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February 2003

Solution Set

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Rugged and Ready

Driven by homeland security needs, the latest rugged computers boast new form factors, integrated wireless and other nifty features—oh, and they take a beating, too.

By V. Wade Contreras



As the number of mobile workers has grown over the past few years, so too has the need for mobile computing devices to keep them productive in the field. More and more, companies are realizing the need to outfit their field force with ruggedized devices to keep data secure and downtime to a minimum. The proliferation of rugged devices brings a whole new type of field force installation and a bit of a learning curve.

To make informed buying decisions, one needs to understand the different levels of ruggedization and which jobs call for them, the various device specification criteria and which feature sets to expect for the price. Yes, there’s a lot to keep up on, but give us 15 minutes and this industry update should familiarize you with the latest ruggedized lingo, introduce you to a few of the newest products and let you in on some of the latest trends in the marketplace.

Is It Really Necessary?
First off, why go ruggedized? For one, return on investment. Let’s suppose company XYZ has outfitted its field force with non-ruggedized laptops and handhelds. But the equipment keeps coming back to the shop broken, without fulfilling its life expectancy. This means workers are spending way too much time without their critical data and tools in the field. And too much worker downtime inevitably leads to decreased customer satisfaction, which means poor ROI. In fact, ruggedized device durability and its potential ROI has led to some laptop-toting road warriors to make the jump to rugged.

“More field professionals, people who don’t actually do repair work…are looking at rugged,” says Steve Hanges, director of marketing for Kontron. “You’re getting some laptop users beginning to look at rugged as an alternative, and you’re beginning to see rugged computers coming down a bit to meet that market, both in terms of price and ease of use.”

What exactly qualifies a device as ruggedized really depends on the job. One application may call for a vehicle-mounted computer, so its only obstacle is vibration. Another, such as in route sales, may call for a worker to tote a handheld or tablet outside the vehicle at each stop along the route, so expect some drops and maybe some moisture. On the extreme end, if you need a notebook to ride along in a highway patrol cruiser or be used in an oilfield, your definition of rugged will expand exponentially. Now the device will have to withstand direct impacts, sand, rain and temperature extremes.

When attempting to determine the level of ruggedness your device will require, you’ll need to consider where it will be used (indoors, outdoors); temperature extremes; degree of impact; and exposure to vibration, water, humidity, sand, dust and altitude.

Checking the Specs
Once you’ve pinpointed the kinds of stress the device might incur, you’ll want to find a device constructed to handle just such conditions. If you really do your homework, you’ll find that manufacturers who specialize in ruggedized equipment usually provide detailed data on exactly what kinds of punishment their devices can handle. After all, it’s what they stake their reputations on. Unfortunately, there is no independent body that has established ruggedized standards, but there are some common testing specifications that manufacturers use to rate their products.
One of the most prevalent measures used is the MIL spec. This originates from a U.S. Air Force document on test methods for aerospace and ground equipment used in the early ’60s. Forty years later,it has evolved into its most recent iteration, the MIL-STD-810F specification, which provides many tests to determine
how much punishment equipment can handle. The downside of the MIL spec is it is often misunderstood or misused by manufacturers.

If a product is designed using MIL-STD-810F test procedures, don’t assume it has undergone and passed all the MIL tests. It may simply mean that it passed four or five of the MIL testing procedures. You’ll want to know which of those tests it has actually passed. Also, be aware that it may have been tested in-house by the manufacturer, as opposed to an independent agency. So potential buyers have to read the fine print and find out exactly what tests were performed and who performed them. Usually vendors who do test to full MIL spec will trumpet it to no end, so they’ll be easy to identify. Kontron makes a full-MIL-tested tablet/notebook and Hanges says a buyer has to really dig deep for specific information when manufacturers claim MIL spec ruggedness.

“Some manufacturers claim to conform to the MIL spec, and others actually test to the spec,” he says. “We have run across manufacturers claiming to be ruggedized, and they state they’ve met the spec, but we discover from customers that they haven’t.”
Some manufacturers use another ruggedness rating called the IP (Ingress Protection) rating for their mobile devices, for example “IP44.” IP ratings classify the degree of protection that an enclosure provides for electrical equipment. The first digit refers to protection from solid objects penetrating the device’s housing on a scale of 0 to 6, while the second digit relates to protection from liquids, on a scale from 0 to 8. The higher the numbers, the greater the protection from penetration damage.

Finally, a third rating you may come across is the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, or NEMA, rating. This organization has been in business since 1926, and the NEMA 250 specification describes a variety of different enclosures and how they hold up against environmental impact.

