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Laptop computers

The laptop has become an essential tool for technicians and owner/operators alike. It's estimated that more than 60% of owner/ operators own a laptop, and heavy-duty shops are trending away from propr...


DURABLE: Rugged computers feature a tough external shell and shock-mounted components so they can survive being dropped on the shop floor.
DURABLE: Rugged computers feature a tough external shell and shock-mounted components so they can survive being dropped on the shop floor.

The laptop has become an essential tool for technicians and owner/operators alike. It’s estimated that more than 60% of owner/ operators own a laptop, and heavy-duty shops are trending away from proprietary-based diagnostic systems in favour of open architecture PC-based tools, according to Bill Presler, senior manager, market development with Panasonic.

However, the challenge to date has been the inability of most laptop computers to survive the harsh working environment of a maintenance shop or a truck cab. That is changing, with an expanding selection of rugged computers becoming available, which have been designed to perform in even the most punishing environments.

Panasonic has recently published a white paper exploring the advantages of rugged computers in the shop environment.

Entitled The role of rugged mobile computing in overhaul, service and maintenance operations, the white paper contends that fleet operators are turning to rugged computers to improve efficiencies in the shop and to enhance the productivity of technicians.

“In recent years there have been efforts to deploy laptop computers into service bay environments to improve productivity. This has reduced foot traffic between productive workshop activities in the actual service bay and centralized computers that are shared by all the mechanics in the facility,” the white paper reported.

But just how rugged are the latest generation of rugged computers?

We caught up with Panasonic’s Presler at this year’s Technology and Maintenance Council meetings. He demonstrated the durability of one of the company’s Toughbooks by dropping it on the cement floor from about three feet off the ground.

It seemed none the worse for wear when he retrieved it. Alternatively, Presler said you can drop a 2-lb steel ball on its tempered glass screen from the same height without harming it.

“This is a tool designed for the technician,” stressed Presler. “It’s a tool, it’s rugged, it’s tough and it’s highly durable.”

Panasonic’s Toughbooks are protected by a magnesium alloy case and feature shock-mounted hard drives.

The screen comes with a replaceable film that protects it from grease and grime.

Psion Teklogix also manufactures rugged computers, both vehicle-mounted and handheld systems. James Poulton, director of product development for the company told Truck News that the durability of a computer is measured in various ways.

“The ability to withstand drops to concrete is one measure of ruggedness,” he explained. “Another is the IP (ingress protection) rating – the ability of the device to withstand various forms of matter ingression into the housing.”

Poulton said new devices are subjected to at least 26 drops on a concrete surface from various angles. The height ranges from four feet for entry-level products right up to six or seven feet for ultrarugged models.

“The processors, radios, antennas, displays – they all have to emerge in perfect working order,” he said.

The IP measures resistance to two forms of matter: dust and water. An IP rating of 54 (five-four), for instance, means the computer scores a five out of seven for dust exposure and a four out of eight when it comes to water resistance.

To put it in perspective, a score of seven in the dust category means the device is “absolutely sealed” explained Poulton, and a best possible score of eight in the water category means it can survive prolonged submersion in two metres of water.

If you’re choosing a computer for a shop environment, dust is likely more of a concern than water exposure, Poulton noted. For vehicle-mounted computers, which may be attached to forklifts or service trucks, long-term shock and vibration resistance should

also be considered.

“Shock and vibrations are much more ongoing,” Poulton pointed out.

The durability of today’s rugged computers is one reason for their more widespread adoption into maintenance operations. Another is their increased capabilities.

“Handheld computers are packing incredible amounts of processing power relative to their size,” said Poulton, noting even everyday devices such as a Blackberry or PDA are becoming more powerful.

Fleets and maintenance operations that are making the switch to rugged mobile computing solutions are generally achieving a payback in under a year, Poulton said.

However, there are many variables at play so it will vary from operation to operation.

In addition to having the ability to improve technician productivity, the computers boast a longer life than their traditional nonrugged counterparts.

Instead of a three-year life-cycle, Poulton said most of Psion Teklogic’s customers are achieving five-and seven-year life spans from their rugged computers.

Panasonic’s white paper noted that notebooks and PCs have an annual failure rate of 15% in their first year of use climbing to 22% by year four. Problem areas generally include: motherboards; hard drives; latches; hinges; keyboards; and screens – each of which are protected on rugged devices.

When choosing a system, it’s also important to consider the future requirements of the device.

“Make sure you choose a platform that meets your needs today, but has some flexibility to meet your unknown needs going forward,” suggested Poulton. This is especially important, given the longer life-cycles of rugged computers.

Technological advancements – the emergence of RFID for instance – may require you to upgrade your system before it has reached the end of its useful life.

“The mobile market is so dynamic – changes can occur within your business that you didn’t even initiate, so you should futureproof the solution, allow it to evolve,” Poulton suggested.

That way, when an upgrade or a new capability is launched, you can simply download or install the new module and keep your system up-to-date.

Some well-known companies have begun making the transition from traditional computing systems to rugged mobile devices. Navistar, for instance, has equipped nearly 1,000 of its International Truck dealerships with Panasonic’s Toughbooks. The computers are used on the shop floor to diagnose mechanical problems.

They have built-in wireless Internet capabilities, so technicians can access details such as vehicle history, warranty coverage and parts availability.

In Panasonic’s white paper, Gerry Beronja, director of global marketing with Snap-on Diagnostics said Web accessibility is one more reason fleets and shops will continue to make the switch.

“The trend is quickly moving towards having access to a PC in every service bay,” he said. “As applications and automotive reprogramming software move to the Web, technicians need to have access to the Web while at the fender of the vehicle. Rugged notebooks provide a way to connect to vehicles (via wireless and USB connections) while getting information from the Web. Service information is critical to technicians. This is especially true as manufacturer and aftermarket equipment providers move away from CD and DVD solutions to Web solutions.”


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