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Title:
AUTOMATIC COUNTER OF CIGARETTE PACKS FOR RETAIL CIGARETTE MERCHANDISERS
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2020/157701
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
Many retailers require precise quantitative tracking of cigarette-packs stacked on their cigarette-merchandisers for sales analysis, theft control, and real-time inventory updates;however, counting cigarette-packs manually is very laborious and practically impossible to do in real-time. The present invention solves this problem by accessorizing ordinary commercial cigarette-merchandisers with an electro-mechanical system whereby all cigarette-packs (7) loaded on the cigarette-merchandiser are counted in a fully automated manner wherein the numbers of cigarette-packs (7) on the cigarette- merchandiser are instantaneously displayed on a screen (12) or sent wirelessly to another machine. The system architecture includes a processor unit harvesting data from an array of distance sensors (16) which, in conjunction with a plurality of mechanical parts, track the relative positions of the last pack (7) in each pack-column on the merchandiser whereupon the processor converts the data to column-lengths which, by instantaneous cross comparison with pre-programmed tables of standard cigarette-pack thicknesses, is converted to cigarette-pack enumerations.

Inventors:
ELSAMADONI TAMER (EG)
Application Number:
IB2020/050755
Publication Date:
August 06, 2020
Filing Date:
January 30, 2020
Export Citation:
Click for automatic bibliography generation   Help
Assignee:
ELSAMADONI TAMER (EG)
International Classes:
A47F1/12; A24F15/00; G06Q10/08; A47F10/02
Foreign References:
US20110282768A12011-11-17
US20090248198A12009-10-01
US20170202369A12017-07-20
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Claims:
Claims

[Claim 1] 1- A retail cigarette-merchandiser including an array of trays whereof each tray

(3) includes a pusher (5), said cigarette-merchandiser characterized by having a structurally integrated electro-mechanical system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs which are loaded on said retail cigarette-merchandiser, said system consisting essentially of: an array of distance-tracking modules (9) whereof each one (8) is structurally integrated with one of said trays (3), each distance-tracking module (8) comprising an electronic distance sensor (16), a calibrated tracking element serving as an optimized target for said distance sensor (16), an electronic socket connector (21) fixed to the rear end of the tray (3) whereat the electronic output wires of said electronic distance sensor (16) are soldered to the pins of said electronic socket connector (21) whereby said distance-tracking module (8) is readily plugged into the system, and a bracket-shaped mechanical coupler (17) part serving as a structural mating interface between the pusher (5) and said tracking element, said coupler (17) featuring two separate means of attachment whereof one is featured on the front of said coupler (17) whereas the other is featured on the backside thereof, said front means of attachment employed in securing said coupler (17) to the rear side of the pusher (5) whereas said backside means of attachment employed as a mechanical adaptor whereon said tracking element is fixed, thus said tracking element is mechanically mounted onto the pusher (5) indirectly via said mediatory coupler (17); a plurality of ribbon cables (11c) whereof each cable is terminally crimped with a connector-plug of mechanical specification matching the complementary counterpart of said socket connector (21) thereby rendering the signal of each said distance sensor (16) transmissible; and a logic-control unit comprising a microcontroller (10), a digital liquid crystal display unit (12), a wireless communication device such as a Wi-Fi (14) transceiver, and a sensor-bus (11) whereby said microcontroller (10) receives incoming distance reading signals from said distance sensors (16) as transmitted through said ribbon cables (11c), said microcontroller particularly programmed to have memory-stored numerical lookup tables of commercial cigarette-pack thicknesses where said lookup tables are used algorithmically to map and convert said distance readings to quantized cigarette-pack enumerations whereupon the latter result is cast into a digital format compatible with display over said liquid crystal display unit (12) or transmission to an external machine via said wireless Wi-Fi (14) ) transceiver.

