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Rugged tablets: the quest for low TCO

Rugged tablets can withstand dropping, vibration, heat, cold, water and dust. Not surprisingly, they’re also far from cheap. Vaughan O’Grady explains how they deliver where it matters most: on total cost of ownership

 

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Ruggedised devices are designed to withstand being dropped onto hard surfaces, together with exposure to water and dust; Credit: Panasonic

Tablet computers are an established feature of the everyday technology owned by millions of consumers. However, they are not unchallenged in the personal computing market. James Moar, a research analyst with mobile and digital technology analyst firm Juniper Research, predicts an upward trend in the UK, “but at a slower growth rate than for laptops”.

“Tablets will be more affected by a growth in the phablet [machines mid-way between smartphone and tablet] market than the laptop market, particularly at the seven-inch end of the market,” he continues. “The premium end of both will be affected by hybrid computers going forward, like Microsoft’s Surface range.”

There is one area where tablets are under much less threat, however. David Krebs, executive vice president, enterprise mobility & connected devices at M2M market intelligence and advisory firm VDC Research, says: “In the enterprise [sector] and especially for line of business workflows, we see demand for tablets – including rugged tablets – to be generally strong.”

Rugged tablets are typically designed with much stronger frames and glass than their consumer equivalents. They also have hardier skins, soft corner bumpers, and seals that are as water-resistant as possible. Major components need to be able to withstand drops so are a great deal more shock-resistant.

Tablets that can offer this sort of resilience don’t come cheap. Nevertheless there is strong and consistent demand – notably from the military – where much of today’s market has its origins.

“In the UK our markets are principally utilities, military, and the emergency services – police, ambulance, fire and rescue,” says Peter Molyneux, president of rugged computing specialist Getac. “We look at field service, oil, and gas as our secondaries. A climbing sector for us would be transportation and logistics.”

Rugged tablets are a good business to be in, especially now that organisations are postponing investments in laptops or gravitating towards the greater portability and more practical size of tablets.

However, Krebs points out: “The rugged notebook market is approximately twice the size of the rugged tablet market.” Nevertheless, VDC forecasts a healthy global rugged tablet market exceeding $600 million in 2015 and growing to $730 million by 2019.

“The UK market represents just under 10 per cent of global demand and is projected to grow by three to four per cent annually [from now to the end of ] 2019,” he adds.

Go to extremes
A number of computer companies, many of them unknown to mainstream consumers, have established themselves firmly in this small but profitable sector. But it isn’t a market you enter on a whim. Rugged tablets vary a great deal. A customer may need an ultra-rugged, fully rugged or durable/semi-rugged device.

The most critical attributes, says Krebs, tend to include a drop specification (the ability to withstand a four- or six-foot drop onto concrete), an operational temperature range, daylight display visibility, and water and dust protection.

Ian Davies, director of sales, UK & Nordics for Xplore Technologies, explains that as well as being dropped the company’s devices can cope with temperatures ranging from -34°C up to 60°C. It also ensures that protection comes with a sunlight-readable screen. “These little things make a difference in terms of what makes up a rugged device,” he says.

Xplore Technologies’ focus is ruggedised tablets rather than notebooks or laptops. Its recent acquisition of Motion Computing’s rugged tablet products enhanced that portfolio. Davies adds: “There are a variety of markets where rugged devices are applicable. All of them share the same concept – of requiring access to or creation of information at the point of activity.”

Much of the design is standards-driven. Jonathan Tucker, European product marketing manager at Panasonic, says: “Our minimum, must-have features for fully rugged Panasonic Toughpad tablets include MIL- Standard [MIL-STD 810G] and IP65-level ingress protection from water and dust, as well as extreme temperature durability.

“However,” he adds, “must-have features for ruggedised tablets do differ depending on the industry sector. For example, transportation or field services companies may need a rugged vehicle mount system for use with their tablet, or the healthcare sector might need an EU hospital safety certified product to meet hygiene standards.”

