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Is a Rugged Tablet’s Vibration Tolerance Its Greatest Virtue?

Cargo trains, tractor-trailers, and even forklifts are susceptible to heavy, and frequent, vibrations. So are the PCs inside them. That doesn’t mean that PCs should be precluded from use in such environments – nor should fleet managers have to pay the exorbitant cost of replacing mobile computing devices that struggle to perform when they’re shaken up.

Mobile devices are increasingly used within the transportation, distribution, and manufacturing sectors as organizations seek ways to reduce shipping errors, increase communications in transit, and improve the quality of their operations from the point of origination to the destination. Powerful mobile PCs can provide real-time communications and data-sharing among all involved parties to support more efficient coordination of resources and prevent missed deadlines. However, as reliance on electronic systems increases, so does the risk of a system “breakdown” if the central PC – the mobile device – can’t tolerate high levels of vibration, shock, dust, water, or other environmental exposures in its daily routine.

That’s where rugged tablets’ tolerance for physical and processing challenges alike prove to be effective.

Most mobile computing devices can be protected from water or dust by rugged cases, including commercial off-the-shelf tablets or smartphones. That’s not an option I condone, as cases don’t offer the same level of impermeable protection as fully rugged or ultra-rugged devices themselves. However, it could hypothetically work.

What such exterior cases can’t do is protect a non-rugged mobile device against the consequences of frequent vibration or shock exposure. That’s why so many customers in warehousing, distribution, manufacturing, government, utilities, public safety, and even the military find themselves quickly re-investing in truly rugged mobile form factors after trying to “save money” with seemingly less expensive consumer-familiar brands. Some end-users even realize that lab-tested and rugged rated devices couldn’t cut it in the real world when asked to shake off:

  • An un-sprung firetruck that hits a large pothole, resulting in more than 20G of shock
  • The frequent vibration of sheriff’s SUV on rural roads
  • The rumblings on the flight line from a nearby F-16 jet taking off
  • The not-so-smooth lift of a utility bucket truck
  • The constant vibration of the Department of Transportation bulldozer prepping roads for new pavement
  • The shaking of the forklift used to unload cargo containers from the railcars and transport them across the uneven concrete of the terminal storage facility

Rugged, vibration-resistant Tablet PCs are increasingly required for transportation, distribution and manufacturing sectors

In fact, most mobile PC devices – regardless of form factor – are prone to high failure rates, and fast failure, when vibrations are present. The prevalence of vibration may not always be apparent, or perhaps the impact of vibration is discounted by mobile device decision makers. So they verify a mobile PC’s real-time data processing power and analytic prowess, confirm its software compatibility with internal workflow requirements, and then simply take the manufacturers’ “rugged” claims at face value. But that is where mistakes are made and investments can become costly.

A mobile PC is only as strong as its combined physical and internal strengths, and a tablet PC that gets rattled by a little vibration, especially when docked in the vehicle, will prove useless for the job it was “hired” to do. Even if the upfront costs seem low, the lost time, productivity, and eventual replacement costs of underperforming devices will far exceed any perceived savings. That’s why you have to consider a mobile computing solution’s total tolerance for your workflow demands, and  total cost of ownership (TCO), when searching for the right mobile computer candidate for the job at hand. It’s also why one of a rugged tablet’s greatest virtues – and most-embraced selling points – is its genuine tolerance for frequent, on-the-job vibration. It is very difficult to shock a truly qualified rugged tablet to the point of failure, docked or undocked. But each rugged tablets’ true qualifications may be hard to discern at first glance if they carry similar MIL-STD-810G vibration ratings.

Think of it this way: Just as a resume doesn’t confirm an applicant’s qualifications for the job, a spec sheet alone can’t confirm even a rugged tablet’s candidacy for jobs in more extreme operating environments. It isn’t a true indicator of the “total” package or performance capabilities. Lab tests and rugged ratings simply can’t predict a rugged tablet’s performance under real-world operating conditions or daily stresses, just as a college degree can’t predict a person’s performance – or application of their skills – in the real world. So, as a resume only gets a job applicant selected for the next round of interviews, a spec sheet should only get a rugged tablet to the next round of demos or trials – especially if it is new to the market or doesn’t have a 10 or 20 year field-proven track record to rely on.

Remember: Even in those situations where selecting a rugged tablet form factor is a no-brainer, it’s imperative that end-users select the rugged tablet that has consistently maintained low-to-zero failure rates in rigorous, real-world use cases for years. Unlike commercial devices that admittedly require replacement every 1-2 years, rugged tablets are intended to last 5, 7, even 10 years. These are meant to be long-life cycle investments. A rugged tablet or laptop that proves to be too shaken up to maintain its original processing power or speed after a year or two isn’t really right for vibration-prone environments. In other words, even some rugged devices are not right for long-term use in vehicles or on heavy machinery.

So what is the right vibration rating for my operating environment?

  • Look for high performance vibration-resistant rugged tablets and in-vehicle docking systems that exceed the typical MIL STD 810G US Highway Truck 1.04 G rms and 20G Shock ratings.
  • Make sure the tablet and dock are tested to the vicious 7.7 G rms Minimum Integrity Profile as well. Though the “minimum” connotation seems misleading, let me assure you that this vibration testing level can shear heavy components of circuit boards and cut battery cell connections on rugged tablets that “don’t pass.”
  • If one of the above mentioned scenarios applies to you, it’s even better to select a rugged tablet and in-vehicle docking solution that’s been proven to operate at the more rigorous Composite Wheel Vibration profile, 2.24 G rms in all three axis. This will ensure that all external connections to vehicle peripherals will be maintained despite the roughest conditions.
  • If it can pass crash shock levels of 40Gs, that’s even better. Some of the industry’s top ultra-rugged tablet solutions can actually survive 75G Crash Shock based on MIL-STD-810G standards. Those ultra-rugged tablets are ideal for the ultra-extreme environments found in military operating theaters and even firetrucks or transportation. 

The selection of a mobile computer for vibration-prone environments requires a thorough vetting process that will ultimately rely on field-validated failure rates and  TCO calculations. However, there are several other factors to consider when selecting a mobile PC for your unique industry environment. Download our industry-specific Feature Checklists today to make sure your device selection will position your organization for long-term mobility success and return on investment (ROI):

Transportation & Distribution Rugged Feature Checklist >
Oil and Gas Rugged Feature Checklist >
Government/Military Rugged Feature Checklist >
Public Safety Rugged Feature Checklist >
Utilities Insights and Rugged Feature Checklist >

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