Often, hardware manufacturers use more than one of the standards outlined above to rate their product. You’ll also encounter other industry-specific terms. Currently, most rugged devices are grouped into either the “semi-rugged” or “fully rugged” categories. Semi-rugged units are usually used by the traveling worker whose device sees some roadwork, but not serious drops, moisture, or other abuse. Fully rugged devices are used by those on the front lines, meaning up on power poles, by emergency response workers, on construction sites and in government applications, such as the military and homeland security.

Another thing to keep in mind is fully rugged devices are not ideal for all field workers. They are often much heavier than standard mobile devices due to their protective materials. Processor speeds usually take at least a small step down (all-day runtime and less battery drain is a priority over lightning-fast computing) and form factor, of course, is not as sleek as that enjoyed by the corridor warrior.

Tablets Get Tough
Though we’ve just covered some compromises that can come with rugged devices, the good news is ruggedized manufacturers are getting more and more creative with device design. Workers no longer have to carry the 10-pound block of magnesium that used to be their ruggedized computer. Some can even dare to hope for ruggedness with semi-streamlined good looks. Case in point, the attractive and versatile new Kontron Revolution notebook/tablet.
Yes, that’s right, it fits in both device categories, as the Revolution’s convertible design allows it to go from a notebook to touch-screen tablet and back again in seconds.

“Our customers really needed a tablet out in the field, but when they took the tablet back to the office, they needed a laptop,” says Hanges. “So for us it was an issue of what did our customers need, particularly for applications out in the field where conditions could be less than ideal for computers. It allowed them a lot of flexibility.”
Kontron’s SwitchIt 180-degree display enables the quick-change form factor. Starting at $5,000, they’re not cheap, but they’re built to last. The Revolution’s full magnesium construction is tested to U.S. military and NEMA standards for resistance to shock, vibration, water, temperature and dust.

The Revolution features a CPU module with a 1.06GHz (or higher) Intel Pentium III-M Processor, 128 MB of SDRAM (upgradeable to 640 MB) and Windows XP Professional, 2000 or 98. A transflective display for outside viewing is available as an option, and two front bays house one or two 3.5-hour batteries, or one battery and a DVD/CD-RW drive. The Revolution has embedded Bluetooth technology onboard and optional CDPD, CDMA or GSM modems for wireless WAN connectivity and spread spectrum wireless LAN (802.11b) connectivity.

The ruggedized category is now focusing on rugged Tablet PCs running full Windows, as opposed to Windows CE. Certainly Microsoft’s new focus on tablets with its Windows XP Tablet PC Edition has not hurt the cause. XP provides full Windows functionality, with productivity enhancements designed specially for the tablet form factor, such as grab-and-go docking with no need to change to a standby or hibernate mode; screen rotation from landscape to portrait mode; and digital inking, which simulates the paper and pen experience.

“Now that Microsoft has put such an effort behind the Tablet PC operating system, I think you’ll start to see migration toward more powerful tablets,” says Hanges.

One new ruggedized tablet running Microsoft’s latest OS is Walkabout Computer’s Hammerhead XRT. The company, which focuses on supplying tablets to vertical markets such as utility and public safety, unveiled the new rugged Tablet PC in November. Designed to MIL spec levels, the Hammerhead XRT differentiates itself with a vacuum-sealed, aircraft aluminum housing, making for lightweight and solid construction.

“We’re the only manufacturer with milled aluminum housing,” says Dave Grangier, CEO of Walkabout. “Because it’s milled, the box can’t bend, it can’t flex…. That’s why you can run a truck over it and it doesn’t hurt it.”

The XRT comes with a 10.4-inch transflective color display, up to 933MHz Pentium III-M processor with SpeedStep and legacy dock compatibility. Depending on add-ons, the XRT will sell for between $3,000 and $4,000 in fleet quantities. Grangier says his customers can easily justify the extra cost of a ruggedized tablet when they consider the product’s durability.

“I think the best way to say it is add roughly 25 percent on top of the non-rugged tablet,” he explains. “The transflective screen and the ruggedization add cost, but to a customer, that price is irrelevant, because the cost of repairing a unit and having it out of service more than covers its cost. The failure rate of these, traditionally, has been five percent a year. So, very few units ever fail.”

Another noteworthy ruggedized pen tablet manufacturer, Xplore, entered into a strategic partnership with Symbol Technologies early in 2002 to allow Symbol to resell Xplore’s rugged pen tablets into vertical markets. Xplore’s most recent addition, the iX104, sports MIL-spec toughness, Pentium III processors, a 4X AGP graphics accelerator and up to 48 MB of video memory. It also offers a variety of docking stations for multiple work
environments.

