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Rugged mobile devices must be more than durable in harsh environments

The durability of ruggedized mobile devices is only the first consideration for mobile managers with workers who take devices into hazardous environments. Connectivity, usability and portability are also important features.

Mobile managers must consider more than the ruggedness of devices when equipping mobile employees who work in hazardous environments. Connectivity, portability and usability are also important considerations.

When Allen Concrete & Masonry was looking to upgrade its mobile scanning and time-clocking capabilities about three years ago, the durability of ruggedized devices was certainly a top consideration.

With the devices, which are Nextel phones with specially fitted barcode scanners attached, workers clock in with encoded badges at work sites and note what kind of work they are performing, said Ron Meschko, director of IT for the Naples, Fla.-based company.

The devices can then tie each clock in time to GPS coordinates and a specific work site and then upload the data in real time over Nextel's data network.

Things don't always go according to plan, however. Workers often drop, toss or sit on the devices accidentally. But far and away the No. 1 device killer is water.

"It's going to kill you faster than anything," Meschko said. "It gets places that dirt can't, and dirt you can clean."

Water lingers inside devices and starts to corrode them. When Meschko purchased AirClic's scanner attachment technology, one of the biggest selling points was a rubber sleeve and an enclosed case. "With those two things, we seem to do pretty well," he said.

Such protective add-ons and ruggedized units may cost more upfront, but the savings over a deployment cycle add up quickly.

"You'll spend three to four times as much on a ruggedized device, but it will last four to five years [versus a few months if regular devices are deployed to the field]," said Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates. "It's easy to do the math."

Buying ruggedized devices is an important step before a field deployment, but mobile managers need to consider other factors, or the project could fail.

Usability is a chief concern. Many plans that looked solid on paper have been derailed by users who refuse to use a device with a clumsy interface -- or worse, a device may be unusable in their day-to-day work environments.

"Companies need to make sure the applications are really deployed well," Gold said. Mobile managers should determine whether users would be wearing gloves, body armor or other protective gear that could inhibit their ability to use a device with small buttons. "Really understanding what kind of application a user needs and giving it to him is important."

Usability issues are not a major concern at Allen Concrete & Masonry, Meschko said. An AirClic sales representative observed the company's mobile employees on the job, and AirClic customized the scanner implementation based on his notes.

Connectivity has proved to be an issue for Meschko's mobile deployment, however. At many of Allen Concrete's work sites, Nextel's service is weak or nonexistent, rendering the devices' real-time GPS tracking useless.

Meschko overcame this problem by setting up the devices to continue recording location data after the signal is lost. Then the devices upload the data when the connection is re-established. Worker records are temporarily delayed but not lost forever.

Despite the problems with GPS data, Meschko's project was hugely successful at streamlining the management of mobile employees. Before deploying these new devices, workers had to physically dock and upload scanner data at central headquarters, but some employees did not stop at headquarters for days at a time, delaying billing cycles.

The wireless connectivity allows data uploads to happen daily, if not in real time.

Even IT departments well versed in wireless connectivity might have to learn a few new tricks when deploying technology in extreme environments.

Although he has about eight years of experience managing technology in the hostile environments of Southern Florida construction sites, Meschko said he would strongly recommend pulling in outside expertise.

"We kind of winged this deployment on our own, with AirClic advising," he said, adding that this go-it-alone attitude sent him down a few false paths before he found a solution that truly fit. "Get somebody that you're working with who knows the industry, and talk to them. You don't have to follow their advice … but it's good to hear them out."

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