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When devices just can't break

Target practice with terminals; standing up to spilled lattes.

By , Network World
April 17, 2006 12:12 AM ET

Network World - Don't try this with your Palm Treo. A team of designers from Symbol Technologies last year made a routine visit to a customer site to see firsthand how Symbol's rugged-computer bar code scanners, mounted on forklifts, were being used in warehouses.

What they found set a new standard for rugged design.

During breaks, the forklift drivers chalked a bull's-eye on a nearby wall. Then, they hung a scanner by its telephone-like stretch cord from the back of the small, nimble, propane-powered forklift. Each driver would take turns barreling the truck toward the wall and at the last second swerving away, jerking the scanner up and whipping it around to whack the chalk target. Each contestant was scored based on how close he came to the target.

Alistair Hamilton, Symbol's vice president of industrial design, still sounds as if he can hardly believe it. "What does this do to my 'rugged specification' for this product?" he asks rhetorically. "It's a problem that we identified as a whole new level of durability that we have to think about here."

Meet the unsung and unseen heroes of rugged computing.

Hamilton, along with William Erler of Itronix, and William Roeder of LXE, oversee their respective company's design teams that puzzle over how to make a range of products that will stand up to heavy, hard use in demanding environments.

Hamilton set out to be a mechanical engineer but found the discipline too constrained. "I wanted to look at bigger system design, and be a bit more creative and out there," he says. He switched to industrial design and landed at Symbol eight years ago.

His comment expresses an intellectual restlessness that seems common to all three men, in a field that could be called extreme engineering. Itronix's Erler, for example, is an avid rock climber when he gets away from his workstation. Now senior design manager for mechanical engineering, Erler, 50, got his start as a component designer for circuit boards. "We're putting as much equipment into a small package as possible," he says. "I liken it to a puzzle."

Roeder, 52, vice president of product development at LXE, joined the company 19 years ago to manage the engineering department. "We needed a new handheld terminal kind of badly," he recalls. Rugged design has offered challenges ever since.

'Beat to hell'

All the challenges spring from one irreducible fact.

"The biggest problem is it gets beat to hell," LXE's Roeder says.

Rugged computers are subjected to rain, grease, freezing cold, baking heat, vibration, crashes, drops, wear, and a thousand other stresses not suffered by standard PCs in a carpeted office.

Total 2004 U.S. sales for rugged mobile computers was $1.9 billion and is expected to reach $2.2 billion in 2006, according to Venture Development Corp. (VDC), a market research firm.

VDC analyst David Krebs estimates that dollar sales of rugged laptops and tablets are about 1/30th of their non-rugged counterparts. Main markets include the military, manufacturing, logistics, warehousing, field service, public safety, retail and now healthcare.

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