[Claim 2] 2- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as set forth in claim 1, wherein:

said distance sensor is specified as a Time-of-Flight Infrared distance sensor (16a) attached to the back end of the tray (3) by means of a fixture (28) whereby the axis of the emission-cone of said Infrared distance sensor (16a) retains an orthogonal orientation to the flat planar surface of the pusher (5); and said calibrated tracking element is implemented by means of a flat, rectangular, infrared reflector screen (18) of minimum dimensional width and height exceeding, respectively, the width and height of the pusher (5J, said infrared reflector screen (18) being fixed to the rear side of said coupler (17) whereat said infrared reflector screen (18) maintains an orthogonal orientation with respect to the axis of the emission-cone of said Infrared distance sensor (16a).

[Claim 3] 3- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as set forth in claim 1, wherein:

said distance sensor is specified as a linear, evenly-spaced array of hall-effect magnetic sensors (16b) fixed longitudinally on the tray (3) bed by means of a thin-profile flexible printed circuit (20) whereby the electronic configuration of said array of hall-effect magnetic sensors (16b) is functionally arranged as a linear sequence of electronic switches; and said calibrated tracking element is implemented by means of a magnet (22) securely held on said coupler (17) by means of an intermediate L-shaped adjustable extension (17b) whereby the height of suspension of said magnet (22) over said array of hall-effect magnetic sensors (16b) is adjusted.

[Claim 4] 4- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as set forth in claim 1, wherein:

said distance sensor is specified as a low-profile slide potentiometer (16c) fixed longitudinally on the tray (3) bed wherein the slide race of the knob (23) of said potentiometer (16c) is aligned with the longitudinal axis of the tray; and said calibrated tracking element is implemented by means of a hook-shaped extension (17c) of said coupler (17) whereby said knob (23) of said slide potentiometer (16c) is mechanically coupled to the pusher (5) such that said knob (23) follows the linear translations of the pusher (5) along the tray (3) in tight trailing proximity.

[Claim 5] 5- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as set forth in claim 1, wherein:

said distance sensor is specified as a pressure-sensitive membrane

potentiometer (16d); and

said calibrated tracking element is implemented by means of a rubber wheel (24) which rolls over said membrane-potentiometer (16d) while preserving constant pressure at the point of contact thereon as the pusher (5) translates along the tray (3), said rubber wheel (24) being held in said functional position by means of an adjustable, L-shaped, sheet-spring support extension (17d) fixed to the rear side of said coupler (17).

[Claim 6] 6- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as outlined in claim 1, wherein: said distance sensor and said calibrated tracking element are fused into one singular functional member specified as a rotary encoder (16e) fixed to the lower rear part of said coupler (17) by means of an adjustable extension (17e) whereby said rotary encoder (16e) is supported in a rigid functional orientation wherein the rotary knob (25) thereof is aligned so as to roll without slippage over a flat surface (4) on the tray (3) while the pusher (5) translates thereon.

[Claim 7] 7- A retail cigarette-merchandiser featuring an integrated system for automatic counting of cigarette-packs as set forth in claim 2, wherein:

said retail cigarette-merchandiser comprises a plurality of vertical separator plates (2) whereof each one is situated between every adjacent pair of trays (3) wherein said separating plates (2) are characterized (2a) by having an extended height and length whereby complete mutual isolation of the emission-cones of neighboring distance sensors is achieved, said separating plates (2a) featuring a minimum height surpassing the top level of said infrared reflector screen (18) and a minimum length reaching the back end of the trays (3) whereat the distance sensors (16a) are situated, thereby sequestrating the emission cones and the detection fields of each adjacent pair of Infrared distance sensors (16a) to eliminate overlapping and cross-talk.

