Tough Enough - Rugged Devices in the Field

By  Jessica Binns — November 14, 2011

It’s one thing for your rugged device to survive the usual drops and spills – but it’s another thing to withstand the extreme heat and explosive environments found in a number of demanding industries.

In the rugged device market, there are laptops, tablets, and handhelds with varying degrees of durability. After all, the needs of a delivery driver vary from those of an engineer or technician working around volatile chemicals or fire professionals dealing with blazing temperatures. That is to say—not all rugged devices are created equal.

In searching for the right device, one company focused more on “intrinsic safety” than on mere ruggedness. PSC, an environmental services firm headquartered in Houston, provides industrial services for the refining and petrochemicals industry – a major market in oil-rich Texas. Randy Decker, vice president of operations for PSC, says that the company’s field workers typically provide daily site maintenance for refinery clients or bring in personnel and equipment when a client’s facility enters the turnaround stage, when a client is finished with the site and the facility needs a comprehensive clean-up.

But working in such sensitive environments means that PSC must use rugged devices that are sealed to very specific standards. “When you work in refinery environments, you may have leaking pipes that could create an explosion,” says Decker, adding that most rugged devices wouldn’t make it past the front door of many such facilities. “We looked for something that’s explosion-proof and intrinsically safe.”

Decker’s group deployed 400 Xplore C4 tablets—and is upgrading to C5 devices—after evaluating a number of options. The tablets are certified to meet the UL 1604 and ISA 12.12 standards, which ensure operability in hazardous environments. “When we looked at the product specifications, Xplore had the only product that fit the requirements we were looking for. The ‘intrinsically safe’ requirement eliminated everyone else,” he explains. “Your average rugged laptops are not intrinsically safe.” Decker further reports that Xplore’s ultra-bright screen technology enables crew leaders to process information on the tablets even in full sunlight.

The C5 tablet offers additional features that PSC is eager to leverage. “In some cases, we want to take advantage of the camera feature for documenting some of the steps of our jobs, both for internal use and for the client,” Decker explains. “When we leave a facility, there’s a housekeeping requirement—we need to leave it in a specific condition—and sometimes we get blamed when it really was someone else who left the site in poor shape.”

PSC is also leveraging the tablets to create a competitive advantage over other vendors. The company created a software platform called Rhino that runs on the Xplore devices. Rhino began as an internal initiative to improve billing information collection, so that the data was more consistent with the stipulations laid out in the customer contract. “We’d had some issues with auditing,” says Decker. “Our crews are working between a lot of different facilities, so the information that they collected would sometimes be incorrect and after auditing, the client would come back to us and say, ‘Hey, you misbilled us.”

As such, Rhino evolved into a customer-focused platform. “For our environmental engineers, the data is clean and clear, and they can run it through a set of filters to be sure the info is complete,” explains Decker. “And at the end of the month, engineers can run a report to fulfill state and federal requirements.

“Refinery plants can face big fines if their reporting isn’t complete,” adds Decker. “We strive to be transparent and provide good information for our clients.”

Fire Friendly
Only a Toughbook Can Take the Heat

Las Vegas: home of casinos, luxury hotels, nonstop entertainment—and a busy metropolitan fire department. Las Vegas Fire & Rescue (LVFR) employs 664 workers and protects roughly 610,000 citizens and 7 million annual visitors over 133 square miles. Fire chief Mike Myers says the department’s 50 vehicles—fire trucks and other rescue units—each carry two Panasonic Toughbooks, including Toughbook 30 rugged laptops for mobile data access.

“Prior to purchasing the Toughbooks, we had used another product that turned out to be a big mistake. It couldn’t stand up to the high temperatures in our rigs. When they got hot, they wouldn’t follow commands,” reports Myers.

“We wasted $300,000 on a product rollout that didn’t work,” he adds.

After that debacle, LVFR went “back to square one and turned the project over to people who knew what they were doing,” Myers reports. “We have crazy temperatures in these rescue trucks; it can reach 150 degrees, easy. I can’t afford to have my laptops and tablets not working.”

To find a rugged device that was tough enough, LVFR did its market research but ultimately needed to have the firefighters themselves use the devices hands-on. “With firefighters, you have to put the tools in their hands,” Myers says. “The long-term goal is to make our guys more mobile. But it’s a difficult task breaking them away from a traditional mindset—we’re dealing with firefighters who have not embraced that technology-friendly mindset.”

LVFR initiated a six-month pilot in one of its busier stations and identified workers who could provide robust input on the pros and cons of the device. “We found firefighters who would tell us the positives and negatives, who’d use the Toughbooks hard and give us in-depth feedback,” adds Myers. “I’ve always told our guys, ‘I’ll buy whatever you think is best.’”

Each LVFR vehicle is equipped with two Toughbooks: a laptop mounted in the cab and serves as a mobile computer terminal for in-route mapping and provides on-scene building schematics, and a more robust tablet in the back of the vehicle that firefighters actually use in the field.

“Firefighters are industrial athletes,” says Myers. “Their mobile environment is not the office environment. If we move them from a fire station to a utility truck and out into the field, we want a device that handles every harsh environment.”

And because municipal resources can be scarce, it’s very important to work with reliable devices. “We don’t downsize firefighters; we cut support staff,” explains Myers. “We have one dedicated IT individual—one poor soul who runs everything for us. We can’t afford failure. We weigh heavily on our products not breaking down.”


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