they just need a box, right? They need something that they’re going to put in and it’s going to perform a specific function and so there’s a profit and loss scenario there. And we’re working against all of that trying to figure out how you put that puzzle together to where they’re going to get ROI and the timeframe that they’re looking for.

I assume that, also with your standard lines, the stuff that you’re just kind of knocking out week to week that could be customized to some degree anyways with, you know, color, what powder coating you do, and even applying vinyl graphics, that sort of thing? 

Frank: Yep. And then even then with those, you know, being as modular as they are, we even have one step beyond that, where we’re doing what we call modification. So that may be a customer that loves the kiosk, loves everything about it. However, you know, they don’t use an Epson printer, they’re using some other printer. And so we’re modifying the kiosk to hold those components to allow that customer then to just have one type of printer they’re supporting through their network.

I’m curious what’s under the hood? Are you kind of standardized on your own? I don’t know Linux PCs that you use or system on chip, or micro PCs, or that sort of thing, or is it driven by the clients requirements?

Frank: A lot of it is driven by the clients requirements. I mean, we’ve got brands that we like, that we’re aligned with, that we think works really well that may be designed into all of our standard products that we’re offering. But when it comes to custom, I mean, sky’s the limit, right? We’re really sitting down with the customer and understanding what the goals are and what they’re trying to do. 

I mean, you can imagine, right? I’m contacted daily by different hardware vendors, trying to offer us different products. And, you know, we entertain as many calls as we can, right? But there’s just too many of them nowadays. So we’ve got our favorites, and you know, you’re working through, is it Linux? Is it Android? Is it Windows, what version of Windows? You know, what are we dealing with for RAM or Hard Drives? I mean, it gets pretty complex, especially on the custom side, you know. When you are as open and as flexible as we are, it can be problematic at times, you know, so you got to help the customer through that process.

Right. And when it’s mission critical, I assume that you have to be pretty careful about whatever device you’re putting in there. I assume in most cases, it’s going to be like an industrial grade PC.

Frank: Oh, yeah. Especially with outdoor products, right? When we’re doing outdoors, then it’s industrial grade PCs. They’re already designed to run up to, you know, whatever, 120 degrees Fahrenheit, just in case like a cooling system fails or whatever. And so on that level when it comes to outdoor, we’re really going high end. I mean, we don’t really play games with that. There’s just too much liability involved in it, to do something, you know, cut corners, just to save cost. 

So when somebody comes to you and says, “We want to do all these things, but we really like to use this little $180 Android set-top box, you’re kind of going no, that’s not a great idea”?

Frank: Right. Because how do you fix that stuff after the fact, you know? So there’s usually some learning process that we got to go through with the customer to make sure that they get it and they end up doing the right thing. And, ultimately, Olea, we’re not for everyone, you know, and we never claimed to be. So there’s plenty of projects during the year that we simply turn down and walk away from that we don’t believe are a fit for us or the way we do business. And so, you know, can’t win them all. And we know that and so we just suck it up and move on.

Are there technology advances that have bubbled up over the last few years that have made a significant difference in how you do things and what you deliver? I assume 4G, fast carrier reliable wireless coverage is a good thing.

Frank: That’s a good thing. But believe it or not, we don’t deploy a lot of product that has cellular connectivity to it. I mean, most things that are going indoors, you know, there’s some sort of wireless network or they’re hard wired. If it’s outside, even there. typically it’s going to be hard wired. We do cellular, right? Or connected with several different companies. And we do deploy that. I think 5G will open up some more things for us, especially as you start getting into smart cities and some of the other types of projects. But really, we don’t do an awful lot of cellular for one reason or another, I guess, just maybe the types of customers that we tend to win business with.

Right. And touch overlays and the displays themselves, you know, they’re always getting better, but they’re advancing on the same stuff that’s been around for some time.

Frank: Right. But definitely, you know, a lot of more P-Cap nowadays. Very few resistive or surface acoustic wave monitors are going out. So you’re seeing a lot of P-Cap, larger displays. Portrait mounted tends to be really popular. 16×9 format, and there’s very little 4×3 format that’s running through the factory right now. And definitely Android, especially in the QSR Market, it is huge. I’m constantly surprised at the different groups that contact us and say that they’re exploring Android.

And why would that be? I know it’s advanced one hell of a lot over what it used to be and there’s a lot more mobile device management capabilities around it. But why the interest? Is it just getting away from Windows licensing?

Frank: I don’t think it’s just getting away from the Windows license. I think it has to do with groups that are trying to deploy things on mobile, on tablet, on the web, and then on a kiosk and so that multi channel strategy seems to lend itself really well where it’s the same format. The challenges are still there today. 

There’s not a lot of devices that are going to ship with native Android drivers. So for example, some of the more complex groups that want to do Bill Payment, right? And they’re trying to do cash in and cash out and change and all this different stuff. There are devices that work but you know, you don’t have as many options and so it’s a little hard on that bleeding edge.

Right. All right, Frank, thank you so much for taking some time with me that was really interesting and glad to hear things are going well for you guys.

Frank: Thank you. It was a lot of fun. I appreciate it.

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