Description:
Title of Invention : AUTOMATIC COUNTER OF CIGARETTE PACKS FOR RETAIL CIGARETTE MERCHANDISERS

TECHNICAL FIELD

Technical Field

[1] The present invention pertains to retail cigarette-merchandisers. More particularly, the invention pertains to a retail cigarette-merchandiser furnished with adjunct elements as to render the merchandiser capable of performing automatic real-time counting of all cigarette-packs loaded therein at any given time. Further still, the invention pertains to retail cigarette-merchandisers featuring the aforementioned functionality of automatic cigarette-pack counting wherein the numerical results thereof may be displayed on an electronic display screen, saved in electronic memory, or transmitted via wireless communication to another machine.

Background Art

[2] Retail cigarette-merchandisers are of the most commonly used store-appliances in the retail business. Cigarette-packs are shelved on a retail cigarette-merchandiser in an arrangement of parallel stacked columns whereof each column occupies a tray and all the packs in a tray belong to a singular brand. The trays are arranged side by side in drawers, and one cigarette-merchandisers may comprise tens of drawers.

To prevent theft and illegal underage sales, cigarette-merchandisers are always kept behind the store counter whereat access is restricted to the sales attendant. It is often the case that cigarette-merchandisers, especially big ones, are used as an intermediate storage buffer wherein a significant portion of the store's total cigarette-product inventory, at any point in time, is loaded onto the cigarette-merchandiser whilst the rest of the inventory, the bulk inventory, is mainly stacked in storage as cigarette cartons. The latter use of cigarette-merchandisers as high capacity storage-buffers makes the task of tracking the store's stock of cigarette-products particularly difficult because contemporary standard cigarette-merchandisers are passive shelving appliances which have to be loaded, organized, and tracked manually; said difficulty in inventory-tracking is amplified proportionately with the size of the merchandiser and the extent of variety of brands being sold at the store; said difficulty is further complicated by the relatively fast rate of sales and dynamical turnover commonly associated with cigarette-products. Presently available commercial cigarette-merchandisers are not particularly optimized to achieve maximal convenience in terms of store-management and sales-attendants for the peculiar combination of reasons set forth above. Tracking the store's total stock of cigarette-products consumes considerable time and attention to an extent that leaves many store-managers unable to track down in-house theft or misallocation of cigarette- merchandise to any practical degree of accuracy. In addition, sales-attendants cannot replenish the merchandiser from storage in an orderly fashion unless they constantly inspect the trays of the merchandiser in a recurrent fashion while keeping a mental map of what brands are availably stocked in storage.

Summary of Invention

Technical Problem

[3] Keeping a precise record of the number of cigarette-packs on a cigarette-merchandiser is essential for keeping track of the store's total inventory but, due to the highly dynamical sales-turnover associated with cigarette-products and the massive variety of brands, it becomes very difficult for a store-managers to quantify in-store tobacco- product stock that is loaded on the merchandiser. Accordingly, many store-managers find it practically impossible to track down misallocation or theft in the tobacco department; the impracticality stems from the fact that counting cigarette-packs on a cigarette-merchandiser can only be done manually by recurrent, careful visual inspection; and regardless of the meticulousness whereby the counting procedure is executed, human error always overrides any feasible practicality therein. Furthermore, the routine task of replenishing the merchandiser from bulk storage requires attention and non trivial labor from the side of the sale's attendant such that the task,

accumulatively, compiles to a significant portion of the attendant's labor during shift hours. Prevention of depletion of cigarette-packs in the merchandiser during busy sales hours requires constant awareness from the side of the sales attendant, else preemptive replenishment of the merchandiser before it goes empty becomes impossible.

Solution to Problem

[4] For cigarette-packs mounted on a cigarette-merchandiser, the objective of the present invention is to make the counting process thereof an accurate, fast , cyclic routine at machine-level precision and speed. The present invention consists in full automation of the aforementioned counting process by means of an electro-mechanical system that is structurally integrated within the cigarette-merchandiser.

