Magazine Article | February 24, 2012

Why Does A Rugged Tablet Cost More Than An iPad?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Ron D’Ambrosio, CEO, Glacier Computer,

There are three main areas that drive up the cost of rugged tablets: manufacturing volume, engineering, and configurability.

Tablet PCs are the must-have technology of this decade. Every day we receive calls from companies which have questions about rugged tablets. Inquiries are often focused on specifications, features, and pricing expectations based on consumer-grade tablets.

We repeatedly hear, ‘Our budget is under $1,000 per unit’. But why is the budget under $1,000 for a rugged version of a tablet? In reality, taking the iPad price and doubling it to cover perceived ruggedization costs is an incredible oversimplification and very unrealistic. Why? Well, there are three main areas that drive up the cost of rugged tablets — manufacturing volume, engineering, and configurability.

The Impact Of Manufacturing Volume
Identifying consumer market potential is straightforward with buying trends and technology adoption well researched and understood. MSRP is set by a market leader who is only building one or two flavors of a tablet. The known market is millions of pieces; manufacturing costs are low and predictable. The commercial space is very different

Field service encompasses numerous applications from the home office to extreme environments like oil fields, ski resorts, disaster relief, and first responders. One solution won't fit all. The commercial market potential is difficult to predict, and certainly less than the consumer market. Commercial tablet acquisitions are in the early adopter phase with many companies still trying to determine the optimal display size for their application. Variation in requirements keeps volumes low and manufacturing costs high.

Engineering Makes A Difference
Engineering consumer-grade tablets is easily identified for the average consumer who will surf the web, play games, check email, read books, and Skype. Consumer tablets are used in climate-controlled, carpeted environments, and when they are dropped on concrete, their extended service contract covers repairs outside the standard warranty. Consumer expectations are usually aligned with the manufacturer's design.

Commercial tablet customers want a device that runs fast, takes abuse, and works in their environment — no matter how harsh. So engineering for rugged tablets starts at the component level and moves outward through the power supply, housing, display, and docking stations. Processors are selected for speed, heat dissipation, and battery management. The housing needs to withstand three- to six-foot drops to concrete. Ingress protection against moisture and fine particles is standard and rated to at least IP54. Working outside requires a sunlight readable display. Adding these rugged design features drives up manufacturing costs.

Can You Configure Your Device?
Consumer-grade tablets offer few optional features. You may have a choice of housing color and aftermarket peripherals. You just need the tablet to quickly boot up to get your browser so you can check email and maybe edit work documents that are in the cloud. How many options are really available when purchasing a consumer-grade tablet?

Field service professionals work across a broad range of applications. Some will require data collection such as bar code scanners, digital imaging, RFID or signature capture, while others need WiFi and telecommunications, and a vehicle docking solution. Designing a computer to be highly configurable adds cost.

It is tempting to compare apples to oranges and create a TCO (total cost of ownership) scenario that justifies the break/fix rate that is inevitable when using consumer tablets for commercial applications. But thinking you can buy four iPads at $499 each before you meet the cost of one rugged tablet for $2000 doesn't hold up. While the argument looks good on paper, it starts to fall apart when a device is broken causing unplanned downtime and all the costs associated with that downtime.

Tablet PCs are a great form factor for field service technicians. Larger display sizes, vehicle docks, and better power management make them easy to use and add real productivity gains. Buying smart means working with a trusted vendor, taking the time to ask lots of questions, doing a pilot program, and making sure you are getting the right device for the job. Remember — savings doesn't always come with the lowest MSRP.