Technology users today push the limits of their equipment to the edge and beyond to get the job done. Manufacturers go to great lengths to design devices that will rise to the challenge. (See: Panasonic’s “Rube Goldberg Machine” Ultimate Torture Test.) From oil rigs off the coast of Texas to Alaska State Troopers, all across the country we find examples of rugged technology performing far beyond the limits of consumer equipment.

In my role as a public safety technology consultant, I’m often asked to design mobile computing systems and make equipment recommendations for work environments that are as extreme as they are varied. From St. Paul, Minn. to San Antonio, Texas, I’ve designed systems and put equipment into production that meets the high expectations and low tolerance for failure that come with the territory.

The level of rugged-ability required for a given technology depends on its intended use. Consumer and most commercial technology is designed for home, office and light mobile work in controlled environments. For work in non-linear environments – or critical work – the cost of execution (i.e., the person-hours, equipment, travel time and cost of failure) adds up to far more than the procurement cost of the equipment needed to succeed. In these cases, it makes sense to employ rugged technology designed to the meet the need, giving priority to the users’ success in the field.

Rugged technology is all about mitigating the cost of failure. Consider the difference between the costs of replacement versus the cost of failure. The cost of replacement of consumer technology, like an iPad, is lower than a fully-rugged Panasonic Toughbook CF-31. However, the cost of failure of an iPad on-scene at a public safety emergency is exponentially higher. Because of this, rugged technology is built up to a standard, not down to a price point.

Here are ten of the unique capabilities of rugged technology:

  1. Product lifecycle increases. Rugged computing devices are designed to achieve a four-to-six-year lifespan. Non-rugged devices average a two-to-three-year lifecycle.
  2. Failure rates decrease. Rugged devices are designed to perform in harsh environments and do so while maintaining a 2 percent average failure rate. Non-rugged laptops are built to less vigorous specifications and average 12 percent failure in ideal environments (PC Magazine, 2013). 
  3. Operational parameters expand. Rugged devices are typically rated operational from zero to 122 degrees Fahrenheit and regularly exceed these specifications in production. In cold climates, non-rugged mobile computing devices would need to be left indoors or in a running vehicle with the heat on until the ambient temperature exceeds 32 degrees. In warm climates, non-rugged units may fail entirely and be unable to power back on until their temperature cools to an operational level.
  4. Visibility will be increased. Ruggedized device screens employ sunlight filtration, glare reduction, anti-reflective coatings and brightness ratings of up to 6000 nits to allow for wide-angle viewing in direct sunlight. Non-rugged devices might have lower quality versions of some of these features and will typically peak around 340 nits. Consumer screens are easily washed out in even indirect daylight (e.g., in a vehicle during the day.).
  5. Improved communications. Rugged mobile data terminals (MDTs) offer embedded cellular, GPS and W-Fi modems. When docked in the vehicle, the MDT can turn off the embedded radios and pass the signal through the dock hardware out to stronger roof-mounted antennas. This is referred to as “radio pass-through.” Mount manufacturers make docks with this functionality for virtually all rugged MDT’s. No mount manufacturer makes docks with this functionality for non-rugged devices. 
  6. Low-light functionality. Rugged MDTs offer low-light viewable screens and multi-setting backlit keyboards. Many users work 24 hours a day, and their equipment must work seamlessly into the night without sacrificing functionality or ergonomics.
  7. Embedded options. Rugged MDTs allow for unique embedded options to enhance functionality. This enables numerous executables to be integrated into a single platform. Common options include radio frequency ID (RFID) card readers, insertable card readers, barcode scanners and magnetic stripe readers. 
  8. Mounts and docks. A rich network of manufacturers provides many options for mounting rugged mobile devices in vehicles and work environments. The docks provide port replication for peripherals, extended connectivity options and built-in power supplies for charging the device.
  9. Warranty upgrade. Rugged devices are often covered by standard warranties ranging from three-to-five years and sometimes include accidental damage protection at no extra charge. 
  10. Rugged-ability. The industry benchmark for device rugged-ability is the U.S. Military Standard 810G (MIL-STD-810G). This grueling set of standards covers parameters such as: dropping the equipment from a certain height, vibration, shock impact, high and low temperatures, particulate, liquid and humidity resistance. The ingress protection rating — resistance to particulates and liquid — of a device will often also be listed (e.g., IP65, IP67).
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Learn more about the Panasonic Toughpad Rugged Tablet in my earlier product review. Please add your comments below.