The system constituting the present invention, in all generality, consists of several electronic devices, a plurality of sensors, and a plurality of mechanical parts which form a basis for adaptive integrability between all of the aforementioned elements. More specifically the invention involves fitting the merchandiser with an array of position- sensors whereof each sensor is assigned to one tray wherein the sensor detects, indirectly, the position of the last cigarette-pack therein. The sensor output is then cast into a digital electronic data format which, in turn, is converted from a position- measurement to a pack-count enumeration which is readily admissible for digital display, storage, and transmission; where the latter operation is achieved through interfacing the sensor array with a microcontroller unit of compatible electronic mode of operation. The conversion of a position-measurement to a pack-count is accurately reproducible by exploiting the fact that the dimensions of commercial cigarette-pack show very little standard deviation from industrial optimal norms. The variance in thickness of common commercial cigarette-packs (which range from 22.2mm to 23mm by standard

specification) is practically insignificant in terms of the application of the present invention, and thus a tight mapping between pack-positions & pack-enumeration is a reliably achievable with high accuracy, provided the packs are well compact in a gapless column in each tray.

Advantageous Effects of Invention

[5] Full automation the aforementioned counting process eliminates all human labor

pertaining to quantitative tracking of cigarette-packs on a retail cigarette-merchandisers. Once the process is handled by a machine, neither human attention nor labor need be spent on said process, thus eliminating human error and rendering the process a reliable constituent in the tool-set of store-management. An additional objective of the present invention is to allow a store-manager to set an electronic map for designating brands to individual trays on the merchandiser so as to have a holistic overview of the store's full inventory of cigarette-products. Yet another objective of the present invention is to eliminate any ambiguity or time-consumption in tracking theft or misallocation of tobacco merchandise during shift hours, as any occurrence of the latter two incidents can be resolved instantaneously at the end of each shift by crosschecking the numbers from the system's log with the sales report issued by the Point of Sale (POS) of the store; if the cigarette-pack turnover on the merchandiser, as indicated by the system's history log, and the sales report of the store have any comparative discrepancies then the attending clerk must have made a mistake, regardless of being an honest mistake or the alternate. Furthermore, by merit of full automation of cigarette-pack counting, the present invention aims to furnish store-management with better detailed real-time inventory reports such as to permit the formulation of timely order-lists that better suit the store's sales profile whereby average stock redundancies are eliminated. Yet another object of the present invention is to exploit the system's electronic processing capability in organizing the routines of merchandiser replenishment from bulk storage during working hours; where the system, through a combination of displayed messages and audible sounds, alerts the clerk to refill the trays which are running low on cigarette- packs.

Brief Description of Drawings

[6] For clarity of illustration, some screws are omitted from depiction in the following

drawings wherein it is to be understood that any screw-hole is the locus of insertion of a screw and nut in accordance with the fixture modes indicated in the forthcoming disclosure of the present document.

Fig.l

[7] [Fig.l] is a front perspective view illustrating the predominant design features of a

regular drawer of a standard retail cigarette-merchandiser wherein multiple trays are lined up in a parallel arrangement whereon several cigarette-packs are stacked. Fig.2

[8] [Fig.2] is a rear perspective view illustrating the same predominant design features of a standard retail cigarette-merchandiser as in (Fig.l).

Fig.3

[9] [Fig.3] is a generalized schematic depiction of the system constituting the present

invention wherein the generalized circuit diagram and the connections thereof to peripheral electro-mechanical modular blocks and electronic devices are illustrated.

Fig.4

[10] [Fig.4] is an exploded view of featuring five parts whereof the lower three are the main constituents of a standard tray of a standard retail cigarette-merchandiser and the remaining two parts on the top collectively constitute an element of key functional importance in the present invention, denoted as the "coupler" in the forthcoming disclosure the present document; the dashed lines outline the relative mating relations in assembly.

Fig.5

[11] [Fig.5] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein an

embodiment of the invention is instantiated by implementation of a Time-of-flight infrared sensor and an infrared-reflecting screen.

