Are Your Field Tools Really Up to the Job?

By Mark A.R. MitchellBusiness on Main

If the attire for your mobile office involves a helmet, a hard hat, or boots with steel toes, you might want to think seriously about investing in mobile office equipment that’s similarly attired. We’re talking about PCs and cell phones typically described as “ruggedized,” a term indicating that the device has been designed to perform reliably in conditions that are usually inhospitable to sensitive electronics. While the mobile office environment in which your road warriors find themselves might not be as harsh as a battlefield — the environment for which ruggedized equipment was first designed — a ruggedized PC and cell phone may still be prudent investments if your people are working out of doors or in harsh conditions.

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More than rugged good looks

Ruggedized devices are typically those that have been designed with Military Standard 810F (MIL-STD-810F) in mind. This standard identifies the kinds of environmental stresses that a given piece of matériel could encounter in the course of its service life and sets performance targets with those stresses in mind. The stresses range from exposure to high and low temperatures, rain, humidity, salt fog and dust to gunfire vibration and more.

Built with MIL-STD-810F in mind, a fully ruggedized PC or cell phone might be designed to keep working even after a six-foot fall onto a hard surface. The ports and vents on a ruggedized device are usually sealable to prevent dust or water from compromising the electronics inside. A PC’s screen might be specially designed for easy viewing even in direct sunlight. Again, your employees might not be riding in a Bradley fighting vehicle, but if they’re traveling over broken terrain to gather data from a field installation, you might feel it important to know that the PCs they’re carrying are built to work despite being bounced around on the floor of a truck for several hours.

Ruggedized PCs

Several manufacturers build ruggedized PCs for business use. Panasonic offers a variety of models in the Toughbook series. Dell makes the Latitude E6400 XFR and XT2 XFR laptops. There are also a number of websites that specialize in ruggedized equipment, including Rugged Notebooks and Group Mobile.

As you might expect, the price of a ruggedized PC is typically higher than the cost of a non-ruggedized PC. The question you have to ask is whether the environment in which your mobile users are going to be working is harsh enough to justify the greater investment. Again, think hard hats and boots. If you’d wear them, you’re well advised to consider extending similar protection to your electronics.

Ruggedized cell phones

You may also want to think about ruggedized cell phones for your road warriors. Motorola has built a broad range of ruggedized cell phones for the U.S. consumer. The Brute i680, for example, like its ruggedized PC counterpart, has a sealed keypad and covered ports to keep the elements away from the electronics. If you accidentally drop it on a rock or in a puddle while climbing out of a truck, you can pick it up and expect that it will continue to work — unlike a long list of non-ruggedized phones we could mention.

Want a ruggedized smart phone? One is on its way. Sprint has announced the availability of the Motorola i1 in the summer of 2010. The i1, running on the Google Android operating system, is slated to deliver all the features you’ve come to expect in a smart phone — including over-the-air synchronization with your office e-mail, contacts and calendars — but in a design built for harsh environments. That’s new for a smart phone, and it’s an exciting development.

So look into ruggedized equipment. When the road gets rough, the road warrior gets rugged.

Mark A.R. Mitchell is an avid technology buff and reporter covering small-business products and the Consumer Electronics Show. He holds a master’s degree in English literature from Harvard and has worked with leading technology companies and research universities.

* The Fox Business newsroom was not involved in the creation or production of this special advertising section.

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