When the Going Gets Tough

Sept. 1, 2001
Ruggedized computers for manufacturing and warehouse applications is a popular conference topic.

When the Going Gets Tough

I’m not sure if it’s because economic times are getting tough, or because people are getting tougher on their equipment. In any case, in the past several months there’s been more than the usual flurry of activity surrounding ruggedized computers and industrial-strength data collection equipment.

Ruggedized computers for manufacturing and warehouse applications have been a popular conference topic since last year when numerous manufacturers introduced new and more robust models at Frontline Solutions in Chicago.

According to two new market studies from Venture Development Corporation (VDC) entitled The World Market for Fully Integrated Ruggedized Stationary PCs and The World Market for Modular Ruggedized PC Products, a majority of the PC products used in industrial applications are already ruggedized in some form. Ruggedized PCs are units “hardened” to stand up in difficult operating environments, while providing good reliability and long life.

Computer users say words like “hardened” and “long life” are synonyms for smoke and mirrors. I recently asked a few users of RFID and data collection equipment what they thought about ruggedized equipment and what kinds of things they wanted in the tools they used. Although aesthetics was not high on the list, ergonomics certainly was.

Several distribution center managers said their companies are looking at 24/7 operations in the near future. They’ll be seeking equipment that can offer non-stop reliability.

A lift truck operator showed me how he had repaired his terminal with duct tape and asked why cases can’t be made to withstand the occasional bump-and-grind of life in the warehouse.

The manager of a food distribution warehouse said he was stymied by the lack of ruggedness in the lift truck-mounted terminals he was using when he had a freezer application lift truck go out of service. He was unsure if the units on his regular warehouse lift trucks could be used. A similar problem arose for the operators of a home remodeling products company. They were afraid to run vehicles outside in the rain, not knowing how splashproof the units were.

There are a lot of issues that should be resolved in the previous examples before the users run out and buy new terminals. Training and knowledge of the equipment are two that come to mind. But the point is, equipment will be abused, intentionally or not. Manufacturers of ruggedized equipment are bringing new products to market all the time. It might pay to invest a bit more money up front — just in case.

This thought bucks the trend. According to the VDC study, there seems to be a slight trend toward a greater purchase share of non-ruggedized equipment.

There are lot$ of rea$on$. VDC expects to see greater use of non-ruggedized office or commercial-grade PC products by systems integrators, seeking to lower their bid prices, and to improve profitability by using the lower cost products.

Also, there’s a trend toward placing non-ruggedized office- or commercial-grade PCs into NEMA- (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) rated enclosures as a means to meet environmental requirements — but it also cuts costs.

And there’s a growing share of users making cost/benefit tradeoffs for applications in which “true ruggedness” is not required or the application is not deemed “mission-critical.”

Now here’s a most interesting finding from this study: VDC does not expect this trend (toward non-ruggedized equipment) to be ongoing to the extent that usage of non-ruggedized products will become comparable to that of ruggedized products. Often companies that choose to use non-ruggedized products for their first applications find initial cost savings are far outweighed by low reliability, excessive maintenance and downtime, and repeated replacements. Then, having learned by experience, they shift to ruggedized procurements.

Meanwhile, NASA reports that Pioneer 10 is still sending signals from the constellation Taurus after 29 years in space. Now that’s what I call rugged.

— Clyde E. Witt, editor