Time for a tougher tablet

Industrial-grade mobile devices are needed for harsh environments to make the most of the data being harvested by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

By Chris Ealahan, Teguar Corporation June 20, 2018
Though the plant floor rapidly is becoming digitized, technicians still rely on tools. In this case, in order to make the most of the data being harvested by the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), mobile devices are the tools to monitor, control, and respond to the flood of information and to feed more of it into the enterprise system. 
At one time, bringing a smart phone into a plant was discouraged by management—who for the most part thought of personal phones as a distraction. Now these devices are being used with computer tablet devices to link into the system where the functions are located, rather than being planted behind a desk.
As Plant Engineering pointed out in its September 2017 issue, plant management understands that mobile devices enable up-to-the-minute access to enterprise systems. According to the study quoted in the article from the IFS software company, it suggested that,
“Companies with employees accessing enterprise systems from mobile devices, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), enterprise asset management (EAM) or field service management (FSM), were more prepared for digital transformation than their less-mobile peers,” said Chuck Rathmann, senior marketing communications analyst for IFS.
However, the study also found that just 31% of respondents are accessing enterprise software through a mobile device. Those who are failing to switch over to mobile devices are missing out on many benefits. These include accurate and real-time collection of enterprise information for more efficient operation and decision support, both tactically and at the executive/strategic level. Going mobile from a plant engineering standpoint also means more reliable trouble-shooting and less downtime.
Data collection for the IIoT is evolving from pencil, paper, and clipboard (though some still go this route) to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to ordering devices off the shelf from the big box stores. What many sites learned, however, was that while the store-bought tablets work out great in the meeting room or even on the NFL sidelines, the plant floor is a different environment. 
A rugged tablet is a mobile touchscreen computer that offers reliable operation in conditions generally regarded inhospitable to consumer-grade devices. These tablets are built with industrial-grade components that can withstand the non-stop world in the plant. When evaluating rugged tablets for your operation, consider these five attributes. 

1. Ability to handle the environment

Even though the data fed into the enterprise system is going to the cloud using a computer tablet, it is being accumulated on the factory floor. Because these units are carried around the plant, expect them to be dropped from time to time. Even if these tablets are attached to a forklift, they will be jostled continuously, sometimes for a full day.
The best way of proving a tablet’s ruggedness is to run it through a series of tests to determine just how much of a beating it can take.  The most common tests will expose a tablet to vibrations, shocks, and drops. These will determine what level of motion or impact the tablet computer can handle without breaking. 
One of the most common computer parts to fail is the hard drive, especially when jostled, mainly because standard hard disc drives have lots of small parts that move very quickly, which increases the possibility of failure. Now imagine one of those hard drives being dropped several feet to a hard surface while all the little parts in the drive are spinning the discs at several thousand rotations per minute. To avoid these issues, rugged tablet computers use solid-state or flash hard drives and have no moving parts to be affected in the event of movement or impact. 
Custom docking stations with various mounts allow the maintenance of peripheral connections by secured ports and pogo pins. The typically barrel power plug and USB port on a consumer grade computer will either fall out, fail from vibration, or get ripped out by users.
2. Designed to run a variety of operating systems
Manufacturing plants have an array of management and maintenance functions to choose from—assuming the device operating system is compatible with the software. 
In order to get the most life out of devices, they should be compatible with Windows-based systems, as well as proprietary software that may need to be added. Systems also have to be ready for Linux and point-of-sale systems, along with the latest I/O interfaces and ports that can handle higher transfer speeds.
3. Touchscreen design
The two factors crucial for a tablet or smartphone on the factory floor in an IIoT environment are readability and responsiveness. Readability is crucial because information must be viewed on the screen quickly and any miscomprehension can lead to serious consequences.
The larger screens on tablets usually are more readable than smartphones. Because the lighting on factory floors can range from dim to extremely bright, consider units that offer high resolution, sunlight readable screens, LED backlighting, high brightness, optical bonding for additional strength and clarity as well as a wide viewing angle. 
Responsiveness also is crucial. The demands of industrial application require screens with a useful life of 100 million touches. Many industrial operations, particularly maintenance, electrical wiring, or wash downs require protected hands and the high-tech screens on rugged tablets can be responsive to touch even when the user is wearing gloves. 
Having the ability to use a stylus in various forms is also beneficial based on the application: a standard plastic stylus for resistive touchscreens; a conductive stylus for capacitive touchscreens; or an active stylus for tablets with a digitizer installed.
4. Protection against dirt and water
Mobile tablets often will be used in dirty, dusty working conditions and in areas with temperature extremes. According to an engineer with one supply chain operation, they were continually swapping out their consumer computers. “They were dropping like flies,” he recalled. To withstand the invasion, the tablet needs to be effectively sealed against the intrusion of foreign matter and moisture, either on the front bezel or for the whole enclosure. 
Fanless cooling keeps water away from the internal circuitry. By using an internal heatsink to pull heat away from the tablet’s CPU, the processor is kept from overheating without the need for a cooling fan. Most rugged tablet computers use industrial mobile CPUs for long lifecycle availability, wide temperature operation, and power efficiency for longer battery life.
5. A ‘Swiss army knife’ design
A tablet can be a truly mobile tool that gives technicians everything they need in their palm. To interface with the IIoT, industrial rugged tablets need a variety of inputs. These can include having a radio frequency identification (RFID) reader, a barcode scanner, Bluetooth, light sensors, a standard RJ45 LAN port, RS232/RS485 ports, temperature sensors, and an accelerometer. 
A built-in camera is ideal for transmitting still images and video to other collaborators in the system. This is great for service technicians transmitting files or obtaining immediate response to help debug issues in real-time. 
A tool for production
The information collected by the IIoT is key to a productive industrial and processing operation and a means for avoiding costly errors and downtime. The rugged tablet PCs that technicians glance at thousands of times a day in these facilities are the mobile windows into the enterprise system performance. 
Downtime is deadly. As reliability here is a must, the companies that produce portable tablets rigorously test their devices to ensure that they can handle the extremes of the production environment.
Since no manufacturing or processing environment is created equal, be sure the tablet supplier can provide a device that meets the unique demands of the operation and is able to achieve the goals of monitoring and controlling systems functions while interfacing with the IIoT. The right computer will provide the facility with years rather than months of operation. 
Chris Ealahan, sales manager for Teguar Corporation.