Why the future of mobile computers must be rugged

September 24, 2013

We’re going through a radical shift in the way people work and use computers. Increasing availability and affordability of wireless broadband is, for the first time, giving the global workforce true mobility.

One trend driving movement to true mobility is the increasing availability of rugged, or ruggedized, computers. As opposed to traditional computers, rugged computers are specifically designed to operate reliably in harsh usage environments and conditions that may involve strong vibrations, extreme temperatures, and wet or dusty conditions.

Standard computers are simply not suitable for use in outdoor environments. They have poor battery life and cannot withstand shocks, dust and water. They break too easily and too often, making the price-benefit ratio inferior to that of rugged computers. Although rugged computers are more expensive to purchase, the total cost of ownership is much lower – as much as 65% lower per year – mainly because their durability minimizes or eliminates the loss of productivity that results from computer breakdowns.

A rugged excavation solution

Every day, forward-thinking mobile workers are discovering new and improved ways to apply modern technology in the workforce. They’re finding that work is much simpler, faster and more enjoyable with data devices that can sort, synthesize and analyze data as well as collect it, and that can work seamlessly with both worksite machinery and advanced office hardware.

Nowhere is this truer than in the construction industry. Rugged mobile technology lets construction businesses, contractors, excavators and others communicate and perform work more easily for faster, better outcomes. This ultimately allows them to provide better products and services for their communities.

Take, for example, an important excavating job in the community of Joplin, Missouri, the site of a devastating May 2011 tornado that destroyed 30% to 40% of the town. As the city of Joplin began restoration efforts, a local business, Asbell Excavation, was hired as part of the clean-up crew.

Asbell’s team members were assigned the weighty task of examining around 2,000 electric power transformers and containing any oil leaks they found. They knew time was of the essence, and that serious environmental damage could result from any delays in their process. In order to first identify leaks and then return in a timely manner to clean them up, the crew decided to bring in GPS-enabled rugged tablet computers to help with the job.

Workers set out to identify each spill and record its location using GPS. Equipped with rugged tablet PCs, loaded with a Carlson Software program that included imported location coordinates, they navigated to each site and got to work to make sure oil was removed to landfills and cleaned to EPA standards.

Using ruggedized tablets, the team was able to focus on the task at hand and getting from place to place as quickly as possible, without having to worry that its computers were intact and safe from harm. When every second counts, rugged technology often proves its worth the most – as one crewmember said, “We could just throw it in the truck and easily bring it along with us as we went from spill to spill.”

Examples like this one demonstrate the innovative use of rugged technology where consumer devices simply do not hold up. The rugged devices were light enough to carry on foot at spill sites, and they held up to all the hazardous conditions the crew encountered at ground zero of a major disaster – proving that they’re also capable of standing up to equally harsh conditions in other excavation and construction environments.

(Unlike off-the-shelf tablets, ruggedized devices come with their own lexicon and rating criteria. Download this whitepaper now to help you navigate the terms and acronyms so you can make informed decisions.)

Devices for both field and office workers

Traditionally, field workers operating in tough and “naturally mobile” environments such as construction, logistics, geomatics, forestry, public safety and the military have used rugged computers. Now even “ordinary” office workers and blue-collar workers such as garbage collectors and train staff are using rugged computers, because they make their work more effective and productive.

But what is a rugged computer? There are two main standards for classifying rugged computers:

  1. The American military standard for equipment, MIL-STD-810, covers a broad range of environmental conditions that include shocks, rain, dust and sand. The standard comprises 24 laboratory test methods, and generally speaking, the more methods passed, the more rugged the unit.

  1. The IP scale. Not to be confused with Intellectual Property or IP address, IP in this case stands for “Ingress Protection,” and the ratings are displayed as a two-digit number. The first digit reflects the level of protection against dust, and the second reflects the level of protection against liquids (water). An IP67-rated unit is totally dust-proof and capable of immersion in water for at least 30 minutes to a depth of 1 meter.

Rugged computers now feature faster processors and desktop functionality that can be used in the field. Their batteries can work for eight hours on a single charge – a full workday. Many devices can work on any choice of wireless frequency anywhere in the world, and have high-quality cameras that allow in-field image capture.

Rugged is cool

The tremendous success of Apple and its iPhone and iPad has shown us all that usability is important, that design matters, and that the essence of mobility is in the size and weight (or lack thereof) of a device. The manufacturers of rugged equipment are learning quickly, and are now launching rugged smartphones and other user-friendly, smartly designed devices.

Design and functionality are two strong reasons rugged computer sales are growing faster than other computer segments. Rugged devices are now much lighter and have better functionality overall, including better displays and improved ergonomic design – all contributing to an improved user experience.

New screen technology provides spectacular screen clarity and brightness in any outdoor condition, even direct sunlight. Rugged devices also look better overall, which has helped make them cool to own (aided by the fact that many famous athletes and adventurers use them).  

("Choosing your next tablet: The operational advantage” will be a key session at the TabletBiz conference & expo in NYC on Nov. 13)

A new direction going forward

The mobile workforce is evolving quickly, and thanks in part to rugged mobile devices, we can look forward to a future of connectedness, both in the office and out. The flexibility and durability that rugged computers provide will be a transforming influence on the workforce of tomorrow, as construction business owners are increasingly able to manage projects at a desk and perform on-site job duties, all with the same technology.

The progression of rugged mobile devices will only help further the success of today’s industries, so we can all look forward to a future of true connectedness.

Dale Kyle is the CEO of Handheld Group USA, which makes mobile computers with weather and shock-resistant casings.

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