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The rise of consumer technology strengthens rugged solutions

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There is no doubt that the introduction of smartphones and tablets is causing many logistics IT and operations leaders to pause.

They are questioning if something truly disruptive in mobile computing is happening and they want to understand what it means for them and their operations.

What impact will the rise of consumer technology have on traditional rugged mobile computing for supply chain and logistics applications?

First and foremost, consumer devices have created a dramatic improvement in ‘ease-of-use’. The touch-oriented, full screen-only user interface is the best example.

Because this ergonomic form factor eliminates physical keys and allows for ‘full screen’ use, users have a completely new tactile and visual experience. One of the powerful new technologies behind this experience is the integration of sensors directly into the silicon architecture at the core of these devices. When you flip the device viewing direction, the sensor knows the orientation and automatically allows the display to follow suit. 

The key to delivering this new interface performance is embracing the fact that the use case determines design. This is exactly what product and design engineering teams in the rugged mobile computing business have done for years. 

Digging deep into the workflow use cases for logistics activities helps to inform design, delivering unmatched user performance. But now, these design teams must ride the explosion of consumer device technologies to drive an entirely new round of innovation for rugged mobile solutions with an affordable price tag. 

So what innovations from the consumer products can we expect to see built into rugged solutions? 

Chip Architecture

These microprocessors are a multi-core platform, enabling the device to run and more importantly disable specific applications for increased processing power and battery life.

Design engineers can then deliver extreme power efficiency and actually run and manage many lower and higher level processing applications at the same time - or turn on and off immediately as needed. 

This concept is seen in some of the latest rugged devices. The multi-core architecture is offered on Intermec’s CN51 handheld computer, with a 1.5GHz dual core multi-engine processor equivalent to that offered on current consumer phones.

Specialised Hardware Accelerators and Controllers

These components run video cores, radios, internet and graphics processing, etc. 

This core capability will allow the combination of these features with the required complement of rugged technology solution elements such as advanced imaging and barcode scanning, voice recognition and speech output processing, RFID, GPS and other location sensor capabilities to leverage the same chip and hardware accelerator performance. 

Operating Systems

A major change we will find in rugged mobile computers is the variety of operating systems, with the proliferation of Apple’s IOS, Google’s Android, and Windows 8 from Microsoft.

 

These operating systems are designed to activate all the possibilities of the new generation chipsets, providing hardware and application developers access to the core microprocessor architecture in a stable, predictable and repeatable fashion.

Because Apple’s IOS is proprietary and not shared with other hardware providers, the choice for the rugged mobile community is between Android and Windows.

There are many opinions on how this picture will unfold, but the facts are that Android’s development history has not created enough consistency and backwards compatibility to support multi-generation hardware designs in enterprise class applications.

Microsoft has a long history of building and supporting mobile OS solutions for enterprise class rugged mobile computing hardware and applications. 

Ultimately, the market will decide whether one or possibly both of these operating systems will be used in mission critical logistics workflows, but the direction is clear – the new world order of mobile computing operating systems from consumer devices is here to stay for the rugged computer industry.

HTML5

The last example is HTML5.  The promise of HTML5 is to use a browser level interface between the host application and mobile computer even in ‘off-line’ situations.

Clearly this is a requirement for mission critical mobile applications and not one that browsers today can handle. 

Whether HTML5 will overcome this and become the ultimate abstraction layer between mobile operating system and host application is yet to be determined. 

HTML5 looks to buffer the IT community from some costs associated with supporting multiple hardware platforms used to deliver specific capabilities within the larger enterprise computing ecosystem.

The rest of the design challenge is one of ergonomics and performance to deliver the optimal fit for purpose device.  Again, use case is the key.

IT and logistics managers need to consider the following questions: 

How long does the product have to run on one charge?  
Can you drop the computer and if so how far, onto what, and how many times is reasonable? 
Do your workers wear gloves? 
Do you want to predict failures before the shift starts? 
Do you want a single battery charging system for all form factors?
What new applications will you add during the product’s lifetime, and how do you plan to manage the computers once they are deployed?

All these questions support use case. 

Your data is your currency.  How long can your business stand to be ‘down’? A minute, hour, day or longer?

Not likely.

That is why use cases matter and rugged, purpose-built mobile computing solutions will always have a place in the logistics environment. 

A new generation of rugged mobility innovation is clearly upon us; enabled in large part by consumer technologies.  What a great time to pause, consider your options, and move forward.

[Written by Bruce Stubbs, Intermec Director, Industry Marketing for Distribution Centre Operations. Intermec, now part of Honeywell Scanning and Mobility, is focused on supply chain workflow performance.]

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