Turn on the Data Tap

Mobile technologies are gaining momentum everywhere as a means to streamline operations, reduce human errors and improve service. According to a recent report by industry analyst firm IDC, the mobile workforce will grow more than 30%, to 850 million people, by 2009. This growth is driven by increasingly portable, increasingly affordable mobile technology such as notebooks and new wireless technologies that promote seamless connectivity.

Mobile computers have a variety of important uses in the water industry, from meter reading to mapping and customer service. Devices equipped with wireless networking capabilities, for example, allow technicians to receive and file work orders without ever coming into the office, saving hours per day in administrative time.

Whether your organization is a veteran user of mobile devices, or is looking at automating processes or cutting down on paperwork for the first time, the decision to turn on the “data tap” for your field-based work force requires you to evaluate a number of criteria that impact success.

Up to the test?
Notebook PCs in the water and waste industries are typically used under less than ideal conditions. With several different options for wireless connectivity now available, it makes sense for even more workers to be on the move.

This raises a critical question: Are your PCs designed to withstand life in the field?

Many organizations have learned the hard way that notebooks built for the office and those built for the road are not created equal. As a result, rugged notebook solutions have become more commonplace. Offering robust features such as shock-mounted hard drives, magnesium alloy cases, long battery life and daylight-readable screens, these notebooks are designed to promote productivity no matter what conditions workers face.

Higher standards
Because rugged computing got its start in military applications, there are specific criteria manufacturers must meet in order to call their products “rugged.” The MIL-SPEC or MIL-STD-810F standard was developed to certify that a device is durable enough to withstand a mission-critical military environment. There are a number of tests to determine whether units can withstand vibration, moisture, extremes in temperature, drops, shocks and dust—all potential hazards a mobile notebook user might face. Ask manufacturers to share testing procedures for achieving these certifications.

Additionally, screen brightness is vitally important. Ask potential vendors about the NIT (a measure of screen brightness) ratings for their screens and if they are daylight-readable. A standard notebook designed for indoor use is likely to have a display rated at about 300 NIT. Some rugged vendors have achieved benchmarks of up to 500 NIT—widely considered bright enough to be viewed in sunlight—and continuously push the balance between screen brightness and longer battery life.

When evaluating possible devices for your mobile workforce, take a close look at the reliability records of the vendor. Most computer vendors do not design and build their own notebooks, opting instead to resell third-party manufactured boxes. This is a critical consideration—especially with mobile PCs—because the expectation is that these units will need to last longer. It’s also important to consider the quality and length of warranty programs and technical support when choosing products. While rugged and semi-rugged solutions are typically sold at a premium, it is widely held that this more than pays off through reduced total cost of ownership and operational improvements.

A wireless landscape
The rise of wireless data networks, coupled with the evolution of software solutions, has made advances in field automation, project management and collaboration widely accessible to organizations large and small. Wireless wide area network (WWAN) service is provided by cellular carriers and is generally deployed in support of point-of-delivery tracking and messaging and load planning applications. Most wireless carriers now offer “third generation wireless” networks that are capable of delivering data speeds faster than dial-up and close to DSL or cable TV internet.

An alternative to WWAN is wireless local area network (WLAN) technology. Also known as Wi-Fi, this technology can be easily and cost-effectively deployed with an 802.11 access point that can deliver data speeds ranging from 1.5 to 54 mps. WLAN is effective on site, in a cross-dock situation, when tying into warehousing systems or even when looking to access service diagnostics data or schematics in the fleet service bay. Note that some municipalities have deployed large-scale wireless networks to enable connectivity for businesses, public safety organizations and individuals.

Other wireless technologies include GPS mapping or GIS systems for navigation and routing, as well as Bluetooth technology, which can be used, for example, for wireless printing.

Because mobility is the main reason why rugged computing came to be, most rugged computer manufacturers take wireless technology very seriously. They engineer their systems to include integrated, or embedded, antennae to provide the maximum number of wireless options for users. By contrast, many non-rugged notebook manufacturers provide wireless access through PC cards. Because these antennae are add-ons, data speed and quality are compromised. Non-integrated external devices introduce a potential point of failure, reduce the user’s ability to effectively manage battery life and even increase the risks of loss or theft. As a result, embedded solutions are generally preferred in field environments.

Eyes wide open
When evaluating field automation projects, be very clear with your potential vendors and solution providers about your needs, and don’t be afraid to hold their feet to the fire about why they think their solution is better.

Hopefully, this article has provided some useful guidelines and considerations to help make that evaluation easier.

Thell Gillis is market development manager of energy, utilities and communications industries for Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. He can be reached at 800/662-3537, option 5 or by e-mai at thell_gillis@us.panasonic.com.

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