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Here, There, Everywhere: Rugged Computers Enable True Workforce Mobility

We’re in the midst of a radical shift in the way people live, work and communicate. New and continually improving technological advancements are opening the doors to a truly mobile workforce. Gone are the clunky mobile devices, wired telephones and dial-up Internet connections of the 20th century, and the amount of computing power we can fit into a few inches of space these days is nothing short of mind-boggling.

We’re in the midst of a radical shift in the way people live, work and communicate. New and continually improving technological advancements are opening the doors to a truly mobile future for the global workforce.

Does this sound like old news? After all, some might argue that this shift has been happening for decades — and they’d be mostly right. Gone are the clunky mobile devices, wired telephones and dial-up Internet connections of the 20th century, and the amount of computing power we can fit into a few inches of space these days is nothing short of mind-boggling.

But it’s my opinion that, until very recently, some significant obstacles prevented most workplaces from seeing true mobility as more than some nebulous future ideal.

The first obstacle was inaccessible or unaffordable wireless broadband. Without mobile connectivity, even the smartest and best-designed devices are confined to the office. But in recent years mobile-device sales have exploded, and mobile operators have responded by discovering ways to expand their networks and increase their capacity to handle data traffic.

The second obstacle was inadequate mobile hardware. For a while, “adequate” simply meant powerful enough to perform complicated tasks quickly and efficiently. But as the mobile workforce has progressed, another critical need has become apparent: the need for exceptional performance anywhere and everywhere.

That’s because wirelessness, speed and portability alone don’t make for truly usable mobile devices — just ask the countless field, utility and public service professionals who’ve dropped cell phones into water, vibrated tablets to death on their dashboards, or watched PDA screens shatter as they hit the ground.

Standard computers just aren’t suited for use in the outdoors and other hazardous environments such as workshops, warehouses and factories. They can’t handle water, dust and shocks, and they break too easily and too often. And breakages don’t just cost companies money — they can also mean a huge loss of productivity as devices are assessed, repaired and replaced.

To continue to drive true workforce mobility, data devices need to be compact, connectable, quick and able to withstand whatever they encounter — whether that’s a river, a sandstorm or a warehouse floor.

Rugged: the future of mobile computers

Enter rugged computers. Unlike traditional computing hardware, these devices are specifically designed to operate reliably in harsh environments. Ruggedness is an essential factor to true mobility for data devices, and it’s opened up new worlds of efficiency, accuracy and customer service for today’s laborers.

But what makes a computer “rugged”?

Manufacturers use two main standards for classifying rugged computers: the American military standard for equipment, MIL-STD-810, and the Ingress Protection (IP) scale. Both test for and reflect levels of protection against environmental conditions.

MIL-STD-810 includes a battery of 24 laboratory test methods that address various conditions, including low pressure for altitude testing; exposure to high and low temperatures plus temperature shock; rain; humidity, fungus and salt fog for rust testing; leakage; vibrations; and sand and dust exposure. The more methods a unit passes, the sturdier it’s deemed to be.

The IP scale provides a specific rating for a unit’s durability against dust and water exposure. Ratings include two digits, which stand for the level of protection against dust and the level of protection against liquids. For example, an IP67-rated unit is considered completely dust-proof and can be immersed in water for at least 30 minutes to a depth of one meter.

The changing face of rugged technology

Traditionally, rugged computers have been used by field workers who operate in “naturally mobile” environments, such as construction, mining, military, geomatics and forestry — and they still shine in these environments. But rugged technology, including notebooks, tablets and PDAs,  is getting smarter, more powerful and easier to use than ever before, and it’s safe to say that today’s rugged computers can comfortably take on all the challenges of both the field and the office.

And it’s about time. Job descriptions are becoming more and more hybridized, and it’s not unusual for workers today to divide their time between offices and job sites. Shouldn’t their mobile devices be as versatile?

Yet even if rugged computers are capable of a wide range of computing tasks, that in itself doesn’t make them desirable to tote around. As everybody knows, great design does matter — and thanks to the most recent advancements in design and manufacturing, certifiable sturdiness is no longer the whole story for rugged devices. Manufacturers have learned from the tremendous success of attractive, usable and portable products from companies like Apple, and are now offering sleek rugged notebooks, tablets, smartphones and other intelligently designed, easy-to-use devices.