“Law enforcement, for example, uses tablet computers inside police vehicles, and they have to be mounted very safely and securely,” says Rich Perley, senior VP at Xplore. “At the same time, they have to be portable, so if they’re doing any sort of on-site work, they’ve got to be able to remove the tablet and take it to the incident scene.”

Laptops Tame TCO
While tablets have taken off, ruggedized laptops are growing in popularity, too. Most manufacturers now offer more than one level of toughness, so companies can spend less money for partially rugged devices, if that’s what the application requires. For instance, Itronix divides its rugged devices into three classes: semi-rugged, rugged and ultra rugged.

The company’s new GoBook 2 is ultra-rugged and incorporates up to a 1.7GHz processor and a removable hard drive. It also provides three integrated wireless options, including Bluetooth,wireless WAN and wireless LAN. Matt Gerber,
VP of marketing for Itronix, says many companies are beginning to see how rugged laptops can improve efficiency and total cost of ownership in the long run.

“The argument that we typically get is, ‘Well, I’ll buy a Dell, and if it breaks, I’ll throw it away.’ But [that argument] falls apart if you have 30, 40 or 50 percent of your machines failing on an annual basis. You lose the reason you installed the system in the first place—efficiency.”

Spokane, Wash.-based Itronix got some nice wins in 2002, including partnering with Defense Group Inc. (DGI) to outfit Bomb Scene Response Reporting Kits with a GoBook Max to nationally accredited bomb squads throughout the United States. The contract comes via DGI’s multimillion-dollar FBI contract for the Homeland Defense Initiative. Itronix’ success in the security sector is indicative of the increased focus on emergency response, which has greatly impacted the industry.

“We’re seeing much more collaborative efforts being undertaken between the different emergency agencies,” says Xplore’s Perley. “As these agencies collaborate more and develop programs to be able to respond to small- and large-scale events, we see the need for rugged mobile computing playing a very important role in that whole undertaking.”

Tough Handhelds
Because it’s much less expensive to ruggedize a PDA than a laptop, ruggedized handhelds are becoming more prevalent in the field. Small devices are more apt to be dropped, and more companies are finding that consumer-grade handhelds won’t survive those drops. In fact, there are now companies that will ruggedize existing handheld deployments, though it’s not an ideal rugged strategy.

Intermec recently improved its rugged handheld product line with the introduction of its 700 Color, running Microsoft Pocket PC 2002. Weighing in as light as 17 ounces, the 700 Color has a 3.8-inch (diagonal) TFT display, withstands multiple 5-foot drops to concrete and is sealed against dust and rain to IP64 standards. It can integrate up to three radios, including 802.11b and Bluetooth technologies and offers optional scanning technologies for data and image collection. Its lithium-ion battery promises up to 10 hours of operation between charges. Rich Sherman, director of hardware marketing for Intermec, says customers often are looking to standardize with one handheld platform, just as they do with their laptops.

“Think about how corporate IT groups often say, ‘Well, here’s a laptop, go out and use it.’ Many enterprises are looking for something similar in a smaller, handheld device,” he says. “Pocket PC brings the standardization and Intermec adds value with integrated radios, scanners and Bluetooth. This allows enterprises to settle on one device that can be used in a variety of ways.”
Another big player in the ruggedized handheld arena, Symbol, recently introduced the PDT 8000, which it says is ideal for route accounting and supply chain applications. It integrates wireless communications and bar code data capture in a compact, rugged Pocket PC device. It is shock-tested, built to survive multiple 5-foot drops to concrete and sealed against dust and moisture to IP54. Panasonic also recently got into the game with its Toughbook 01, building on the success of the company’s Toughbook line of rugged notebooks.

Toughness is just one way ruggedized handhelds can separate themselves from consumer handhelds. They should also offer extended battery life for an entire day of use, and available add-on modules should include barcode scanners, magnetic-stripe readers, wireless LAN and wireless WAN, mobile keyboards and GPS capability.

According to Gerber, another trend to watch is CRM systems driving adoption of ruggedized hardware. “As companies adopt CRM systems and try to drive their CRM implementations out to the field worker, that will be the biggest growth driver for the wireless rugged business.” He also points to extended product service as crucial to driving ruggedized customer satisfaction. “All of my customers are saying, ‘Hey, I don’t have the people to implement these systems anymore, and I don’t want to go to five different organizations to do it for me. I want one source.’ ”

It’s a tough world out there, but undoubtedly there’s a machine made just for the conditions in which your organization works. So roll up your sleeves and do your ruggedized homework before buying, and remember, if all else fails, just throw it around for a while. If it still boots up, that’s a good sign.

V. Wade Contreras is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who covers information technology.

Copyright ©2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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