Advances in technology allow field personnel to use ruggedized mobile computers in harsh environments.

Dust and dirt swirl around construction sites and the land vibrates with the operation of heavy equipment and machinery. These adverse conditions would wreak havoc on a traditional laptop computer, but ruggedized PCs can handle just about any situation, from an accidental drop to a water spill on a keyboard.


Originally designed for the military and law enforcement markets, these devices can withstand dust in the dry season, water in the rainy season, extreme temperatures, and rough handling by field personnel. Unlike bulky desktop PCs, portable computers can often be tucked into a shirt pocket or clipped on to a belt. The ruggedized devices are available in wearable, handheld, Web tablet, and laptop versions, which all offer different functions.

Electricians who are searching for powerful but compact computers often select ruggedized laptops, which include shock-mounted components, displays designed for difficult lighting conditions, cases made of hard, but lightweight materials like magnesium and titanium, and keyboards, displays, and ports that are sealed against dust and moisture. The laptops also feature touch-screen displays for input with one hand.

More businesses are now searching for ways to improve profitability and boost productivity in down times, which has led to a surge in the ruggedized mobile computer market. According to Venture Development Corporation, a Natick, Mass.-based technology market research firm, the value of worldwide shipments for rugged mobile computers will increase from more than $2.9 million in 2002 to nearly $4.8 million in 2007.

Electrical contractors and engineering firms are now starting to learn more about the potential of these ruggedized devices. Executives from two businesses — an Arizona systems engineering firm and one of the industry's largest contractor consolidators — have discovered how to gain an edge over their competitors by outfitting their employees with ruggedized field computers.

Taking measurements under the hot Arizona sun.

BWA Engineering, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based systems engineering firm with 42 employees, armed its field technicians with ruggedized mobile computers that could withstand Arizona's scorching sun and intense heat.

BWA provides system design engineering and support for various health-care facility projects in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, and Nevada. The company first invested in 30 ruggedized laptop computers with titanium cases and a cushioned hard drive about two-and-a-half years ago. The engineers put their laptops to the test by taking field measurements at high altitudes, where the computers' processing speed slowed down considerably, leading to higher-than-expected maintenance costs and a shorter operating life.

“We abused them, and they are not bullet-proof,” says Ronald Avery, president of BWA. “Even though they are ruggedized, when you put the screen up and hit it against the truck frame, you are going to damage it.”

The ruggedized laptops eventually wore out, and Avery searched for another solution. He evaluated several new portable computers and judged them on their weight, viewing area, and durability. After beta testing several manufacturer makes and models, BWA narrowed the field down to the Toshiba Tablet PC, which weighs a mere 3 lb, 11 oz and has a 12.1-in. wide display.

“We wanted to be able to read the screens in bright, outside daylight,” Avery says. “The Toshiba was much easier to adjust the contrast for adverse conditions and featured a cooling fan to conduct heat away from the components.”

Web tablets are available in two basic designs including convertibles and slates. Microsoft introduced slates two years ago as portable devices without integrated keyboards. Convertible tablets look identical to a notebook computer with their lids closed, but when opened, their screens can swivel 180° and fold down flat on top of the keyboard to make a tablet. The technicians can use the Web tablets to take notes with a pointer or stylus. Their handwriting is then converted into text, which can be saved as a Microsoft Word document or an Excel spreadsheet.

With nearly three dozen field personnel in need of a new portable computer, cost also became a major factor in the selection of the Web tablet. Avery says the Toshiba devices are about a third of the cost of the $4,000 to $5,500 ruggedized laptop computers and carry a three-year unconditional guarantee.

“If you damage or drop one, they will give you a brand new computer,” Avery says. “We felt that for the cost savings, we could buy the tablets and use them as throwaways. Because technology changes so fast, you're not going to get more than three years use out of a tablet or a ruggedized notebook anyway.”

Reviewing job tickets on the road.

While the Arizona field technicians are now using Web tablets on the jobsite, EMCOR Group, Inc. employees rely on ruggedized wireless handheld units that run a wireless service dispatching system.

“We have several hundred of these devices out in the field,” says Joe Puglisi, CIO of EMCOR, Norwalk, Conn. “Repairmen can leave their homes in the morning, turn on their handheld units, and review the service calls that they have to make that day.”

EMCOR, a network of more than 75 operating companies, drew upon the experience of its veteran technicians and manufacturers to develop comprehensive repair guides and job plans. Technicians can follow the plans in order to quickly and efficiently diagnose the root cause of an equipment problem.

