January 28, 2006



Posted: 04.01.05

The Softer Side of Rugged

Traditionally employed for their rough- and-tumble exteriors, rugged laptops are beginning to show a more
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By Teresa von Fuchs

When shopping for computers for his EMS crew, Don Lundy, director of Charleston County EMS, had a simple test in mind: “I ask the sales guy, ‘Mind if I drop this?’” If the answer is yes, Lundy says his goodbyes. “Because I know that a laptop gets dropped out [in the field] at least once a day,” he explains. But Lundy doesn’t worry about it, because he went with rugged tablets, “and I have yet to hear someone say, ‘I dropped it and it stopped working.’”

In fact, Lundy’s fleet of Panasonic CF-18 Tough-
books have suffered much worse than just a few drops: One actually flew off the bumper of an ambulance and was run over—twice—before the crew recovered it. “My heart went into my throat,” Lundy remembers of when he got the call. “I wondered how many patients were lost on the hard drive. At $400 a patient, if there are 10 patients, that’s $4,000 of info I’m never gonna get back.” But the crew quickly explained that the tablet wasn’t dead. They turned it back on and finished their patient write-ups. Lundy couldn’t believe it, but when he got to the office, there it was, up and working. “It just had a couple screws that needed repair.”

This kind of story about the cost-effectiveness of rugged devices has been told many times; rugged handhelds have been in field service longer than many of us have had mobile phones. But as Lundy is quick to explain, there are still a lot of industries mired in the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way line of thinking that still need to understand which devices fit their particular needs. So, along with a peek at the coolest and latest rugged devices, let’s hear from the I-backed-over-it-with-my-truck, used-it-in-the-deep-freeze, can’t-believe-it-still-works kind of experts.

Know What You Need

With rugged devices now ranging from you-can-shoot-at-it to merely “durable,” how do you determine which devices meet your requirements? First, consider where it will be used (indoors or outdoors, mounted in the vehicle, attached to a field tech’s belt) and what will it be exposed to (vibration, water, humidity, sand, altitude, temperature extremes, drops to concrete or mud). It’s important to have a clear idea of how and where the devices will be used.

“When you’re looking at 18-wheelers, you’re looking at five feet between where the driver gets out of the cab and where his feet hit the ground. Whatever we went with had to withstand falling out of the cab of a truck and dropping onto concrete,” explains Barry Craver, Old Dominion Freight Line’s senior application development manager. “Also, we operate in 40 states, and in some places there are pretty extreme temperatures, so these devices need to be able to function in all those environments, as well as around diesel [fumes], dust, rain and what have you.”

Once you know what your devices will be up against, begin looking at manufacturers that specialize in rugged equipment—most provide detailed data on exactly what kinds of punishment their devices can handle. Craver went with Symbol PDT 7530 handhelds with WWAN capability and has had 2,500 of them up and running for over three years.

Meeting Specs

There are three main ratings used to describe a device’s ruggedness: Mil Spec, short for Military Specification; a rating by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC); and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) ratings. “The specs set the basic guidelines in terms of drop height, heat, water resistance, dust exposure, etc. However, they are open to a lot of interpretation,” says David Krebs, mobile and wireless practice director at Venture Data Corp. (VDC). “While independent testing houses exist, most organizations do their own testing. The problem is there is no uniform approach to testing, resulting in a large variance in product performance around specs,” continues Krebs. How to decode the ratings is not always clear. Here’s a basic rundown:

Things rated Mil Spec involve two sets of numbers; the first is which test was administered (i.e., 503 is temperature shock, 519 is gunfire vibration) and the second is how the device performed.

The IEC rates how well a device’s enclosure protects it from solid objects or liquids. The results are listed as IP (ingress protection) and then two numerals; the first digit refers to protection from solid objects (such as dust) on a scale of 0 to 6, and the second relates to protection from liquids on a scale of 0 to 8. The higher the number, the greater the protection. So a device with an IP-68 rating would be virtually impregnable to foreign materials.