These devices now have faster processors to offer better and broader use, and the ability to bring desktop functionality out into the field. Many options have batteries that last an entire workday on a single charge, and most are equipped to work on any choice of wireless frequency anywhere in the world. They also have high-quality cameras that allow in-field image capture, along with new screen technology that offers spectacular clarity and brightness in any outdoor condition, even direct sunlight.

Overall, rugged mobile computers have become lighter and offer better functionality, including better displays and improved ergonomic design. All this adds up to a much-improved user experience, with the power of a desktop in the convenience of a handheld.

A whole world of uses for rugged devices

So what are today’s forward-thinking professionals doing with this new technology?

They’re finding that work is a whole lot 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.

Take the public works sector: Government agencies and private companies across the world are using rugged technology for a wide range of tracking, monitoring, reporting and scheduling tasks essential to city maintenance — all while saving time and improving the accuracy of their data.

For example, GPS-enabled devices can tag along worry-free for messy catch-basin cleanup runs and sewer line repairs, and dashboard-mounted tablets with tracking software can simplify data collection on street-sweeping and waste-collection routes, without ill effects from constant road vibrations.

The data these computers collect can be stored, organized, charted, transmitted wirelessly to office locations, and formed into customized reports. Simple manual and sensor-based data input reduces human error and increases accuracy for record-keeping and important reporting, such as for governmental regulations or grant compliance.

In some cases, a hugely successful mobile solution is as simple as a durable device with a customizable push-button system.  Mack McCarter of LogicConcepts, a developer of geo-centered infrastructure software, has helped several cities implement intuitive rugged computer-based systems for a broad range of data-collection projects, including enforcing snow-removal laws, reporting fire-safety hazards, tracking garbage and recycling collection, monitoring airport perimeters, and scheduling maintenance for city-owned assets.

“People see this solution and the wheels start turning,” McCarter says. “They see that they push this button and it tracks this thing, and they start thinking, ‘How does this apply to other tasks? We could make this button do that...’”

Utility companies, surveyors and others in harsh environments — such as karst landscapes in rural New Zealand and offshore crane cabins in Brazil — have also conserved resources and improved their outcomes by upgrading from systems supported by paper or fragile devices. In places where these systems can’t be used reliably, rugged computers can track and report tasks logically, and gather data accurately and efficiently.

After switching to a rugged PDA system for an in-depth field data-collection project, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) saved more than 80 percent in labor costs, while speeding up its process and, ultimately, environmental improvement. “This concept of paperless field work is applicable to almost everything we do. Potentially it could revolutionize major parts of SEPA’s business,” says Dr. Jonathan Bowes, Senior Data Analyst for SEPA.

And rugged devices are earning amazing results for public safety agencies, too. By using mapping software to cross-reference multiple forms of location data — including pictures, GPS, mapping and text — these agencies are able to improve the speed and accuracy of responses to emergency situations. Automating this data also saves countless hours of labor and processing time.

Luis Olivieri, a GIS systems specialist who helped implement a college emergency response system that uses geospatial technology and rugged tablet PCs, calls the new system “unimaginably better” than paper data collection.

“In an emergency, time is very important. It could be the difference between life and death. We are putting together the data required for emergency personnel to act in the fastest possible way,” he says. “Typically emergency responders get to the scene and start asking: Who has the floor plans, can we get class lists, what resources do we have. With this system, it's like going there the day before something happens — you already know what you’re going to find when you get there.”

Moving forward with rugged technology

With the increasing availability and affordability of wireless broadband and sophisticated rugged computers, people and their powerful technology tools are no longer confined to traditional office environments. Soon we will all be connected, everywhere and always.

Rugged technology provides an exciting new direction for mission-critical communications. It allows public safety agencies, utility companies, oil and gas firms and others to communicate easily and instantaneously, for faster, better outcomes, ultimately providing better products and services.

To make the most of this connectedness, people all across the globe are figuring out how to use rugged technology to form creative, intuitive and sustainable solutions for their communities.

And that means true mobility is becoming a reality, for the first time in history.


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