Fig.6

[12] [Fig.6] is a perspective view of the same tray as in (Fig.5), wherein a column of

cigarette-packs is stacked thereupon; and wherein the dashed arrow indicates the linear motion of the pusher concomitantly with the elements fixed thereupon, as cigarette- packs are added or withdrawn from the column.

Fig.7

[13] [Fig.7] is a front close-up partial view of the rear end of the same tray as in (Figs.5 and 6), illustrating the Time-of-flight infrared sensor implemented in this embodiment of the invention. Fig.8

[14] [Fig.8] is a front perspective view of a fully assembled unit of the embodiment

previously depicted in (Figs.5 to 7), illustrating a full multi-tray drawer of a retail cigarette-merchandiser furnished with the system constituting the present invention wherein the foremost illustrated component is a ribbon cable extending from the back to the front to meet a user-interface featuring a plurality of input buttons and a liquid crystal screen displaying the number of loaded cigarette-packs; where the latter cable and user-interface are embodiment-independent invariants throughout all

embodiments of the present invention.

Fig.9

[15] [Fig.9] is another perspective view of the same fully assembled unit of (Fig.8).

Fig.10

[16] [Fig.10] is a rear perspective of the same fully assembled unit of (Figs.8 and 9).

Fig.11

[17] [Fig.11] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein the same embodiment as that of (Fig.5) features a swivel whereby the infrared-reflecting screen is rendered a rotational degree of freedom.

Fig.12

[18] [Fig.12] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein an

embodiment of the invention is instantiated by implementation of a column array of hall-effect sensors fixed to the tray-bed in association with a pusher-mounted magnet.

Fig.13

[19] [Fig.13] is a perspective close-up rear view of the same tray as in (Fig.12) illustrating the magnet and the mount structure thereof.

Fig.14

[20] [Fig.14] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein an

embodiment of the invention is instantiated by implementation of a linear slide- potentiometer secured to the tray-bed; where the knob of the slide-potentiometer is mechanically coupled to the pusher such as to chain the linear translation of both elements.

Fig.15

[21] [Fig.15] is a perspective partial view of the same tray as in (Fig.14) wherein a number of cigarette-packs are loaded thereupon.

Fig.16

[22] [Fig.16] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein an

embodiment of the invention is instantiated by implementation of a membrane- potentiometer (or "SoftPot") which is secured to the tray-bed whereon a pusher- mounted wheel rolls.

Fig.17

[23] [Fig.17] is a rear perspective partial view of the same tray as in (Fig.16) wherein a number of cigarette-packs are loaded thereupon.

Fig.18

[24] [Fig.18] is a perspective view of a tray of a cigarette-merchandiser wherein an

embodiment of the invention is instantiated by implementation of a pusher-mounted rotary encoder whose knob is circumferentially fitted with a rubber wheel which rolls without slipping on a flat surface of the tray whereon a rear-end electronic connector is fixed whereto the rotary encoder is electrically plugged by means of a retractable flat ribbon cable.

Fig.19

[25] [Fig.19] is a perspective partial view of the same tray as in (Fig.18) wherein a number of cigarette-packs are loaded thereupon.

Fig.20

[26] [Fig.20] is a front perspective view of a drawer in a retail cigarette-merchandiser wherein the embodiment of (Figs.5 to 11) is modified by means of extended inter-tray plate separators whereof the height is maximized as to mutually isolate adjacent trays to sequester the signal of each sensor from the neighboring sensors.

Fig.21

[27] [Fig.21] a rear perspective view of the drawer depicted in (Fig.20).

