Magazine Article | March 26, 2009

Rugged Handheld Computers Continue To Evolve

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Experts explain how today’s rugged handheld computers are ready to fulfill the need for enhanced productivity and increased profit streams.

Integrated Solutions, April 2009
Long a staple of manufacturing and warehouse data collection and automation solutions, rugged handheld computers are designed to withstand exposure to moisture, heat, and the rough-and-tumble reality of industrial applications. Over time, these devices have evolved from simple 'brick' style computers with limited keyboards and monochrome displays into fully functioning computers featuring the latest wireless communications options, Web browsing capabilities, and the ability to support multiple data collection technologies.

These advancements have spurred adoption of rugged handhelds in applications outside of the traditional plant floor/warehouse environment, including retail, rental car, healthcare, hospitality, delivery, and field service.

Rugged handhelds are built to last, and it's not uncommon for these devices to remain in service for 5 or even 10 years. At the same time, mobile computing technology is continuously evolving. That's why organizations should not just evaluate the physical specifications of the device, but should also investigate whether the device can be upgraded to support new technologies and software applications in the future.

"With the economic pressures of today, organizations can no longer afford to purchase a product knowing it will need to be replaced a few years later," says Dave Peddemores, VP of North American sales at Psion Teklogix. "Companies are looking for an all-in-one solution that enhances productivity and increases profit streams. By focusing on future IT growth opportunities, organizations can find the right handheld device that will meet the standards they require today and in the future."

Advanced Data Collection Options
Rugged handhelds, much like consumer-grade PDAs and smartphones, are getting smaller, lighter, faster, and less expensive. At the same time, manufacturers have loaded these devices with an increasing array of features, from QWERTY keyboards to full-color displays that can be seen clearly in direct sunlight or the dim lighting of a warehouse.

These computers also support a broader set of data collection options, including text, image capture, bar code (both linear and two-dimensional), RFID (radio frequency identification), and voice, as well as the ability to accept credit cards for mobile payment applications.

"These devices have traditionally been used for bar code data capture applications, but there is a growing trend to collect other data," says Brian Viscount, VP of marketing for mobile enterprise computing at Motorola. "If you want to buy a device for field-based workers, you want something voice-capable, whether that's push-to-talk or true telephony. We're seeing people look for devices that have a high-quality camera for proof-of-delivery or to take an image of a damaged asset in the field."

Wireless Communications Options Expand
One of the most prominent trends in the rugged handheld space has been increased support for multiple wireless technologies, such as wireless LAN, WAN, and Bluetooth. The biggest growth has been in the area of high-speed wide-area wireless technology, and Motorola's Viscount says that his company has seen a roughly 25% increase in demand for mobile devices with such connectivity.

Support for new 3G wireless network technologies such as the universal mobile telecommunications system (UMTS) and high-speed download packet access (HSDPA) protocols have made it possible to transfer larger amounts of data at faster speeds for field service, route delivery, and direct-store delivery (DSD) applications. Field employees can now view a customer's service history, download large image files or equipment schematics, and place orders or accept customer payment in real time.

"The ongoing trends for real-time communications continue to create efficiencies," says Dave Wakefield, president of Radix. "Field service workforce efficiencies are the most dramatic. Real-time management and deployment helps supervisors maximize productive utilization of both personnel and assets. In data acquisition, immediate verification helps avoid and correct errors in real time. In ticketing and invoicing, the instant uploads of information are accelerating billing and collection."

Remote Systems Management Boosts Performance
Because advanced wireless communications allow mobile employees to remain in the field or dispersed across a large facility for longer periods of time, IT support staff have to be able to debug these devices and provide software and firmware upgrades remotely. Such remote support capabilities help avoid downtime in the field and allow companies to make better use of increasingly strained IT resources.

"A tech support person can view the device remotely, diagnose the problem, and reconfigure the device while the user still has control of it," says Greg Canda, director of solutions and services at Datalogic Mobile. "While previously, users were doing one thing only, they are now branching into new applications and therefore want to manage those applications and configurations more efficiently."

Develop a Mobility Strategy
Ten years ago, there was a revolution in the rugged handheld market as manufacturers abandoned proprietary operating systems in favor of platforms like Windows CE, the Palm OS, and even Linux, and user interfaces began to more closely resemble consumer devices like the PalmPilot and Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

That convergence has continued as more and more enterprise users — from the executive suite down to the maintenance crew — have become more comfortable with mobile technology. Rugged device manufacturers are now incorporating features like voice over IP, GPS navigation, touch screens, and digital camera technology into their products.

"The technological enhancements will help end users save money and increase efficiency by lowering their total cost of ownership," says Peddemores. "Companies no longer have the ability to spend a lot of their profits on technology. They need devices that can maximize the workload for employees and improve accuracy without making a large IT investment."

That's why it is important for users to develop an overall mobility strategy that goes beyond any single application. Can the device share a common communications infrastructure with other types of mobile computers in the enterprise? Can other applications be developed for the handhelds? How will the device be supported and maintained in the field? Can the device be upgraded to support new technologies (like RFID or voice) as your application evolves?

"They need to think very carefully about the daily routine, so the right device fits the needs of the user, down to the right keypad and application layout," Canda says. "Further, they need to look at how to recover from problems they don't yet know about and how to plan for future needs they haven't yet come across. Having a complete system management philosophy allows for contingency support and growth."

"People tend to approach these deployments from a project perspective," Viscount says. "Think about the total cost of ownership of mobility across your enterprise. Any investment you make in a particular program today should have benefits on future projects."