It seems there has been something of a convergence between the worlds of rugged manufacturers and their consumer peers across the last few years. In the past, the two occupied very separate worlds.
Rugged was very much the world of heavy, chunky, and robust devices, whilst the consumer equivalents were sleeker, more refined and more likely to break if they got dropped.
Today, however, the line has certainly blurred substantially in the middle. Take Xplore’s R12, a fully rugged tablet that smartly converts into a two-in-one powerful enough to be a more than adequate replacement for a desktop let alone a laptop.
Now, whilst the R12 may still look like a heavyweight lining up against a featherweight if put alongside a Microsoft Surface, which would be its most suitable comparison within the consumer realm, it by no means fits the traditional image of a rugged device – i.e. cumbersome, bulky and awkward. It is a sleek looking and excellently engineered device whose lightweight feel belies its robust rugged credentials.
Of course, this is not a one-way street either.
Consumer devices are increasingly likely to have higher certifications that we previously only would have seen in a rugged spec sheet.
Take for example Samsungs current flagship smartphone the Note 8.
Not only does have an impressive 6GB RAM on an 1.7GHz octa-core processor making it an exceptionally fast device, but it also has its own Dex docking station that essentially turns it into a mobile desktop by allowing you to plug into a TV or Monitor via HDMI – something that could be hugely useful for the field engineer who needs to give a presentation whilst on the road for example.
Then when we add into the equation that the Note 8 is certified at IP68 (meaning it is essentially impervious to both water and dust ingress) could an argument could be made for it being a strong device for field service use.
We recently hosted a fieldservicenews.com exclusive webcast with rugged specialists Xplore Technologies and the topic of what defines rugged manufacturers against this backdrop of blurring lines was a major talking point within the session.
Our panel consisted of Steve Priestly and Cliff Adams, VP International Sales and Product Marketing for Xplore respectively as well as Bob Ashenbrenner, President of Durable Mobile Technologies.
With the lines beginning to blur between rugged and consumer mobile devices, is there more to why an organisation should choose to work with a rugged manufacturer other than just the specs these days?
Priestly was the first to respond “I think you raise a very good point in terms of the lines becoming more blurred. At Xplore, where we have more than 20 years worth of experience, we would say that maybe the words are blurred but the principals of building a rugged device are not blurred at all – they a very common.”
“We have built rugged devices from the ground up, with the most rugged of architectures to support all the elements of rugged mobile working.”
I think one of the areas that people get most confused is IP68 – well what does that mean in a rugged environment?
“What is most important in the enterprise environment is for us to be able to demonstrate that we are rugged, we are classified in the industry standard specifications but our product still has all of the appropriate I/O, accessories and capabilities to be able to run the workflow of the mobile worker.”
“That has to be the same across all of our devices and whilst we may share some common specifications with a consumer manufacturer, but that doesn’t mean they are as rugged as the products we provide”
Ashenbrenner also concurred with Priestly’s sentiments further adding:
“A lot of consumer devices have very little I/O [input/output]and in an enterprise environment having the right amount of I/O is really, really important,” he explained.
“Now, without I/O it is fairly easy to make an IP68 device – there are very little openings for water or dust to get in. So these consumer manufacturers have sort of stumbled upon an IP68 rating and have thought’hey that’s one of the things the rugged guys talk about, let’s declare that we’re rugged -well that’s not how it works.”
IP68 is just one feature. It doesn’t cover knocks, it doesn’t cover drops, it doesn’t cover other abuses such as vibrations and such
“One thing I would just add is that one thing the IP rating doesn’t give you in terms of dealing with a rugged environment is the ability to operate within a wide range of temperatures,” Adams commented.
“If you are going to be operating out direct sunlight or if you are going to operate in a location where there are extremely cold climates, that wide temperature range is something that you will not find on a consumer device. If you need to perform in such conditions then a rugged device has to be the obvious choice there.”
“This is especially true when it comes to tablet devices, where you are running full feature software applications that consume a lot of processing power. A sealed consumer tablet will not have a fan, something which is critical to maintaining the full power of the CPU in those hot environments.”
The Xplore range of tablets have internal fans that are isolated from the elements so they can still have a high IP rating whilst being able to dissipate that heat and maintain that processing power
It is of course, these often nuanced details that can get overlooked when we are looking at spec sheets, especially when as is often the case, the purchasing decision is largely driven by either by members of the field service operations team who may not have the deep technical knowledge to be able to fully compare the two devices, or alternatively IT professionals who perhaps do not have the operational experience to fully understand the complexities of the various operating environments the devices will be utilised within.
Another major difference between rugged manufacturers who are serving the enterprise market and more consumer-focused manufacturers is the frequency with which they update their devices – with consumer devices generally going through an upgrade cycle far more regularly than a rugged equivalent.
Whilst, in the consumer world this ongoing arms race between manufacturers to produce devices that can outperform their competitors is one sense advantageous in that it drives continuous innovation and technological advancement, in an enterprise environment such constant change can actually be a negative.
One of the key requirements for a device used by field service engineers is reliability
In addition to this in today’s world where security of data is paramount and the threat of cyber attacks something all companies must be vigilant Mobile Device Management (MDM) is a major consideration – something that can become a significant headache for companies that are tied into the faster pace cycle of device and OS upgrades of consumer devices.