Description of Embodiments

[28] The standard design of a commercial retail cigarette-merchandiser follows the

prevalent design architecture which, as depicted in Figs.l and 2, features of a plurality of drawers (or racks) wherein each drawer 1 is partitioned by means of flat vertical plastic sheets, denoted as separators 2, into parallel trays whereof each tray 3 features a rail element 4 whereon a spring-loaded pusher 5 is set; said spring is usually a spiral constant-force-spring 6. The pusher 5 is mated with the rails 4 such as to have one degree of freedom whereby it translates linearly along the tray 3 whilst maintaining a normal orientation; Fig.4 illustrates the tray 3, wherein the pusher 5 and spring 6 are unassembled. As indicated in Figs.l and 2, the pusher 5 translates one discrete increment of length along the tray 3 upon insertion of a cigarette-pack 7 therein or withdrawal therefrom. The functional purpose of the spring-loaded pusher 5 in the tray 3 is to press upon the cigarette-pack 7 column loaded thereupon as to compact said column into a gapless single-file formation.

[29] In accordance with the previously described construct, a detailed disclosure of the preferred embodiments of the invention shall be presented in a manner which ought to be unambiguously clear for those versed in the art of Mechatronics.

The system constituting the invention is functionally composed of two modular classes, diagrammed in Fig.3 and defined as follows: The first class, hereby denoted as the distance-tracking module 8, detects the position of the pusher 5 along the tray 3 and outputs the results as an electronic signal. The second class, hereby denoted as the logic-control module, includes all the remaining electronic components of the system. The system comprises an array 9 of identical distance-tracking modules 8 which are distributed evenly over the trays 3 such that each tray 3 is furnished with one distance- tracking module 8; and each distance-tracking module 8 includes a sensor 16, thereby a sensor-array 9s is comprised.

[30] As schematically illustrated in Fig.3, the logic-control module comprises a

microcontroller 10, a sensor-bus 11 for communication with the sensor-array 9s, a liquid crystal display unit 12, a keypad 13, and wireless transmission interfaces such as Wi-Fi 14 or Bluetooth 15 transceivers. The logic-control module handles calculations, storage, display, transmission, and interpretation of incoming signals from the sensor-array 9s.

Also illustrated in Fig.3 the distance-tracking module 8, in all generality, consists of three components: a sensor 16, a tray-3-mounted calibrated tracking target, and a coupler 17 (Figs.4-19) which functions as a mechanical adaptor whereby the calibrated tracking target may be attached to the pusher 5 without affecting the freedom of motion thereof. Classical pusher 5 designs of standard cigarette-merchandisers cannot be utilized directly as calibrated precision-targets for commonly available distance ranging sensors; standard pusher 5 design must be somewhat modified to insure that the accuracy required in the application of the present invention is met; this design adaptation is brought about by the coupler 17 which, in most embodiments of the invention, serves as a target holder for the sensor and, in other embodiments, the coupler 17 serves as a holder for the sensor itself. The coupler 17 is secured to the back surface of the pusher 5 by means of, but not limited to, adhesive strips, clips, or clamps.

[31] One possible embodiment of the invention is that depicted in Figs.5 to 10 wherein the implemented sensor is a "time-of-flight" infrared distance sensor 16a which is fixed securely at the back edge of the tray 3 by means of a "tombstone" bracket 28 such that the axis of the emission-cone of the sensor is perpendicular to the plane of the pusher 5; the coupler 17 being fixed to the back side of the pusher 5 whereat, in turn, the coupler 17 holds a flat rectangular infrared-reflector screen 18 in a perpendicular orientation to the sensor's 16a axis. The infrared-reflector 18 is fixed on the coupler 17 such as to function as a calibrated tracking target, and block the constant-force spring 6 as well as all non-planar geometric feature on the back of the pusher 5 from the field-of-view (FOV) of the sensor 16a so as not to compromise the sensor's 16a accuracy and repeatability. The infrared-reflector 18 surface is oriented as to maintain

perpendicularity with respect to the axis of the emission-cone of the sensor while having enough surface area to span the projection of the emission-cone of the sensor 16a throughout the full span of travel of the pusher 5 on the tray 3. The property of infrared reflection is attainable by making the infrared-reflector screen 18 from smooth ABS plastic or by means of a surface layer of highly polished aluminum foil.

