Tough enough?

From the June 2020 print edition

Technology has permeated the supply chain across the globe. Once limited to IT organizations, military applications and corporate office support teams, technology has become a critical element of many organizations’ core operations. One of the most commonly used technologies in the supply chain are rugged devices. These robust tools have come a long way since their first significant appearance in the 1990s as hand-held devices used by courier companies and their drivers during deliveries. These early pieces of equipment were basic in nature and often were no more than consumer-grade mobile devices with a re-enforced case exterior and were limited to basic data entry functions. In 2020, rugged devices have become mini powerhouses with extensive capabilities that can rival those of many laptops and mobile phones.

Device types
Rugged devices differ across platforms and functionality based on configurations needed to meet an organization’s prerequisites. There is one common element shared by all rugged devices, which is the stringent requirements that need to be met to be classified as rugged devices. These requirements vary by country, industry and application as it relates to a product’s ability to remain operable in harsh conditions including being dropped, exposure to dust, extreme temperatures (either too hot or too cold), vibrations or liquids. Recognized standards in North America include IP6X for water and dust resistance and MIL-STD 810 certification for shock proofing during product drops.

In supply chain, there are three main types of rugged devices used: portable scanners, laptops and tablets. Each of these formats has their unique functions as it relates to communications, quality control, asset management and inventory management. Communication can be as simple as emails between employees to more complex functionality as communicating material requirements to suppliers based on min/max systems utilized in vendor managed inventory systems (VMI) or just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing operations, which is often found in automotive manufacturing.

These communications can be transferred via a tablet the user employs to transmit orders to the supplier. Inventory management through RFID functionality can be overseen through the utilization of a handheld scanner to not only locate a product but identify what products are on a wrapped pallet or shipping container. Rugged laptops are commonplace in remote locations associated with construction sites, oil and gas or forestry industries. These robust tools offer the ability to withstand the severe environments their users work in: dust, chemicals, rough terrains and extreme temperatures, especially Canadian winters.

Purchasing best practices
Partnering with the right supplier is paramount to selecting the best device to meet a business’s needs and future requirements. There are several notable global brands such as Honeywell, Getac, Panasonic and many others which offer a full spectrum of rugged devices. Mean­while, others prefer to specialize either in a device or an industry as Amrel does, by focusing on military applications.

There are several considerations when investigating the potential of incorporating rugged devices into an organization’s supply chain, of which the four main ones are: change management, system integration, device lifecycle and after-sales service.

First, as with any major purchase or organizational change, it is vital to consider the change management aspect of launching rugged devices. Engaging the end users of this equipment is important to ensure not only the acceptance of the technology but also the alignment between business needs and the available technology. There’s nothing worse than purchasing new equipment and then having it sit unused
or underutilized because devices were purchased based on a price tag, rather than what an organization needed to be successful or, similarly, simply due to them not being easy to use.

In conjunction with the ease of use, it’s critical to review the ease of which a new rugged device can be integrated into existing systems. Some considerations include: will the new devices communicate with existing systems or will a separate, standalone system or a patch between systems be required?

Will an additional supplier be required to assist with system integration or is the device plug-in-play and simple for an organization’s IT team to launch? A successful integration is critical to ensuring the security of the data and systems are maintained.

A device’s lifecycle is an important factor to consider, especially as it relates to the speed at which technological advances occur. Can the equipment be updated? Can the update be completed in-house or is it an additional cost via a third party? How long will a device be supported by the manufacturer? What does the manufacturer identify as the lifecycle? Some manufacturers offer limited support once newer models are available. Is the device futureproof and can it be easily converted to be used with future technologies? These questions are critical to consider as new technologies are on the horizon, such
as 5G and the evolution of the internet of things (IOT).

Before completing the purchase, it is critical to understand what the device’s supplier offers in after-sales support. This includes warranty, repairs, maintenance and technical support. Is the user able to service the equipment themselves or must an authorized repair centre handle maintenance? If a repair centre is required, is a replacement offered during the repair time period to eliminate downtime? If not, it is important to be aware that you may need to buy duplicate equipment from the organization to bridge the
gap while repairs are conducted.

Is technical support readily available to provide trouble-shooting help when the device isn’t working? If not, does a third-party supplier need to be sourced to provide this service?

The current state
At the time of writing this article; the world is experiencing an unparalleled event with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting nations’ healthcare systems, economies and supply chains on a daily, ever evolving basis. The staff reduction in manufacturing and job sites, combined with the risks associated with the close quarters staffing in some facilities, affords an opportunity to leverage rugged devices. For employees who work remotely or to enable physical distancing practices, these devices can communicate data between teams easily and wirelessly.

The future state
Technology continues to advance and change as industry needs change. Rugged devices have revolutionized manufacturing by making it possible for research and development to access product schematics quickly on the production line with the development of tablets featuring large, touch-screen tablets compared to the practice of meeting in a boardroom or reviewing paper schematics, risking safety and possible damage to the schematics with machinery, chemicals or lubricants in near proximity. Tablets and scanners have also changed as compared to their early beginnings in the shipping industry. It is now common practice for a courier to have the shipment recipient electronically acknowledge on
a touchscreen compared to offering a paper confirmation to sign.

Rugged devices have evolved tremendously since their appearance in the 1990s with their tiny screens that were unreadable in direct sunlight, limited battery life and temporal operating in temperature extremes or when wet. These devices can be excellent tools to stay connected across an organization as well
as with suppliers and customers. From inventory management to communications and many other functions, rugged devices can play a role in keeping the supply chain running smoothly across the globe, now more than ever, as globalization continues to accelerate albeit more remotely due to the pandemic.