Magazine Article | October 24, 2007

Take Advantage Of Advances In Wireless Technologies

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

New rugged mobile computers with multiple radios can minimize productivity losses due
to failed transmissions.

Integrated Solutions, November 2007

Enterprises of all sizes in all vertical markets are transforming themselves into widely distributed entities, operating seamlessly both inside and outside the company's walls. Emphasis is on being at the point of service, interacting with customers, and being able to immediately access the information needed to make decisions, solve problems, and complete sales. To enable these real-time remote transactions, companies are demanding more from their mobile computing and wireless communications solutions.

In particular, companies are looking for devices that will provide reliable communications between radios and workers. In a June 2007 update to its research on mobile computing TCO (total cost of operation), VDC found that one of the most important contributors to lost productivity is wireless transmission failures and interruptions. The report notes that for most enterprise mobility applications, wireless data transmission is an essential requirement, with the average user processing more than 30 wireless data transactions per day. Each failed transmission, which requires the user to relog onto the network, results in 5 to 10 minutes in lost productivity, not to mention frustration on the part of mobile employees and their customers.

According to the VDC report, rugged handhelds that include integrated radio solutions experience fewer WWAN (wireless WAN) transmission failures; in other words, they provide more reliable communications. Mobile computing vendors are responding by offering devices (usually rugged handhelds) that integrate multiple radio options, including Wi-Fi, WWAN, and Bluetooth connectivity, along with GPS (global positioning system) technology, data collection capabilities, color screens, keypad or touchpad input options, and robust mobile operating systems.

"Five years ago, a single radio integrated into a handheld computer was the norm," says Dan Bodnar, director of product strategy for computers and RFID (radio frequency identification), Intermec Inc. "As end users' desires to perform more tasks with their mobile devices grew, it became necessary to integrate radios that supported multiple ways of communicating wirelessly. Over time, the end user has gained the ability to connect to the enterprise from virtually anywhere and to have a network of peripheral devices available that don't require a rat's nest of cables to communicate. Users have much greater abilities to take computing power to the point of work, staying connected and informed while they do it."

Having multiple radios embedded into a single handheld computer allows workers to access their back office systems with ease, whether they are accessing the WLAN (wireless LAN) locally or obtaining the information via WWAN technologies from remote locations. "Five years ago, standard Wi-Fi was the network of choice for enterprise communications and rugged environments," notes Barry Boyd, product manager, marketing, Psion Teklogix. "However, today we have solutions and products that operate on robust backbones that can seamlessly switch between Wi-Fi, WWAN, and GPS applications, ensuring reliable communications between radios and workers."

The new developments in rugged handhelds' communications abilities are enabling all employees — both inside and outside  the four walls — to stay connected with each other. "Connectivity means information can flow seamlessly between fixed-end and mobile users in real time," explains Bodnar. "Enterprise users can keep connected with e-mail; databases can be replicated to the field device to enable better decision making; and work assignments can be optimally allocated based on up-to-the-minute worker availability and location data. All of these allow workers to be more productive and accurate in the execution of their daily tasks." For example, service technicians on call can be dispatched from remote locations via WANs. They can use their connectivity to access up-to-date service records, locate parts, file completed work orders, and log job notes or add-on sales opportunities. Multiple-radio handhelds allow a field service technician to use a device's Bluetooth connectivity to print receipts, invoices, work orders, etc. from an in-truck printer; then, when the job is complete, the device's internal CDMA (code division multiple access) radio connects to a national wireless network to update service records and job order information at the main office. A new application enabled by multiple-radio devices is automatic vehicle location (AVL), which works by combing a GPS receiver to pinpoint the physical location of an asset with a WWAN radio to report that location data to a central monitoring facility or data store. AVL gives the dispatcher a real-time view of where mobile workers and/or equipment are located, which can be used to optimize job assignments, monitor workers, or for security applications.

One of the challenges that many diverse enterprises face is whether to purchase several different types of handhelds to meet their various employees' needs — and to operate in widely differing environments — or to purchase a single model for all employees. Your warehouse personnel may not need rugged devices that can withstand extremes in temperature or being tossed around a service vehicle, but they do need to be able to communicate instantaneously with your field personnel, who likely are using rugged handhelds. "A trend is that users are looking for a single mobile computer that will function within the four walls of their warehouse and still provide them accessibility to data and tracking when they roam outside the warehouse into urban and suburban environments," states Boyd. "However, many businesses still require several different mobile devices to meet their needs — with some performing data collection in relatively benign environments and others used in harsh environments, such as freezers. Despite the diversity and various functional capabilities of products, many are now interoperable and can effectively coexist on a single network — keeping workers connected at all times."

Adding multiple-radio configurations to provide a unified, seamless approach to communications is the biggest improvement in handheld computers over the past five years. However, the improved functionality requires you to take steps to ensure your devices live up to their productivity-improving expectations. Some common issues include electromagnetic interference, battery power, and network management. "When multiple radio devices are designed, engineers take into consideration the physical size, power requirement, and the effect of radio interference between these packaged devices," explains Boyd. "To minimize the effects of electromagnetic interference, it may be necessary to implement filters and protection circuitry to provide optimal radio performance."

Proactively managing your devices' use of communications networks can save you money and improve the devices' performance. In the enterprise environment, data transfer and voice communication often share the same transmitting device, and these transmissions require prioritization on their relevant networks. "Software tools are available to manage the handoff of data traffic from the higher-cost WWAN to the lower-cost WLAN when the latter comes into range," says Bodnar. "This is much easier and more reliable than having the user manually choose which radio they want to use."

Finally, using multiple radios and transferring large amounts of data puts a heavy strain on your devices' batteries. Vendors are addressing battery-capacity considerations during the design of these products to ensure adequate performance within the target applications of the devices. However, to maximize battery life, systems must be aggressively power-managed, which usually means powering down components when not in use. A well-engineered system will handle these tasks seamlessly behind the scenes, improving the user experience by letting the user focus on the task at hand rather than the mechanics behind it.