In another sub-variant of the previous embodiment where the pusher 5 is prone to some tilting during translation on the tray 3 because of loose alignment tolerances between the pusher 5 and the rails 4, the flat infrared-reflector screen 18, as depicted in Fig.ll, is mated indirectly to the coupler via an intermediary extension 17a which features a swivel 19 whose axis is horizontally oriented such as to allow the infrared-reflector 18 to passively self-rectify the orientation thereof.

[32] Another embodiment of the present invention is depicted in Figs.12 and 13 wherein a stepwise linear array of magnetic-sensing hall-effect sensors 16b (or reed switches) are used to spatially map the positions of the pusher 5; the hall-effect sensors 16b being placed underneath the pusher 5 on the tray-bed in an equally spaced linear distribution such that the intermediate distance between any two consecutive sensors must be a fraction of the average thickness of a standard cigarette-pack 7 as set by the norms of the industry (typically 22.2mm - 23mm); the hall-effect sensors are soldered to a thin- profile flexible printed circuit (FPC) 20 strip with an adhesive undersurface such as to be applied and fixed easily to the tray-bed where the back-end of the flexible printed circuit is connected to the main sensor-bus 11 (Fig.3) by means of a connector 21 that is fixed at the back-end of the tray 3 wherein the connector 21 is, in turn, plugged into the ribbon cable 11c (Figs.8 to 10) which, in turn, is the wired continuation of the sensor-bus 11 (Fig.3) of the logic-control unit. In this embodiment the coupler 17 features an extension 17b whereby a small magnet 22 is securely held such as to remain suspended over the hall-effect sensors 16b at a constant specific height while the pusher 5 travels along the tray 3.

[33] Yet an alternative embodiment of the present invention as per Figs.14 and 15 is instantiated by implementing a low-profile slide potentiometer 16c which is secured on the tray-bed 3. In this embodiment, the coupler 17 features an extension 17c whereby it mechanically engages the knob 23 of the potentiometer 16c such as to chain the knob 23 mechanically to the motion of the pusher 5 as to follow all linear translations thereof along the tray 3. The analog signal from the potentiometer 16c is converted to a digital signal by means of an analog-to-digital converter (ADC).

A sub-variant of the previous embodiment is depicted in Figs.16 and 17 where the implemented slide-potentiometer is of a special type called a "SoftPot" or a membrane- potentiometer 16d which is a variable resistor in the form of a flat linear flexible strip that is pressure-sensitive such that the resistance thereof varies according to the location of the point whereon pressure is applied; in this particular embodiment, the membrane-potentiometer 16d is fixed to the tray-bed 3 by means of adhesive;

collaterally, the coupler 17, through an extension 17d thereof, supports a sliding pressure element such as a spring loaded ball or a rubber wheel 24 which rolls over the membrane-potentiometer 16d while maintaining pressure thereon.

