How to Ask Your Sales Rep the Tough Questions about Rugged Mobile Devices

Sooner or later, you’ll be in one of your conference rooms with a sales person touting a mobile device they swear will be perfect for your business needs. Whether it is a smartphone, tablet or notebook PC, what you need to know is if it is rugged enough to survive the ropes with your field technicians.

Your techs may be working in frigid temperatures in the blizzard-prone Northeastern U.S. or in the high Florida humidity during post-hurricane disaster recovery. Or perhaps your team is responsible for maintaining infrastructure in the arid Southwest desert, where the sun shines high and bright all day and temps soar well into the triple digits for several months out of the year. Regardless of the unique operating environment your field service teams face, the one consistency among all utilities worldwide is the need for techs to have rugged mobile devices that are fully available to them, meaning fully operational , at all times. Of course it would be beneficial if all your entire team utilized a single mobile platform – device, software, etc., regardless of job title or job location. You just need to make sure what whichever form factor is chosen, it will always be rugged enough to survive in extreme job environments and always ready to adapt to evolving data environments. A compromised device – whether broken during a drop, shut down in heavy rain, or running way too slow after being in a hot truck –is just not acceptable.

So you ask the smiling salesperson, “Is this mobile device rugged enough?” “Sure,” comes the reply. “We are MilSpec and IP rated. And we have a temperature range of 0°C to 40° C.”

Though confidently conveyed, that statement may not, and should not, be enough for you to immediately declare your confidence in the device’s ability to survive your environment. Here’s why: The definition of “rugged” is as subjective as saying someone is beautiful or handsome. Some of the rugged ratings systems can be subjective as well; open to loose translation by manufacturers.

For example, to claim Mil Spec 810G compliance for a “rugged” device, the guidelines only dictate a framework for how manufacturers should conduct durability tests, whether they be for drops, vibration, or other critical variables. To satisfy the requirements of the MilSpec drop test, the guidelines dictate 26 different ways you must attempt to drop the device (on its face, on each corner, etc.) Those guidelines don’t specify the height of the drop or the surface upon which the tablet must safely land. They also don’t specify if the unit must be operating when dropped, and they don’t require a manufacturer to specify if it was still operating after the test. So any claim about MilSpec compliance needs to lots of follow up questions, such as:

  1. How far was it dropped?
  2. Onto what surface?
  3. Was any damage noted?
  4. Was the unit in transit or operational when dropped?

It is also important to clarify the manufacturer’s definition of a “successful” test:

  1. Was the unit damaged?
  2. If so, could it still be used (for example, with a cracked screen)?
  3. Or did it remain operational?

When reviewing the rugged device’s stated IP ratings, shift the conversation a bit to find out whether or not the manufacturer determined whether the device is protected from water and dust with the input/output doors open, closed or both. Your workers may need to attach a cable to an IO port, so the door may be open when it rains. So, does this device survive in rain with the doors open? These differentiators are significant, though they rarely show up on a spec sheet.

Other areas that top level specmanship may obfuscate include:

  1. Vibration testing (Is the vibration similar to what your trucks or other industrial equipment generate?)
  2. Operating temperature (closed trucks in the southwest can get really hot)
  3. Humidity (How many cycles of the test were run?)
  4. And many others

Now, I just want to make sure you’re aware that rugged mobility ratings are up for manufacturer interpretation to a certain extent, so you need to have a clear understanding of the language used and how it maps to your field reality.

Maybe more relaxed specs are all that you need based on your organization’s primary workflow and workers’ typical daily flow. After all, everything is a compromise. It’s no secret that the more rugged a device is, the larger, heavier and costlier it may be. So if your techs mostly work in customers’ homes, a less rugged mobile device with a limited spec sheet may be a perfect match. But in many cases, you’ll conclude after your Q&A with the sales rep (or perhaps many sales reps) that a rugged tablet PC is the right choice for your field service environment. After all, while any mobile device must operate well on hot or cold days, some will sooner or later be dropped by a tech while walking on pavement. What you most likely need is one that will survive that drop in the rain or snow as well. Knowing that you need to ask for more specifics can help you definitively match their product to your need. It may make the salesperson squirm, but by asking these follow up questions you can find the product that matches your unique needs.

Perhaps the best test of a mobile tablet PC’s true ruggedness – and the one tough question you should always ask – is the one my colleague Tom Kost recently shared during a Field Technologies Online webinar:

Will the device – and therefore critical work – STOP if the device were to DROP from your workers’ hands or a forklift, for example, or if some water were to ROLL onto the screen or into one of the ports?

I also encourage you to complete an even more important pre-evaluation exercise to define what “rugged” needs to mean to you and your organization before you either Stop (the old pen and paper ways), Drop (your device to test its survivability) or Roll (out any new rugged mobile device en masse):

  1. What does your field service workflow demand in terms of software and data capabilities?
  2. What does the work environment demand in terms of drop or water protection? What other industry certifications are a must to ensure compliance with chemical or dust exposures?
  3. What does your budget demand? Easily replaceable (consumer design) or always reliable (rugged design)? Both have a cost, but what will the total cost of ownership really amount to over three years? It’s not just about device replacement cost. It’s about the cost of lost data, downtime, unhappy customers, etc.

Once you have the above requirements clearly outlined, then you can determine whether your mobile workers and their devices are meant to be (or not to be) ruggedIf they are, how rugged should they be? When is ultra-rugged too much and semi-rugged not enough? And do your workforce’s rugged requirements match up with the ratings reality of spec sheets?

Asking these tough questions will put you be in a position to make a truly informed decision about the right rugged tablet PC for your unique mobile team.