Magazine Article | January 28, 2013

Ruggedness: The DIY Method

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Brian Albright, Field Technologies magazine

If you’re considering a consumer-grade smartphone or tablet for your mobile workforce, it’s critical to think about how you’ll protect that investment.

While plenty of companies are still deploying rugged, purpose- built mobile computers for field service applications, some companies have decided to investigate (or even deploy) an alternative — non-rugged or consumer-grade devices, including smartphones and tablets.

Why are some companies going down this path? Primarily because the devices are less expensive than their rugged counterparts, but also because with the permeation of mobile technology in the consumer world, so many employees are already familiar with the user interface on these devices. Familiarity means it can be easier to train users and foster user acceptance, which companies argue can streamline the deployment of the devices.

“Cost, customization, and consumerization are key elements in the adaptation of commercial off-the-shelf smartphone and tablet devices,” says Philip Hicks, business solutions manager at OtterBox. “The overwhelming availability of data and applications that are job-, mission-, and industry-specific is amazing. Companies can instantaneously push more information to more people at greatly reduced costs because of smartphones and tablets. Business and personal life are now interconnected, regardless of time or place, and these new devices allow people to stay connected.”

So You’re Saying Ruggedness Isn’t Necessary? No!
Just because these consumer-grade devices are cheaper to obtain and replace doesn’t mean that end users want to burn through multiple devices each year; the downtime caused by failures eats into productivity, and the replacement costs add up more quickly than you may think. To address this issue, a number of third-party companies now offer rugged, protective cases for the most popular smartphones and tablets (iPhones and iPads, Android smartphones and tablets, and BlackBerry products). The rugged, protective cases for these devices range from $20 to $50 each and provide varying levels of protection against drops, shock, dust, and water.

“With all of these smartphones and tablets going to work, companies are scrambling for technology that protects their investments,” says Gary Rayner, CEO of LifeProof. “iPads don’t do water. Nor do they do dust, snow, or shock. Whether out at a construction site with dust, shock, and weather to contend with, or in a classroom where accidental drops and sticky fingers can wreak havoc, businesses want their employees to be able to conduct business as usual without worrying about their investment going down the drain.”

The bulk of these cases are targeted at Apple products. According to The Mac Observer, as of last spring some 94% of Fortune 500 companies were either testing or deploying iPads for business use, and at least that many have introduced iPhones to the corporate network. According to OtterBox’s Hicks, the most highly utilized devices in the enterprise area are iPhones and iPads, followed by the Samsung Galaxy S II, Samsung tablets, and some Motorola and RIM devices.

“These devices have been commonly deployed without a ruggedized protective solution, which has led to a surge in device repair and replacement costs,” Hicks says. “With this rapidly becoming the most unrecognized and explosive cost associated with mobility deployments, the industry has quickly realized rugged cases are no longer a luxury — they have become a necessity.”

How To Protect Your Mobile Investment
So exactly how rugged can these cases help you make a device like the iPhone? Most of the major protective-case manufacturers can meet common MIL-STD and IP standards. The cases are made with anywhere from two layers (a hard outer shell and a softer interior for impact absorption) to upwards of five layers of material, such as mixtures of polycarbonate, silicone, and thermoplastic elastomer.

For example, the OtterBox Armor meets IP67 and MIL-STD 810F ratings for dust, water, and drop protection. The Ballistic Hard Core cases meet the MILSTD 810G specifications. The Griffin Survivor also meets the MIL-STD 810G spec. These manufacturers have also gone to great lengths to demonstrate their durability — a company called G-Form dropped an iPad from a weather balloon hovering at 100,000 into a rocky desert terrain, and the device still worked. (You can see the video on YouTube.)

Likewise, LifeProof’s frÄ“ case for the iPhone 5 meets or exceeds the IP68 standard and the MIL-STD 810F-516 specification for dust, dirt, water, and drops. “It has been difficult for external cases to provide the protection needed while not compromising the functionality of the device,” Rayner notes. Case manufacturers have solved this problem, however, to the point that these cases offer an option for consumer devices to be used in field service and maintenance applications.

The Benefits Of DIY Rugged
“The benefits of deploying consumer-grade devices with rugged cases are cost and scalability,” Rayner says. “The cost to purchase purpose-built, rugged devices can be prohibitive for some companies, and those devices limit you to a certain platform. Buying ruggedized cases allows you to use consumer-grade, off-the-shelf devices like the iPad in environments that demand some sort of ruggedness.” Take note, though — users shopping for these cases should pay attention to precisely which specifications the cases are designed to meet; some cases that are highly rated for shock/drop are not waterproof and so on. You must make sure the case matches your application needs.

According to Hicks, the decision to deploy consumer- grade devices with rugged cases can reduce capital expenditures, increase productivity, and provide better workforce interconnectivity. “Capital expenditures can be greatly reduced with COTS (commercial off the shelf) devices, as most unsubsidized smartphones range from $200-$600 with case; tablets are generally $500-$800; and rugged, purpose-built device pricing starts at approximately $1,500,” Hicks says. “Productivity can be greatly increased due to the enormous software and app ecosystem now available to the enterprise. Being able to access vital information at any time and in any place is priceless. Interconnectivity takes on a whole new meaning as it relates to mobility in the workplace; smartphones and tablets allow today’s workforce to respond to customers almost instantaneously with the most up-to-date and reliable information available.”

All that said, while the benefits are certainly clear, there are some risks to consider. With any “DIY” solution where you’re putting various components of a solution together, things can get complicated if you’re not careful — it’ll be up to you to make sure you have the right device that can do everything you need it to, with the right case that will protect the device from all of the demands of the environment your workers are operating in. The benefit of rugged, purpose-built devices is that all of that thought and coordination is done up front for you by the manufacturer. It’s just a matter of weighing the pros and cons of each option and deciding what’s best for your organization.

Changes On The Way For Rugged Cases
While there have been some advancements in the materials used for these cases (i.e., the adoption of different types of silicone or thermoplastic elastomers), most of the innovations in the coming year will be in the form of new accessories, slimmer designs, and increased functionality.

“We are constantly making improvements to our protective cases to make them tougher, thinner, and lighter as well as developing new accessories to let businesses do even more with their devices,” Rayner says. “For example, hand straps, shoulder straps, and attachments for universal mounts have been developed so that workers can use the tablet anywhere while it is in its protective case.”

Hicks adds that the market has seen the introduction of cases that improve the user’s experience beyond simple drop protection. “They are now incorporating power management, waterproofing, and other forms of security and technology,” Hicks says. “Think of the possibilities these allow with a mobile workforce — users will now be able to maximize the use of their device in any environment.”