Magazine Article | October 23, 2006

Rugged Devices Deliver In The Field

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Do your handhelds have the correct requirements for route delivery applications?

Integrated Solutions, November 2006

Rugged or semirugged handheld computers are used in a number of mission-critical business applications, such as warehouse picking, retail store stocking, DSD (direct store delivery), and field service. These devices are used in all of these situations because of the inherent properties of rugged computers – they can withstand drops, water, and dust. But all rugged devices aren’t the same, and different applications require different levels of functionality. What follows are guidelines on the considerations you need to make regarding rugged devices for route delivery applications.


Unlike warehouse applications, where rugged devices have been the standard for years, companies that use mobile devices outside the four walls want to consider less rugged (i.e. consumer-grade) devices for their delivery drivers. The rationale behind that can be understood: Consumer-grade devices are less expensive than rugged devices (rugged devices are typically $1,000 or more; consumer-grade devices are around $400). Often, these nonrugged devices can meet your computing needs. However, you must assess the environment a driver works in, as well as properly estimate the wear and tear a device might take. Does the driver make a few stops a day or 10 or more? Will the driver keep the device clipped on his belt or carry it around? If the driver only makes a few stops and can comfortably clip a device to his belt, a consumer-grade device might work. However, if the driver is constantly running in and out of the truck through inclement weather and is inclined to toss the device onto the seat in the truck, you need a tougher device. “Lower up-front costs aren’t everything,” says Mark Dessommes, marketing director for LXE Inc. “Companies need to thoroughly think through the back end costs of repairs and replacements, of pulling the device – and perhaps the driver – out of service, and the cost of standby units to maintain productivity.”

To understand rugged devices, you need to understand the terminology. There are a number of ratings and standards established by various government agencies, industry organizations, and independent laboratories that measure rugged computers’ abilities to be dropped and withstand water and dust. Those specs, terms, and ratings include:

  • IP (ingress protection) ratings, which refer to the equipment’s ability to prevent solids and liquids from penetrating the computer’s enclosure

  • MIL-STDs (military standards) or MIL-SPECs (military specifications), which are a series of guidelines established by the DoD that define specific performance and manufacturing requirements for all types of equipment

  • drop specs, which describe a device’s ability to withstand the shock of a fall to a hard surface.

  • temperature specs, which cover the temperature range within which a handheld terminal can be operated and stored

  • intrinsically safe (I-Safe) specs, which tell users what I-Safe environments (hazardous environments where flammable gases, vapors, and liquids are stored and manufactured) a handheld computer can be safely used in

  • ratings from NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association), which are useful in defining the types of environments in which an electrical enclosure can be used.

“However,” notes Dessommes, “certain ratings and standards are subject to interpretation, so users purchasing devices should closely scrutinize vendors’ claims regarding these specs.”


Delivery applications have similar IP requirements as warehousing applications. “Devices used in delivery environments should have a drop rating of 5 to 6 feet and have an IP rating around 65,” says David Paufler, senior product manager of PSC, Inc. “Rugged requirements for temperatures aren’t as strict as other applications, however. In delivery apps, the handheld must only withstand what a human can withstand.” So, devices that can function in temperatures from 10 or 15 degrees below zero to 120 degrees are sufficient.

When examining the physical ruggedness of devices and evaluating the specs, look at how device manufacturers conduct their testing. If a device goes through a drop test, then a week later goes through a water test, that’s not an accurate real-life test. Your delivery drivers might drop a device in the rain on a 30-degree day. You need to know the device will stand up. Vendors simulate this type of scenario through a method of testing called cross-mortal testing. As you consider devices, be sure to ask manufacturers if they test products in simultaneous multiple environments, and if not, how they do test. If the temperature, water, dust, and drop tests are conducted one after the other, that’s fairly close to a real-world test.


Another key requirement of handheld computers used in route delivery is increased processing power. In warehouse settings, the handheld computers typically run terminal-emulation or thin-client applications, which don’t require very robust computing power. Route delivery demands a thick-client application to provide the drivers with delivery locations and customer information and to collect data verifying the delivery. Thick-client applications require more processing power than thin-client apps. “As the functional capability of hardware increases, the software demand on that hardware increases,” says Bob Eckles, strategic vertical marketing director, industrial for Intermec Technologies. “It’s hard to assign a specific number to the necessary processing power or memory, but you always need more. Companies should look for devices with the most recent processors/operating systems.”


Rugged as a device might be, if it can’t communicate wirelessly, it won’t do you much good in terms of efficiency and accuracy. “Now that mobile workers can capture data in the field via a plethora of different handheld devices, wireless communications becomes the next logical challenge,” says Ed Mendoza, VP of sales at NOVA Mobility Systems, Inc. Nearly all rugged handheld devices are equipped with WLAN (wireless LAN) radios now, and many also have WWAN (wireless WAN), GPS (global positioning system), and Bluetooth receivers.  “Integrating Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and voice/data cellular services allows the users to communicate data in a real-time scenario,” says Mendoza. “Now mobile workers can locate, capture, and send and receive information right where they’re working.” To communicate in real time, you’ll need a wireless data plan from one of the major wireless data carriers. This can cost anywhere from $40 to $70 per user, per month.

If it isn’t essential to communicate in real time – that is, data is uploaded and downloaded constantly – you can avoid those costs. If your drivers run standard routes and make deliveries that aren’t time-sensitive or have a similar priority, it might be enough to transmit data at the start and end of every shift. Drivers can download their routes at the start of a shift and upload the completed delivery data at the end. With this method, you can still, via a Bluetooth-connected GPS receiver, view the drivers’ progress along their routes. Alternately, your customers and/or delivery sites might have Wi-Fi networks of their own that drivers can access upon arrival to transmit data.