NEMA ratings also test enclosures, with numbers ranging from 1 to 13. Most rugged products rate a NEMA 4, 4X and 12. For an easy reference to what NEMA numbers represent, check out its Web site.

For some industries there are concerns even more pertinent than ratings for tolerance to vibration. HydroChem, an industrial cleaning service, needs its devices to be more than just rugged. Many of its customers—paper mills, chemical plants and refineries—are not only rough places for mobile devices but have special requirements. “When we drive through the gate, it is required that we have Intrinsically Safe certification on all our hardware,” says Michael Flaherty, MIS director at HydroChem. “The last thing you want to do is go into a plant and produce static that could cause an explosion.”

When Flaherty began looking at devices, there were a lot that met his team’s work requirements but only a few that were also certified Intrinsically Safe (IS). So while Flaherty appreciates the Xplore iX104 tablet PC’s vacuum-sealed casing (in two years, he hasn’t had to replace one) he can also trust that his equipment meets his customers’ IS standards.

Talk about TCO

However familiar the ROI model for rugged, VDC’s Krebs understands how some new adopters are still cautious around price tags. “When IT spending is very closely evaluated, the issue of [initial outlay] will always be a big one. Anyway people can decrease upfront investment they’ll probably do it, but that doesn’t always make sense.”

When Lundy first started looking into rugged tablets, he had six criteria: “It had to be easy to use, it had to be durable, durable, durable, durable and it had to have some sort of service that was more than a P.O. Box and some voicemail somewhere.” He began looking by seeing what kind of computers other agencies were using. But price was not an issue for him. “How much something costs is never a big deal for me. What’s a big deal is how much I have to spend afterward servicing it,” says Lundy. He asked users how many times the computers had broken down, about services issues and specifics such as, “Was it a tiny little screw, or did the hard drive blow up in your lap?”

“Mobile devices for service and warehouse operations in particular will be dropped, flung, drenched, frozen, baked and otherwise subjected to physical abuse of varying degrees,” says Craig Settles, founder of Successful.com and frequent Mobile Enterprise contributor. “Any machine not built to withstand this hard-knock life will drain potential ROI in replacement costs, lost data and lost productivity while idle workers wait for replacement units. Every ounce of ruggedized abuse prevention is worth a pound, euro, dollar and yen’s worth of cure.”

Field Readiness

Today, however, there is more to rugged than what may happen when the device falls off the truck. “When companies think rugged, they’re thinking of dropping it, cold temperatures and rain, but they should also be looking at how well these devices integrate into their enterprise,” says Kristi Urich, senior program manager at Intermec. She advises not only checking into the rugged aspects of the device but also its enterprise readiness. Issues such as application support, software deployment, wireless capability and battery life all affect how well a device works in the field. It should come as no surprise that this is where rugged devices
traditionally fail to get the highest marks.

VDC’s Krebs admits, “One of the biggest problems with rugged technologies is that it takes awhile for products to reach the market, meaning processor speeds, OS versions and other features are often one generation, sometimes two generations, behind what’s available on the commercial market.” Krebs believes that rugged manufacturers and designers have done a lot to close this gap, asserting that rugged devices today “are much closer to the technology curve.”

Rugged devices have also been backward in their bulky, awkward design. Urich understands this issue. “We are now certainly putting more emphasis on design,” she says. And developments in the commercial market have propelled rugged devices ahead. “If you look back 10 or 20 years, we were kind of pioneers, we were doing everything; you had to design products from the ground up,” explains Urich. “Now components are being manufactured in volume. As they put digital cameras into cell phones, for example, it drives high volume of that type of component. Meaning, I can now put it in our handhelds at a reasonable cost point. Before
we didn’t have the advantage of having those components available on the market.”

Mobile devices, including rough-and-tumble field-ready tools, have more advantages today than ever before, as both commercial-grade and rugged products benefit equally from industry innovations such as nearly ubiquitous connectivity options; cameras; handy small add-ons; and nearly 20 years of design technology, which really only keeps getting better.

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