Locksmiths Replaced by Vending Machines?

By Brian Rhodes, Published on Nov 05, 2012

Is the venerable locksmith on the way out? First, big box retailers set up their own departments to duplicate keys. Now a vending machine does it all automatically without any human intervention. Is the concept poised to succeed? How does it impact your security? In this note, we examine MinuteKEY's offering including its strengths and weaknesses.

MinuteKEY Machine

Taking the concept of key duplication to the next level, MinuteKEY offers fully automated and self-contained key cutting machine. The machine reduces the process to three steps: insertion of key to copy, selection of key blank, and credit card payment. No additional skills are required. Watch a customer submitted video overview of the process:

Kiosk Attributes

Unlike traditional manned key duplication machines, that require a human operator to make key copies, the MinuteKEY is different in several ways:

  • Cut to Fit: Unlike key duplicators that use mechanical patterns to reproduce keys, MinuteKEY uses an optical comparator to cut copies. Unlike some machines that cut to preset depths on keys, the MinuteKEY is able to cut based on exact measurements.
  • Quick: Making a copy takes less than 60 seconds. While this is not a significant improvement over the time required to manually duplicate keys, MinuteKEY markets this point heavily, emphasizing that MinuteKEY eliminates waiting for trained staff.
  • Inexpensive: Most key copies cost less than $3.00. This cost is inline with common pricing for duplication at hardware stores and home improvement retailers.
  • Card Only: Payment options are limited to using credit or debit cards. The kiosk features no provision to accept cash, make change, or print receipts.
  • Common Keyblanks Available: The MinuteKEY accommodates the most common keyblanks used in residential and commercial locksets. Standard blank mixes vary on geography, but machines include common blanks like Kwickset's KW1, Schlage's SC1 and SC4, Yale's Y11, and Masterlock's M1 profiles. The blanks sold through MinuteKEY typically fit door lockset and padlocks, but do not fit automobile, cabinet, or high-security lock profiles.
  • 24/7 Availability: Because the self-service machine is automated and requires no human operator, it can be used anytime. This simplifies staffing arraignments for vendors, who no longer need to schedule trained operators to work at specific times.
  • "Guaranteed to Work" claim: If kiosk cut keys do not work, the company will refund the purchase [link no longer available] back to the credit card used to purchase keys.

Advantages

The kiosk features several advantages of traditional manned key duplication stations:

  • No skills are needed to duplicate a key. Unlike other duplication methods that require the user to know which key profile to buy or what brand of locks is used, MinuteKEY automates the process and the user does nothing more than insert a key. The user interface is designed to cut keys in three steps, and is intuitive enough that no special training is required for operation.
  • MinuteKEY allows retailers to offer key duplication services in a self-contained machine. Unlike traditional key cutting counters that require trained staff, key blank inventory, and cutting machinery that requires calibration, the overhead costs of leasing a MinuteKEY machine are minimized. In addition to lower operational cost, the availability and uptime of the 'key counter' is increased with the kiosk compared to manned operations. While the expectation of having keys cut during late-night hours is not one most vendors are pressured to meet, there is a potential to sell more cut keys impulsively with an automated kiosk.
  • Convienience is big. MinuteKEY has partnered with national US retailers Lowes and Walmart (including many 24 hour locations) to host machines. The company claims several thousand kiosk locations nationally, and provides a 'Key Locator' map of locations.

Disadvantages

Fundamentally, the kiosk has some weaknesses compared to manned key duplication.

  • Worn copies: The strongest weakness is that since key copies are made from key copies, there is a significantly greater chance of cutting error. Unlike a locksmith or trained key duplicator who can read a key's bitcode based preset depth and correct potential problems, the machine simply copies what it sees. Because worn keys make bad copies, even the smallest amount of variation can result in cutting a key that does not work properly.
  • Security Risks: While commonly discredited as ineffective regardless, keys stamped with "Do Not Duplicate" statements are worthless. A human operator may refuse to duplicate a key with such a statement, but a kiosk can be used unchecked. As long as a valid key is being copied, there is no practical protection against making unauthorized copies, which can seriously undermine key control programs and represents tangible risks to physical security.

Impact on Locksmiths?

Traditionally, cutting keys has been a valued revenue source for locksmiths. While key duplication is not the most challenging nor highest skilled work a locksmith typically performs, it is a core revenue stream. In recent years with the advent of cheap duplication machines, the task of duplicating keys has migrated away from being locksmith-only work, and become commonly available at hardware stores, big-box retailers, and home improvement centers.

The MinuteKEY kiosk further commoditizes the product by eliminating the need for human labor altogether. The automated kiosk concept has proven viable for the video rental market (see: Redbox or Blockbuster Express), and while duplicating keys has sporadic demand compared to DVD rentals, the concept could prove to be more efficient with a lower cost of service than manned operations.

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