Real-World Rugged

By Susan Nunziata — March 18, 2009

The message is clear: never underestimate what your field workers will do to their mobile devices. Among the fates we've heard were met by various mobile devices in the field were:

  • I dropped it into a pile of cow dung.

  • It was run over by a lawn mower (or a car, or a tractor-trailer).

  • It went for a swim in the river.

  • I left it on the hood of a car in (your choice) snow, hail, rain, a dust storm.

"Whatever you can't imagine can be done to one of these devices, it can be done to one of these devices," says Randall Piggott of Allgood Pest Solutions in Atlanta, GA, whose field technicians are equipped with Datalogic Pegaso handheld computers (see the full case study here). "You have to be very cautious about deploying cheaper, less rugged solutions that won't hold up to the wear and tear."

Granted, even the most rugged of devices couldn't be expected to survive all of these mishaps. But Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) can escalate dramatically if an enterprise puts a device in the field that's not up to the tasks at hand.

It's more than just the cost of a replacement device. "Hardware is only 25% or 30% of your TCO," says Datalogic's Jose Vega. Other costs to be considered include the man-hours involved in getting a replacement device into the field, the expense of keeping an inventory of spares, and the cost of lost productivity in the field.

"The most important thing you can do is understand your environment and buy a device that is optimized for that environment," says Tim Hill, Product Marketing Manager for rugged device maker GD Itronix. "Failure has high costs associated with it. When I'm having to repair something, I'm not moving my company forward. Overall, it's a net loss."

Common Hardships

Cataclysmic events notwithstanding, temperature extremes are probably the most universal hardship endured by devices in the field. Drivers for McMahon Cartage, a Chicago-area gasoline distributor, use Motorola MC90s and Zebra RW 420 printers in temperatures that range from -15 degrees below zero to well into the 100s (see the full case study here).

Weather conditions were a major factor in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' (ODNR) decision to deploy more than 300 Panasonic Toughbook CF30s as part of a solution it developed with CDW Government.

The ODNR owns and manages more than 590,000 acres of land and 120,000 acres of inland waters. Field workers needed a solution that would improve communication  and  withstand all types of weather conditions. Officers in four ODNR divisions now can communicate and immediately access critical information in the field, improving internal communications and public safety.

Extreme cold is par for the course for workers involved in the annual Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska. The Trimble Yuma handheld is the main communication tool at checkpoints throughout 1,131-mile Iditarod 2009, which started March 7 in Anchorage. The race involves more than 1,800 volunteers scattered throughout remote and technologically challenging locations.

Exposure to dirt, dust, and other environmental hazards are also commonplace. Field technicians for Morris Material Handling take their Panasonic Toughbook CF18s into industrial environments such as mines, steel mills and nuclear power plants (See the full case study here).

Such harsh conditions were also part of the impetus for pest and termite control company Orkin to deploy 1,800 of its field specialists with Motorola's rugged MC70 enterprise digital assistants. The company needed a device that would "give us the ruggedness, quality and serviceability we needed to enhance the level of service we provide for our valued customers," says Orkin CIO Tom Porter in a prepared statement.

The solution provides Orkin with real-time access to accurate and consistent data, enabling the company's field workers to provide enhanced and efficient customer service.

Real-Time Access

The ability to deliver reliable, real-time customer service was the key for Kansas City Power & Light, based in Kansas City, MO, which distributes power to approximately 800,000 customers across the state. KCP&L's Mobile Operations department handles all service requests and emergency situations. (See the full case study here)

Equipment used by its field workers are bounced around in trucks and face dust, dirt and all manner of irritants on the job. In early 2008, KCPL's 325 service techs were outfitted with General Dynamics Itronix GoBook IIIs and XR-1 fully rugged notebooks, running updated mobile applications.

The solution includes GPS functionality, EV-DO connectivity for fast, reliable access to e-mail and the Internet, plus real-time access to the organization's back-end Customer Information System. It also enables remote I.T. access to notebooks for troubleshooting, security patches and updates

"Not only can technicians locate and complete jobs more effectively, but the dispatchers are also more efficient because they can dispatch the closest service technician for each work order," says Tim Taylor, Business Analyst for KCP&L. "I can't begin to tell you how much better our communications are with this new system. We're connected real time all the time, so field techs and supervisors and dispatchers can stay in much better touch."

Tech Trends To Watch

The demand for real-time access and greater functionality is increasing the number of radios in each device. For example, Intermec's CN3 handheld has WAN, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS radios.

"On the horizon we'll see demand for far more radios," says the company's Jeff Sibio, Industry Marketing Director. "What we're doing is focusing on multiple uses for each component. WAN is now for voice and data. WiFi is not only for data but for VoIP and also for real-time location services. GPS is a one-way radio that only receives data, but you can use it to do time-and-date stamping on other data that's collected."

Future handhelds may offer built-in active and passive RFID options and Zigbee, among other solutions, says Sibio.

The integration of Gobi chipsets, which aim to free users from having to link to a single provider for cellular data services, is also a big trend.

Enterprises are also demanding improvements in battery life that will truly get their workers through an entire shift. They're increasingly looking for integrated barcode scanners and payment processing solutions. They're turning to route optimization and asset management solutions. They want to print on-site. They need screens they can view in bright sunlight. And, they're increasingly using digital photography.

All of this means field service enterprises are looking to push increasing volumes of data to and from the field, notes Brian Viscount, VP Product Marketing, Mobile Computing with Motorola. Panasonic Toughbook's Scott Thie agrees. "We're seeing increased demand for fully functional devices as enterprises push more back-office applications out into the field, such as dispatching or CRM applications," he says.

Business Drivers

The economy is causing enterprises to take a closer look at their investments and turn to solutions that can provide ROI. There are three major ways to do that in the field, says Dave Peddemors, Regional VP of Psion Teklogix, which markets a range of rugged devices:

  • Cash-flow improvements. Paper-based time-and-material or time-and-services billing from the field can take weeks to process. Organizations are looking at automated signature capture and the ability to immediately, via cellular, hit the network and generate an invoice, or capture credit card payment on site and get it into the network.

  • Inventory management. Trucks are rolling warehouses that need the right pieces and parts. Barcode solutions help manage that inventory, improving customer service and productivity.

  • Asset management. A barcode or RFID tag that that technician can scan and immediately know the history or status of an asset in the field can add to ROI.

Understanding how your worker will use the device is the key to a successful deployment, says John Waldron, Marketing Manager at Honeywell. "Failure mode is when people pick devices based solely on cost, or get wow'd by all the special features." Instead, focus on what your field worker really needs to serve your customers the best they can.  //

Additional reporting for this article provided by Teresa Von Fuchs.


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