So the longer shelf life of rugged devices designed specifically for use within a business environment is another major plus in their favour – but even then there must be a balance between stability and ensuring the tools you provide your field engineers with are sufficiently up to date to deal with the demands of the software they are using.
This leads us to a critical question – just how long should we wait before we roll out new devices to our field workers? And how should a field service organisation assess the decision of whether it is time for them to invest in new devices for their field engineers?
Most companies when they are deploying tablets and begin a project they think about a three-year time frame,” Ashenbrenner states.
Three years is a good time frame to roll to new technologies and have an R.O.I (return on investment). However, the real issue is ‘does it still do the job?’
“If the original device has enough processing power and memory to handle the software you are using – especially the updates that are pretty frequent, and also when new capabilities are being added that is when you tend to see people saying ‘hey this is still working, I can upgrade my software’ and this is when you can see the longer uses in the field – sometimes five years, sometimes even seven years,” he adds.
Adding a slightly different take on the question Priestly commented:
“To my mind, there are a few different things that come into the equation. Firstly, there is a financial discussion which says how long will the equipment be depreciated within the companies financial statements – and typically three years is a good answer to that. It fits well with other technologies and it allows them to look at it in a common way”
“But that doesn’t describe how it is used in the field. The challenge that Xplore faces is that things will dictate outside of this what the life cycle of the device is. It could be something as simple as data security that causes a change in equipment to drive an additional set of features.”
“Or alternatively it could be that everything is fine after the three years and they are getting free use from the devices for as long as they need to.”
One of the things that Xplore would point to is that is in our longest running platform we reiterated the device to stay on top of the processing and memory requirements of the device and were able to do that for seventeen years
“That is seventeen years within a single eco-system that an enterprise could get around. Yes, the device changed over time, but it remained the same form factor and enabled an enterprise to be stable within its use.”
“Whether that enterprise is a government facility, military would be a good example or perhaps a pharmaceutical clean room environment where the absolute top end of the specification is required – that is the type of thing that Xplore looks to – being on top of the changes in terms of the technical and customer requirement, whilst being able to provide stability for a long period of time both in our service and in our product capabilities.”
“That is a great point and something that must be considered,” Adams adds.
“Especially when we see consumer devices that come out that each have a slightly different form factor because they are really going for those aesthetic changes. A rugged device is really tailor-made for enterprise environments.”
A rugged device is really tailor-made for enterprise environments
This is, of course, another hugely important consideration that is often overlooked within discussion around device selection for field service organisations – the range of accessories available. Most rugged manufacturers provide accessories such as vehicle mounts that are designed specifically to fit their devices and to ensure that issues like vibration don’t impact upon the device.
By maintaining the same form factor and chassis, rugged manufacturers such as Xplore are able to help their clients avoid the additional costs of new accessories each time they invest in new devices – something that can stack up to quite a considerable additional cost if you have a large field workforce.
Something that we’ve discussed a number of times in Field Service News that was also reflected within the webcast was that companies must have an understanding of the workflow of their engineers and then select their devices accordingly.
However, for many organisations there will be varying different roles being carried out within the field so how should field service organisations decide just how many different devices and form factors they should deploy to find a balance between equipping their varying types of field workers with devices suitable for their requirements and having to types of devices deployed – which again can cause problems when it comes to MDM?
It is important to have the right device for the person and for the right workflow,
“At Xplore, we offer an array of device form factors, but also within those form factors, we have an array of different computing options. So you could get an entry-level CPU if that works for the user and they don’t need a top of the line processor we can offer that, but then we also offer within the same form factor high performance options or even different I/O options – so there is a way an organisation can still manager a smaller number of devices and still provide a choice to the user so they are putting the right device in front of the right worker at the right time.”
“To add to that one of the things that should also be considered is the definition of the software to support the workflow you are trying to automate in the hands of the worker,” Priestly adds.
“That will dictate the type of data that needs to be input, the type of data that needs to be viewed and the type of data that any business information is driven from often dictates the type of device that will need to be used.”
“If there is a lot of form filling or repetitive tasks such as barcode scanning a handheld fits that bill very well. Then as you move between that and a larger device such as our twelve-inch tablet very much that is dictated to by the workflow itself.”
“Let me add a few real-life examples,” added Ashenbrenner as the discussion drew to a close.
“In utilities, you will tend to see all of the repair workers will use one type of device but meter workers and meter repair is a whole different area and so you will likely see handhelds being used in that situation.”
Where beat officers on the front line might be using a tablet, detectives in the same police department tend to gravitate towards two-in-ones.
Indeed, Ashenbrenner’s final point in the discussion is an important one that highlights just how many variables must be considered when selecting the right devices for your field workforce.
However, one thing that remains clear is that whilst on the surface it may appear that the lines between rugged and consumer devices are blurring, the reality is that for companies seeking to maximise their R.O.I from the mobile devices they use, there are far deeper considerations than headline tech specs – and this is where working with dedicated manufacturers such as Xplore can truly bring additional value to the table via their understanding and insight of how organisations will be utilising the devices in the field, how to extend the life of those devices where possible and of course how to roll out new devices whilst avoiding significant disruption to day-to-day field service operations.
The ball for the time being then remains firmly in the rugged court.
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