[34] In a dual architectural counterpart to all previous embodiments, instead of fixing the sensor as a stationary elements in the frame of reference of the tray 3 as in all previous embodiments hereinabove, the sensor itself is mounted upon the pusher 5 by means of the coupler which thence functions as a sensor-mount such as to convert the pusher 5 into a "carriage" with an onboard sensor wherein the sensor detects stationary markers on the tray-5-bed as the pusher 5 slides thereabout. This pusher-mounted sensor configuration is depicted in Figs.18 and 19 where the coupler 17 and the embodiment- specific accessory 17e thereof are shown; the sensor, in this configuration, maintains connectivity with the sensor-bus 11 by means of a trailing ribbon cable 26 which is connected at one end to the mobile sensor and, at the other end, to a connector 21 which is secured at the back-end of the tray 3 to interface the sensor-bus 11 (Fig.3) via a branching ribbon cable 11c (Figs.8 to 10). The sensors that qualify as viable alternatives in this pusher-mounted sensor configuration include, but not limited to, optical scanners and rotary encoder devices 16e as depicted in Figs.18 and 19 where the rotary encoder 16e is mounted on the coupler 17 indirectly via an extension bracket part 17e; where the rotary-knob of the rotary encoder 16e is fitted circumferentially with a rubber wheel 25 such as to roll without slipping on the top surface of the rail 4 as the pusher 5 slides thereabout. The microcontroller 10 (Fig.3) keeps track of linear translation of the pusher 5 by tracking the stream of pulses transmitted by the rotary encoder 16e. [35] Now, that several preferred embodiments of the distance-tracking module 8 (Fig.3) have been addressed, attention may be diverted to disclosure of the logic-control module wherein the microcontroller 10 receives the signals from the distance-tracking module array 9 and converts the position readings to enumerated pack-counts according to a pre-stored table of standard commercial cigarette-pack thicknesses in the firmware. The cigarette-pack thickness table may also be input into the microcontroller 10 during runtime wherein the zero-position of the pushers 5 of all trays is also registered in the system as the reference point of distance measurement for every pusher 5 in its respective tray. The microcontroller 10 is connected to the sensor array 9s via a parallel

11 or serial 11s bus whose continuation beyond the printed-circuit-board (PCB) is comprised of a plurality of flat ribbon cables 11c with associated connectors 21 (Figs.5 to

12 and 14 to 19) wherein sensors of serial communication capability (such as "I2C" 11s or "SPI") are to be connected according to the specific technical requirements of the respective serial-communication protocol thereof. Alternatively, sensors which are not enabled in serial communication are to be connected to a parallel bus 11 whereby the microcontroller 10 organizes a fast cyclic readout routine of the sensor array 9s in real time. As for analog sensors which are implementable in the present invention, namely potentiometers (16c and 16d , Figs.14 to 17), the microcontroller 10 can transform the analog potential readings from the analog-bus to numerical digital readouts either directly, through an on-chip analog-to-digital converters or, indirectly, through intermediate standalone (ADC) devices. The microcontroller 10 is also connected to a plurality of push-buttons 13 (Figs.3, 8, and 9) and a liquid crystal display screen 12 (Figs.3, 8, and 9) wherein the latter two elements constitute the user-interface such that the gathered numerical pack-counts at any given time may be accessed by button- controlled functionality and displayed on the liquid crystal display. Depending on user- preferences, the system may be specifically programmed to enable the user to view real time count of cigarette-packs 7 of a particular tray 3 or view the memory log at a particular previous time. The system may also be programmed to perform any combination of arithmetic or statistical routines. The system is also programmable such as to generate visual & audible alerts, respectively by means of the liquid crystal display 12 and a buzzer 27, for any trays running low on cigarette-packs 7. Further still, certain cigarette-brand designations may be assigned to particular trays by user-input into system-memory as part of the optional settings of the system, a functionality that renders the system of the present invention integrable into extraneous inventory tracking frameworks. In pertinence to aforementioned functionalities, the

microcontroller is also connected to a wireless transceiver module such as a Wi-fi 14 or Bluetooth 15 transceiver device whereby any numerical results, namely cigarette-pack 7 counts, may be transmitted to another machine such as a network-connected computer wherein the numerical data may be registered for archiving or further statistical processing.

[36] A final point regarding certain Time-of-f light sensors such as ultrasonic proximity sensors: the detection field thereof may span a conical detection field of a radial cross- sectional angle that exceeds 15 degrees, this may cause interference between neighboring sensors 16a (Figs.5 to 11) of adjacent trays 3, this will cause tracking conflicts and the system will lose accuracy; if such sensors are implemented in the present invention it is indicated to replace the inter-tray 3 separators 2 of the aforementioned cigarette-merchandiser depicted in Figs.l and 2, with higher separators 2a, as depicted in Figs.20 and 21 , to sequester the detection fields of adjacent sensors as to eliminate "cross-talk".