Automating Your Field Force : Consumer vs. Rugged

Posted May 2, 2012

Consumer vs. Rugged

As you consider a mobile deployment, you might assume that consumer grade mobile devices will more than meet your needs – but regardless of where your field workers spend the majority of their time, there are several reasons to give rugged handhelds, tablets and notebooks a second look.

Rugged devices are a good fit for more than just those users who anticipate extreme weather conditions or highly physical work environments, such as an oil rig or a combat zone.

For a field worker who visits several customer sites on a typical day, tossing a tablet or laptop onto the passenger seat every time he or she gets back into the car can cause gradual wear and tear that will quickly require that device to be replaced.

That device will also face temperatures of up to 130 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit if it’s left in the car on a summer day – so the ability to survive extreme temperatures should be a key consideration as well.

Regardless of the physical demands of the environment, any employee who frequently spends time outdoors can also benefit from the greatly enhanced screen brightness of a rugged device – most rugged devices offer as much as four times the screen brightness of the average consumer laptop.

What’s more, switching from a consumer device to a rugged one no longer means giving up the benefits of a user-friendly interface – more and more rugged devices now have full Windows XP, Windows 7 or Android OS functionality, and offer the same user interface (and the same user experience) that consumer devices do.

Similarly, rugged devices are now available with enough hard drive space and sufficiently advanced processors to accommodate several years’ worth of operating system upgrades and new software functionality, meaning that upgradeability should no longer be a concern when considering a rugged device deployment.

Put all of those considerations together, and it quickly becomes clear why the rugged device market is growing so rapidly – VDC Research Group’s Q1 2011 Rugged Mobile Market report found that the rugged handheld market reached $580 million in the first quarter of 2011, an increase of 19 percent over the first quarter of 2010; and the rugged tablet market reached $73 million in the first quarter of 2011, an increase of almost 14 percent over the first quarter of 2010.

While most rugged devices are priced higher than consumer devices, the complete picture is actually far more complex. When considering total cost of ownership, it’s important to compare the failure rates of consumer devices with the far lower failure rates of rugged devices.

Device failure can take many forms. According to VDC Research, the primary sources of failure for non-rugged handhelds are centered around environmental issues such as exposure to extreme temperature fluctuations, excessive vibration, and water/moisture/humidity.

And because non-rugged handhelds require plug-in peripherals for key functionality such as card swiping or printing (while many rugged handhelds have that functionality built in), those plug-in accessories can also represent a significant source of failure.

VDC Research reports that the failure rates of consumer devices (meaning not just total failure, but any problem that requires internal or third party help desk or technical support) can be as high as 40 percent, which means that repairs or replacements have to be made on an extremely frequent basis.

A consumer device may be cheaper to replace than a rugged device, but the productivity lost while that device is being replaced can more than make up the difference. VDC Research found that mobile device users lose an average of 75 minutes of productivity each time a device fails, which translates to as much as $4,000 in lost revenue per employee per year.

An aftermarket of rugged cases for consumer-grade devices is beginning to emerge to address this problem. These accessories can significantly improve a device’s ability to withstand repeated drops, as well as dusty or wet environments. For certain industries, this level of protection may be sufficient to outweigh the additional cost of a rugged device. Industrial applications where workers are performing the majority of their work outside, such as utilities, ports and intermodal facilities, and HVAC, may still opt for a device that is manufactured rugged rather than “ruggedized.”

All of these considerations have significantly impacted the way companies view rugged devices. “[E]nterprises are taking note of failure rates, especially as they look to mobile devices to support an ever expanding suite of workflows among their mobile workforce,” David Krebs, practice director at VDC Research, wrote in a recent blog post. “Device cost of ownership – including post-deployment support costs and the costs of device failure – is again a top-of-mind mobile investment criterion.”

That leads to several key questions that are worth asking as you plan your deployment:

  • Even if it takes just an hour to repair or replace a device, how many calls would a field worker be unable to go on during that time? How much revenue would likely be lost as a result?
  • How many employees in other departments would be taken away from other responsibilities to handle the repair or replacement process – Customer service? Tech support? Dispatch? Management?
  • How long would a customer have to wait while the field worker calls in for support or returns to the office to pick up a replacement handheld? At what point would a device repair or replacement mean a lost or dissatisfied customer?

While it might appear to cost the same to replace 10 consumer devices that cost $200 each as it would to replace a single rugged device priced at $2,000, the realworld costs are actually far higher for the consumer device – according to VDC Research, the average annual total cost of ownership of a rugged handheld is approximately $2,700, while the average annual total cost of ownership of a nonrugged handheld exceeds $4,000.

All of those factors – work environment, failure rates, and total cost of ownership – should be kept in mind as you choose between rugged and consumer devices.

Selecting the right form factor for the job and optimizing each device’s functionality are also keys to the success or failure of your mobile deployment.

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