Hand-held and vehicle-mounted computers operated in freezers, warehouses, truck cabs and marine ports suffer rapid and extreme temperature fluctuations, dust, constant vibration, rain and ham-fisted u...
Hand-held and vehicle-mounted computers operated in freezers, warehouses, truck cabs and marine ports suffer rapid and extreme temperature fluctuations, dust, constant vibration, rain and ham-fisted users, to name the worst offenses. Ruggedised computers are designed to take this abuse, and their somewhat higher up-front cost should not dissuade buyers.
Halterm Limited, the main terminal operator at the Port of Halifax, bought Psion Teklogix ruggedised mobile computers in 2002 for use on its 30.4-hecatre (75-acre) dock. “We need the ruggedness and it has to be ready for the cold and rain outside,” says Halterm administrative manager Murray Graves. “We have multiple users and an open, industrialised, union environment. We went to Psion and worked with them to come up with an arrangement, and we haven’t looked back. We have found the equipment to be very rugged.”
The sticker price is just the opening line in the story of the total cost of ownership (TCO). As the cost of repairs, idle workers, lost productivity and backward-incompatability roll in, what seemed like a smart, lower up-front purchase of consumer-grade equipment can become bad math compared to the TCO of ruggedised equipment.
The Venture Development Corporation, an independent technology market research and consulting firm headquartered in Natick, Massachusetts, puts the TCO spread in favour of ruggedised computers at 17% for field profession applications and up to 32% in supply chain applications. Venture sees the ruggedised computer market growing to US$4.8 billion by 2007.
Psion Teklogix, headquartered in Mississauga, Ont., and which provides mobile computing solutions globally, quotes the TCO of ruggedised computers to be as much as 30% less than consumer-grade units for similar applications.
Ruggedised computers are rated in several ways. Psion Teklogix, for example, uses the Ingress Protection (IP) ratings, developed by the European Committee for Electro Technical Standardization. An IP rating is a two-digit expression: the left-hand digit refers to dust protection and the right-hand digit refers to water protection. “The higher the number the better the protection. For dust ingress, 6 is the highest. At 7 you can submerge the device. So IP 67 means the device is totally sealed against the environment and completely resistant to water for 30 minutes at one-metre deep,” explains Psion Teklogix senior marketing manager Todd Boone.
Psion Teklogix product IP ratings range from IP54 to IP67. The WORKABOUT PRO, at IP54 is rated as an ideal hand-held computer for harsh environments because it can be exposed to dirt and rain and still operate. The most “spec’d-out” hand-held model is the Psion Teklogix 7530, at IP67.
But there is more: The Psion Teklogix 7535 is rated for operation in temperatures ranging from -10 degrees Centigrade to +50 degrees Centigrade. The Psion Teklogix 7530 is rated for -10 degrees Centigrade to +60 degrees Centigrade and what Psion calls a freezer temperature of -30 degrees Centigrade to +60 degrees Centigrade.
Then there is the drop test. “Can you drop the unit and it will still work? Yes,” says Boone. “Psion Teklogix typically specifies a drop from 1.5 metres [4 feet] up to 2 metres [6.5 feet], depending on the product. The drop rating is always referenced around being able to survive 26 controlled drops that hit every edge, face and corner.
The Psion Teklogix 7535 is drop rated at 1.5 metres but the freezer-rated Psion Teklogix 7530 drop rating is 6 drops from 2 metres plus 26 drops from 1.5 metres. “Part of the issue is that you may be wearing big gloves or you may put the unit on a pallet and knock it off by accident at height. The plastic composition is tailored for the cold environment,” says Boone.
Vehicle mounted devices – for anything from fork trucks, gantry cranes or trucks – need special ruggedisation; much more than just fat rubber bumpers. “Our vehicle mount devices with full Windows operating systems, have industrial processors that can withstand shock, vibration and dramatic temperature changes,” adds Boone. “One client in a gantry crane tried using a regular laptop and it didn’t survive the day.”
Or how about internal magnesium frames to harden the electronics and display? This is how Intermec Technologies Corp. constructs its 700 series mobile Pen Notepad/Tablets. A magnesium top frame and rubber corners protect the 30.73-centimetre (12.1-inch) display on its CV 60 vehicle mount computer. Essentially a ruggedised desktop PC, it runs on a Pentium and can withstand 70gs. “A computer has to be designed for this environment,” says Intermec director of marketing Rich Sherman.
Intermec, with its world headquarters in Everett, Wash., provides supply chain information products, services and systems.
Intermec products are IP rated and many are tested to the Military Test Standard 810F. “Intermec spends a lot of time getting technologies robust for the transition to an industrial environment to run the core of a business; e.g., keeping the database sound in a mobile computer. Many times our customers have the only copy of the data in their front-line mobile computers. Consumer-grade products do not exactly focus on things that way,” Sherman explains.
Batteries for ruggedised computers are designed to operate in temperature extremes and, significantly, companies like Intermec stay away from the custom batteries one associates with electronic equipment with short product lives. “We choose cells that have many suppliers in the marketplace. We are using very standard cells that give us good availability at low cost. These are lithium ion cells and the manufacturer is always upgrading this kind of cell first, because it is their highest-volume cell,” Sherman says.
A rather different kind of robustness is the ability to be able to roam quickly on a wireless network and stay connected – important in a large port or warehouse, says Sherman. “Many times this is a robustness not found in a commercial product.”
Do buyers have to make compromises in features in order to buy into these ruggedised products? That depends on one’s notion of compromise; e.g., technology chasers point fingers, but the truth appears to be that whatever the clients need to do their job well and reliably, is available.
For example, although the protective cover on the Psion Teklogix display degrades readability slightly, Boone explains, ” … but you can read it in all environments. And if someone loses their stylus, they can always use a screwdriver with our devices; a consumer-grade display would be toast.”
Or take wireless capabilities. The Intermec 700 series covers all bets with WAN, LAN and PAN (Bluetooth) rolled up in one unit … both Psion Teklogix and Intermec make becoming familiar with ruggedness, specifications, features and the integration of peripherals into their products easy: their Websites carry extensive product data.
Whereas consumer-grade product makers chase the latest technology, ruggedised computer makers are more interested in providing required performance, whether that is memory space or chip speed, integrated laser or imaging technologies. They also focus on good warrantees and quick turn-arounds, long product life and backward compatability to older models – good selling points.
Having said that, the technology is not stagnant; customers want longer battery life, brighter displays and more secure memory, such as the one-gigabyte Secure Digital memory device some Intermec customers are requesting. “The short answer is that clients do not need to compromise hardly anywhere to get ruggedness,” says Sherman. “In many respects our products [including warrantees and repair turnarounds] exceed anything in their class.”