MIL-STD 810G is based on test procedures developed by the US military. They include shock, drop, vibration and operational temperature tests. But the tests can differ, explains Davies. “Our lightest, smallest and least rugged device, the CL920, is MIL-STD 810G certified. Our top of the range XC6, the most rugged tablet PC in the world, is also MIL-STD 810G certified. But the procedures and tests those two devices go through vary slightly. The CL920 has a four-foot drop specification. The XC6 has a seven-foot drop specification. The CL920 is rated to -10°C. The XC6 is rated to -30°C.”

Bells and whistles
As you might expect, and Getac’s Molyneux makes clear, “Wireless performance is a key feature to rugged computers and their efficiency for the business they’re representing.”

Panasonic’s Tucker elaborates: “Our wireless connectivity components are protected by magnesium alloy and shock resistant materials to protect the module, which is then mounted by a flexible cable to the main motherboard to limit any shock being transmitted from the cabinet to the module.”

Similarly, Xplore’s Davies says all the company’s devices are built around “a magnesium alloy midframe – an exoskeleton if you like – surrounding all the components, including the radio parts and antennas. We then put the outer casing around that midframe, which combines to give it sealing and ruggedness. We don’t have external antennas on them. We use the latest MIMO antenna technology to get the best signals we possibly can.”

All Xplore devices come with Wi-Fi 802.11c and Bluetooth 4 as standard. 4G LTE and GPS are available where required.

“And it’s not just about the tablet,” Davies adds. “It’s also about the accessories that go with it to tailor it for individual workflows, because the people that use these devices are not computer operators; they are field service engineers, healthcare workers and so on.”

Such people might need data capture, barcode scanners, RFID, a smartcard reader, cameras that can annotate, video share, enhanced physical connectivity on the device (HDMI in as well as out, for example), and the ability to crunch mapping data, or to use CAD/CAM. That equates to “a lot of horsepower”, says Davies.

However, this could have consequences for weight and battery life. Molyneux explains: “We’ll always strive to reduce the weight. On the V110 we created a successful new process where we could take out magnesium alloy and put in ultrabook technology and we reduced the weight by around 30 per cent and the height by 30 per cent as well.”

“What’s the trade-off? How heavy does it need to be to be as rugged as possible?” Xplore’s Davies adds. “Our XC6 is 2.4kg but we still sell an awful lot of them.”

Also, he points out, “It’s not just about the weight of the device; it’s about how the ergonomics have been designed and the feel of it.”

For example, a non-slip casing, or, in the case of Xplore’s F5 series, an integrated handle built into the chassis. “The handle is not just there to carry the tablet. It’s also been designed so that when you rest the device on your forearm and hook your hand through the handle it dissipates the weight across your arm.”

With the sort of functions required of tablets, not to mention the need to work remotely, batteries in particular face a lot of punishment. “Several rugged tablets advertise long battery life, sometimes hot-swappable, to allow for seven- or eight-hour shifts,” says Juniper’s Moar. “We also anticipate increasing incidences of wireless charging to lessen the possibilities of device failure at the charging connectors.”

But this is not always essential. Xplore’s C5 series, which was designed as the original purpose-built mobile clinical assistant device, is used in the NHS and “no data is stored on the tablet; everything runs off Wi-Fi on thin client. They don’t need any horsepower on the device itself,” according to Davies.

Danger, high voltage
That this is not a one-size-fits-all market is fur- ther underlined by ATEX-certified or intrinsi- cally safe rugged tablets, used in areas where there could be a danger of explosion if sparks were to fly – an oil refinery or chemical process- ing plant, say.

The Panasonic Toughpad FZ-G1 ATEX tablet, for example, has been certified for above ground, Zone 2 Working Space use in potentially explosive gas environments. To secure the certification Panasonic developed a special battery design for the ATEX version of the tablet and incorporated the device in a purpose-built leather case.

Beyond Zone 2 are the much more hazardous Zone 1 and Zone 0 environments – still too demanding for tablets, although many companies are working on it.

