Rugged mobile technology: Driving better logistics


April 1, 2014

Managing the flow of resources through value chains is an activity crucial to the modern way of life. While the principle of moving things is simple, the execution very quickly becomes extraordinarily complex – and that is why information systems have always found ready application in the logistics industry. And while mobility has already taken the flow of information to the very edge of logistics networks, there remains further opportunity for improvement through the use of more versatile, more powerful and above all, more rugged devices.

That's according to Darryn Smith, Toughbook and Mobility channel manager atComworth. He says successful logistics can be defined by the efficiency of information flow. "Knowing the state of everything in the supply chain gives logistics operators the ability to manage the flow better. When equipped with appropriate devicesand connections, the supply chain is in effect shortened, allowing for greater efficiency and reduced time to move resources from one place to another," he says.

Smith says purpose-designed handheld devices and applications have been welcomed by the logistics industry. "The gadget with which the local courier takes your signature is evidence of that; the ability to track goods from their point of origin to the point of delivery provides security, dependability and convenience," he notes.

But Smith believes these very specific gadgets may be giving way to devices which are capable of doing considerably more than just fulfilling a specific task such as collecting a signature.

"One of the enduring appeals of the personal computer is its incredible versatility. That's allowed computers to do any number of tasks, given the installation of appropriate software – a mantle that tablet computers were quick to replicate," he says.

Devices that are versatile are more useful, as they can support the multiple tasks generally performed by any employee during the course of their day.

In the case of logistics operatives, Smith says this could start with 'clocking on', accessing company information systems, using GPS for route planning or location-reporting, entering or accessing performance data, checking email, taking pictures of goods to be loaded, scanning barcodes and many more activities. "A more versatile mobile tool can also help create a more versatile workforce," he adds.

Rugged, mobile – and Windows 8 or Android

Smith says rugged devices are available today which deliver the full power of Windows 8 in surprisingly compact packages. "Inasmuch as tablet computers are concerned, two form factors have emerged: 10-inch and 7-inch 'mini' devices," he notes.

While the tablet craze started with 'stripped down' operating systems specifically designed for the smaller form factor, advances in technology mean today, tablets are available in both screen sizes but which are effectively complete PCs. "That means the complete 'Wintel' environment and the ability to run any Windows applications," Smith says.

But that isn't to say other operating systems are excluded; for example, Android devices deliver remarkable flexibility and can, in some cases, provide a better use case. "The key is flexibility and choice, with devices now available to suit different applications in the logistics environment."

What makes it rugged?

Standard tablet computers have demonstrated the usability of these devices and have sold in their millions. However, these are consumer-oriented and won't stand up to the harsh realities of the logistics environment.

As a result, Smith says there are key criteria that IT managers should be looking for. These include certification of the rugged capabilities of the devices to be used. "Look for ingress protection, or IP, ratings, which provide an independent assessment of the device's ability to withstand dust and water. Also look for United States Military Standard, or MIL-STD, specifications, which verify the device's ability to withstand vibration and thermal shock and includes a drop test rating."

Additionally, since mobile workers operate outdoors, the screens should be sunlight-viewable while the device should operate in the anticipated temperature ranges in a vehicle and outside.

Other important factors not specifically related to ruggedness include battery life and whether or not the device can be mounted in a vehicle. The ability to customise the specifications – including availability of peripherals and connectivity options – is also a noteworthy consideration.

"Transportation and logistics managers are in the business of moving people and cargo quickly and accurately. By introducing flexible and capable rugged mobile devices which include GPS, RFID, and barcode scanners, and which are resistant to spills, vibrations, shocks, and extreme temperature, a new opportunity exists for further improving productivity and performance," Smith concludes.

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