“When you get your work ticket, it doesn't just tell you to go to 123 Third St. and fix the chiller on the roof,” he says. “It says, ‘Go to 123 Third St. and on the roof you will find a Carrier 10-ton unit. Here are the five preventive maintenance steps that you need to follow in order to service that unit.’”

EMCOR developed the guides for the HVAC industry, which was the initial application for the product. The company is now considering adapting the plans for the electrical industry.

“If you're servicing a generator, the job plans still need to be built for that,” he says. “We oriented our system specifically to the HVAC service market, but since then we've been able to view this as a more general solution for other field technicians, such as electricians.”

EMCOR electricians currently depend on more conventional technology like Nextel two-way radios, laptop computers, and desktop PCs. To streamline its processes, however, one electrical contractor is in discussion with EMCOR to automate the process of dispatching work tickets. While the system will save time, it also involves a fairly significant capital expense, Puglisi says.

“When the first company evaluated the expenditure necessary, they justified it on the basis of one more call per day per technician,” he says. “If you look at the margin on that, the system paid for itself in a couple of months.”

The handheld units can help contractors increase the efficiency of their field technicians because they no longer have to make frequent trips back to the home office.

“Technicians can get up in the morning and go to their first job, and at the end of the day they can go home,” he says. “The only time that they go into the office is for meetings and supplies and periodically when we have to do data maintenance on their handheld units.”

During the day, the technicians can achieve additional time savings by constantly updating their time cards. When they drive to their first job, they can book travel time, and when they complete an assignment, they can press a button to start travel time again. The technician can also record the supplies used on a job.

“If a technician goes in the back of his truck and takes a few #3 screws or some wingnuts, he can use the handheld unit to add the supplies to the work ticket,” Puglisi says. “Those parts will then get billed out along with the service call.”

Unlike sensitive laptop computers, the ruggedized handheld units are designed for field use and abuse, Puglisi says.

“They are designed so that if you drop them or stand on them, you won't damage them,” he says. “I've had a technician or two comment that they are especially useful if he has to reach something a little bit higher up than his height.”

The devices are shaped like hardened plastic bricks that are 4 in. tall, 8 in. wide and 2 in. deep. Puglisi describes them as notebook computers that are cut in half the long way and don't have a lid. He says he sees a lot of promise in compact PCs.

“I think they are going to get smaller and faster, and I have high hopes for lots of different wireless technologies,” he says. “I don't know which one is going to win for sure, but we have certainly seen a lot of different options to be connected back to headquarters these days. You can slip your computer in your pocket and go.”




Sidebar: How Tough is Your Laptop?

The most durable ruggedized laptops conform to military specifications. The military has developed a series of 24 tests, which can be modified to simulate the real-life challenges that equipment will face in the field.

Sand and Dust.

This test simulates work in a harsh outdoor environment like a construction site by subjecting the device to settling or blowing dust.

Storage and Operation at Temperature Extremes.

The hot operation test simulates storage in a car trunk for an extended period of time by subjecting the device to 159.8° F for 4 hr. The cold operation test cools equipment down to a stabilized temperature of 20° F for 4 hr, which is meant to simulate outdoor storage in an unheated building.

Moisture Resistance.

This test requires the computer to operate in rain at 4 in./hr. Drops of varying size are sprayed at various angles on the computer for as long as 30 min.

Vibration.

This test exposes the product to varying degrees of vibration frequencies and amplitudes to simulate rough handling during transportation, and operation in a moving vehicle on a bumpy road.

Shock-Drop.

Test This is a free fall drop test to simulate a fall from a desk, car seat, or vehicle hood. The computer is repeatedly dropped from a height on each face, edge, and corner.




Sidebar: Finding the Portable PC That's Right for You

Computers were once only available in desktop versions, but they have now evolved into smaller, more durable devices. This checklist will help you determine what to look for in your next ruggedized mobile computer.

  • Display (size, color, resolution, performance in expected lighting, and durability)

  • Input (keyboard, touch-screen, voice, barcode scanning)

  • Support for available wired and wireless networks

  • Operating system and software development environment

  • Removable media (diskettes, USB storage, CD-rewriteable)

  • Compatibility with interfacing systems

  • Weight

  • Power requirements and performance

  • Ruggedized features (shock, dust, moisture, temperature)

  • Ease of field support

  • Initial and recurrent costs

  • Reliability and support performance of the manufacturer

Source: Global Network for women's and Children's Health Research