Magazine Article | September 24, 2008

What's Powering Your Mobile Solution?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

With the constantly advancing functionality of mobile devices, it is important not to overlook the battery that keeps your mobile device running. 

Integrated Solutions, October 2008

I was purchasing some pet food recently when the cashier reached across to scan the bar code of the 50-pound bag with a wireless scanner so that I wouldn't need to lift it onto the conveyor. He was frustrated when the scan did not work and complained that he had been having that problem all day. "You probably have a dead battery," I said, to which he replied, "This thing has a battery?"

This cashier is not alone in overlooking the importance of the battery to the performance of a mobile device. With today's technology of mobile computers, cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops, two-way communications, and a host of other wireless devices, we now have truly mobile workers. While much attention is paid to the myriad of new functions these devices offer, most users, like the aforementioned clerk, don't put much thought into the 'little engine' that is powering their mobile devices — the battery.

Advances in mobile computing technologies have resulted in various productivity-enhancing benefits for the mobile workforce. Over the past several years, millions of bar code scanners have been replaced with full-fledged mobile computers offering many new features. Advanced scan engines, color displays, Windows operating systems, 802.11 and Bluetooth connectivity, VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol), and push-to-talk are some of the features now regularly found on mobile computers.

Much focus is placed on these new features when planning for deployments — How will my software transition? How will I integrate this with my IT infrastructure? How will I train my employees?  In planning, what is often overlooked is the impact these new features have on the power management of the device.

The prior generation of mobile computers primarily relied upon nickel-based batteries. These batteries offered relatively little capacity, but the devices themselves were only performing limited functions and were generally adequately powered. The addition of new features has had a twofold impact on battery performance requirements. These devices now require more power to accommodate the increased functionality. Also, with the mobile worker using the device for more functions, the enterprise's dependence on the mobile devices to effectively run their business is increased.

While mobile devices' processors benefit from Moore's law (a trend in the history of computer hardware whereby the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, doubling approximately every two years), battery technology has historically increased at a far slower pace.

Numerous new technologies are being developed to help solve power management issues, but the industry has found only incremental improvements in the short term. While advances in lithium ion battery technology continue, lithium polymer battery technology may be viewed as the technology best positioned to make a major impact on the market. Lithium polymer battery technology incorporates the strengths of a traditional lithium ion battery with the benefit of allowing the battery to be custom shaped to fit a specific space in the device. This custom fit can be especially important in the design process of new mobile devices. Lithium polymer batteries also boast increased safety — you can actually drive a nail through one, and it will continue to safely operate.

More than ever, an enterprise should carefully consider the batteries it chooses to power its equipment as well as the charging infrastructure it puts into place to support the equipment.  Additionally, an enterprise should recognize that there is a trade-off between the power a battery provides between charges and the number of charges (or cycles) that a battery will last. Effectively managing a fleet of batteries and chargers not only becomes critical to insuring the productivity of a mobile workforce by mininmizing downtime, but doing so also impacts the bottom line.

If we examine the cost of utilizing batteries that run a full shift versus using batteries that do not, the financial impact is staggering. Studies that our company has conducted have found that it takes workers on average 17 minutes to swap out a battery. Multiply this by the number of workers in a given facility, times the number of shifts you are running, times your days in operation, times workers' average hourly rate. Surprised by the number you come up with? You aren't alone. Most enterprises that we walk through these steps are shocked by this number and by the impact that a battery can have on the company's bottom line. Batteries are an important but oftentimes overlooked part of enterprise planning. Make sure the batteries you are utilizing last a full shift, and you will be well-positioned to improve the productivity of your workforce.