Rugged mobility is getting a reboot and, on June 27, long-time mobility Solutions Architect Rob Karsch of Xplore Technologies joined me and Field Technologies Online for a discussion about what this means for organizations with field-based workforces – including those whose “field” workers are actually assigned within the four walls of a plant or warehouse.
Rugged mobility devices have been on a linear improvement path for quite a while despite the introduction of consumer tablets (more on that later), but recently there has been an inflection point which is driving bigger changes. I have been defining and developing rugged mobility solutions for about 10 years, and Rob has been on the front lines deploying rugged mobility solutions at customer sites for 17 years as an Xplore Solutions Architect. (And speaking of front lines, Rob served as a police officer for a couple of decades before joining Xplore.)
There are actually 2 inflection points :
- The fast gains Android is earning in handhelds; and
- The need for a 2-in-1 tablet for a segment of field workers. Not a notebook, convertible, or slate with a wonky keyboard, but a true 2-in-1 that looks indistinguishable from a notebook with the keyboard in use, and indistinguishable from a slate when standing and working.
I encourage you to take a look at the webinar replay for these reasons, especially with audio on. We addressed a few very interesting questions regarding these two mobility shifts that will likely be relevant to your business, and our responses were spoken, not shown in slides.
The first two questions got to the heart of what some argue is enterprise mobility’s number one issue right now: The pros and cons of consumer-grade devices versus built-for-service devices for field service applications. While neither question directly asked about the pros and cons of the underlying mobile device, the answers to both questions will certainly impact your hardware evaluation criteria and ultimate selection.
The first was about which software is best. As Xplore has learned, and Rob and I have both preached along with the rest of the company: Each customer is different and thus there is no “one” answer to that question. The best advice we can give is to choose the software that best matches your workflow first, and then find the mobile computing devices that run that software the best – whether that be a Windows or Android device, or a handheld, tablet, or 2-in-1.
Next there was a question about whether or not use of the cloud would possibly negate the webinar’s point that field service workers require truly capable mobile devices – meaning those with professional-grade computing capabilities, multiple I/O and data input tools, and advanced wireless connectivity options. While use of the cloud simplifies some administration and data management tasks, the key consideration when selecting a mobile device for field workers is whether or not the device can provide uninterrupted accessibility to the cloud. In other words, devices with superior wireless radios and antenna designs are even more critical with cloud-based systems. Tablets and 2-in-1 mobile computers that have been “designed-for” field or industrial use cases typically have optimum antenna design to ensure the cloud – and the many applications that it supports – will always be available, even in remote or network-fringe locations. Testing in these areas is the best way to ensure that the devices will work. And with testing, you will be able to determine whether or not a manufacturer has prioritized connectivity when designing its mobile computers. Do they design the antenna system first, before any other internal or external device component, like Xplore? Or do they place the antennas around the edges when everything else is designed? Are their antenna technologies field-proven to be reliable in traditionally low-signal areas? And do they have patents that back their engineering emphasis on cloud-connectivity? The “cloud” isn’t available if the mobile device is broken, unreadable in sunlight, held back due to rain, or running out of battery before end-of-shift. All of these engineering considerations must be taken into account for devices that are intended for field use.
I think you can see why these questions also relate to the viability of consumer devices in enterprise environments. Evidence that a device is truly appropriate and “designed for” your extreme, yet normal, workflow demands will be found in the non-hardware considerations – such as its ability to run your software or keep your workers connected to the cloud.
I realize that there are a lot of new software entrants with Android-only offerings hoping to make inroads on these cheaper off-the-shelf devices, and it may seem tempting to “try” these types of solutions first with your fingers crossed that they work without issue. However, that truly is a risky proposition. I’m not just saying that because I am biased towards rugged mobile technologies. There are too many customers who have called us after attempting a consumer mobility solution and failing to meet their goals due to frequent device or software fails. While some consumer device-based solutions may be the right approach for certain situations, it is best to partner with a mobility solution provider who knows the software companies. They can recommend an established developer that has Android apps in addition to the more traditional Windows options, which puts you in a better position to pick the right software vendor. By “right vendor”, I mean someone whose software does not force you into one mobile device form factor or, worse, just one device model. Plus, many consumer device suppliers mask their devices’ weak processing power, lack of storage, and no hope of future-proofing by saying that none of that matters; that you just need a way to view the cloud.
Rob has some great slides in the webinar where he shows that the actions of the consumer-device manufacturers show their lack of commitment to this space, and he shows it in tangible ways. From their dependence on third-party companies to fill their gaps to their seemingly compelling reasons why consumer devices are better (i.e. you can just throw one away or use a case), Rob has tangible proof that their business case for field-based use is more hope than science.
The other two questions were more focused on how to apply the information shared during the webinar about rugged mobile technology advancements to specific uses. One was about the use of rugged tablet-controlled drones, and how they could be used for longer-range uses like pipeline inspections. Rob covered it well, it’s worth a listen. And, for a more detailed discussion, see this article in MilSat Magazine from Durable Mobility Technologies, LLC, president Bob Ashenbrenner.
The other question was about Augmented Reality (AR). Like many new technologies, the first implementations can be used for games, and that was the point of the question: Is AR for games, or far off in the future? As I pointed out, AR is real and here now. That is one of the many reasons why we’re seeing such rapid advancement in rugged mobile technologies. Just as traffic overlays are available on map apps is an example, the use of GIS overlays for tasks performed by field workers can increase productivity and safety for workers. They need the right mobile devices to support these capabilities, though.
Indeed, change is happening in the mobile device field, and the introduction of new features is accelerating. This is not because of pressure from consumer devices. If that was the case, rugged mobile device manufacturers would remove features, not continue to add more. Instead, field service organizations – whether they are Utilities, focused on equipment repair, or supporting Public Safety – have choices that better address their needs. They are receiving more I/O as standard features, not less, since connecting to the world and other devices is essential. (See webinar for Serial Port support as an example of rugged mobility’s current advantages.) This reboot is also providing access to a new generation of handhelds and slate 2-in-1 mobile computers that really address hybrid worker needs: rugged, outdoor viewable, unaffected by rain, heat or cold, and light weight while packing enough battery to support the entire shift and longer. These new devices are being built from the ground up to be there for you long into the future, as you will see in the webinar review of emerging rugged mobility solutions.
Watch the webinar replay now to learn precisely how rugged mobility’s current reboot will impact your field service organization in the coming months and the next 3-5 years, especially if you are considering the addition of drones, AR, IoT or other advanced digital technologies that rely on real-time information flow to and from workers, ancillary devices and back-office systems to improve efficiency.