As more organizations take systems automation into the field, a critical decision must be made around the hardware platform to use. They must consider handhelds vs. laptops vs. smart phones. As more employees become familiar with smartphones, it becomes tempting to go this route. They are relatively inexpensive, especially in conjunction with a phone plan from a provider. The problem is the durability and in many cases, this is a deal breaker for those wanting to take an application into the field. They are just not rugged enough and in our experience, you will likely find yourselves with a bucket of broken ones after just a few months. Then it becomes both a cost and accessibility issue if the device is no longer available when you need it. Screens are generally quite small although using a newer style of tablet alleviates this problem somewhat but still with a lack of ruggedness.
Laptops definitely have their place. If you have a service vehicle that requires a laptop for an application such as engineering, you could run a field application on it to collect information. They tend to lack mobility and in many cases, are not rugged enough. The cost has certainly come down but not necessarily for the ruggedized ones needed for some environments. Laptops tend to work well for complex field applications and are multi-use.
Finally, the third common choice is a handheld device from companies such as Motorola or Intermech. These can be purchased with whatever level of ruggedness or features is required for a particular application. They work very well in environments where a simple, easy to use interface is required for those with limited computer skills. Although they cannot handle the very complex applications that would be better suited to a laptop, they can handle a wide variety of applications in the service industry such as timesheet collection, deliveries, equipment inspection, etc. They come with a full suite of features including cameras, cell phones, data connections, RFID, bluetooth, touch screens, Wifi, and a host of specialized certifications for various environments. Although the more expensive ones may seem costly, they represent a solution that many times more reliable than the average smart phone or tablet. Their relatively small size allows them to be clipped to a belt, which works well when a laptop isn’t available.
Watch for a future article on how these systems handle remote field work where internet connections are not available.