And yet despite these tablet variations there is one constant. The overriding need is for something that will last. As Davies points out, in the past budgetary pressures often drove IT procurement to buy the cheapest device. “But,” he adds, “it’s not just about the cost of the unit; it’s the downtime.” He cites the incremental costs if a job can’t be done or needs to be redone, data is lost, customer satisfaction is undermined, or extra IT services and support are needed.

In any case, as Tucker of Panasonic explains, consumer items “are easily damaged; the touchscreen displays are not designed for use outside in bright sunlight, or in the rain, or for workers that need to wear gloves. In addition, the batteries are often fixed, cannot be exchanged quickly, and have to be sent away to be replaced.”

Davies adds: “Everyone wants the latest and greatest shiny thing when you’re a consumer, but that doesn’t necessarily play out in the business world.”

All of which brings perspective to the question of pricing. As VDC’s Krebs highlights: “The price points of rugged tablets are around $1800 to $2500 – significantly higher than consumer devices.

“That said, the failure rate of consumer technology supporting workflows better suited to rugged devices is such that the total cost of ownership of consumer tablets exceeds that of rugged ones,” he states.

Getac’s Molyneux cites a client that used a consumer tablet in a healthcare environment and suffered 30 per cent failure a year. If a hospital has a thousand units that’s 300 units a year disappearing. By contrast “a typical rugged tablet failure rate [is] below 2.5 to three per cent per year through its life.”

However, says Xplore’s Davies, “it’s about field serviceability as well. Our high end ultra-rugged devices have a very low return rate, partly because they’re so rugged but also because they can actually be repaired in the field.”

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Panasonic's Toughbook CF-20 is a ruggedised laptop that can be detached from its keyboard to become a 10.1" tablet; Credit: Panasonic

Long live rugged
Ironically, longevity has a downside. “The replacement cycle of rugged devices is longer than that of their non-rugged counterparts. Therefore we are seeing older devices in the field that have a substantial performance gap with more modern solutions,” says Krebs.

Overall, however, the future for ruggedised tablets looks bright. Molyneux says: “Tablets have brought in new markets and new users, and there is a trend to digitise processes. The Met Police wants to give every one of its officers on the beat a digital device. If every police officer got a tablet you’re talking 243,000 devices.”

Davies sees a market for tablets where there have formerly been separate purpose-built computers for forklift drivers and a rugged barcode scanner/mobile computer for other warehouse staff. “We’re starting to see the adoption of tablets on forklifts,” he says. This is because when driving is not required or the forklift is out of action a driver “can hop off, take the tablet PC – that’s been fitted with a barcode scanner – with them and do other functions in the warehouse”.

Juniper’s Moar offers further examples. “We’re noticing uptake in a combination of field services and education, with some specialised devices in the medical field. In particular we’ve seen a combination of wireless charging and ruggedisation produce an ‘ebola- proof ’ tablet from Google, which is sealed and can be dunked in disinfectant.”

He adds: “While field services will be the largest market in the mid-term, after a few years we expect a degree of cannibalisation from smart glasses, and helmets in some cases, which are already producing tablet-like capabilities in a rugged HUD [heads up display].”

Keep it professional
While the demands of the consumer market for lighter, longer-lasting, better-looking machines may influence design and buying trends of rugged tablets, mainstream consumers are not going to buy into rugged devices en masse be- cause of the price differential.

In any case, says Molyneux, consumers want ever-changing features and looks. “The consumer life cycle is six months. Our life cycle is typically – from a processing change point of view – every 15 to 18 months.” The OS is another area where consumer norms, in which Apple has a strong presence, do not apply. Panasonic offers its Toughpad tablets with both Android and Windows operating systems. Molyneux adds: “You have a little bit of Linux, but it is really [just] Windows and Android.”

There’s clearly a lot for organisations to consider when buying a rugged device. But forget for a moment things like price, weight, power, design and functionality, important though they are. Longevity and durability are what really matter, or as Moar says: “Low TCO is the Holy Grail for most of these devices: can they provide value, and can they save operating costs compared to other solutions?” 


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