Getting tough with industrial computing

December 10, 2009   by Luigi Benetton

Oops! A good soaking doesn’t slow down this Hydrus ultra-rugged handheld computer from Two Technologies Inc. in Horsham, Penn.

Photo: Two Technologies

The brake disks of a HumVee military vehicle are not mounted at the wheels but near the differentials to protect the brake lines. Military vehicles are made rugged in myriad other ways, as are many other things soldiers use on the battlefield. And as with the HumVee sold to civilians as the Hummer, ruggedized notebook computers initially developed for military use have sparked interest from people who work in harsh, non-military environments.

Yet making proper comparisons between rugged offerings from computer manufacturers isn’t always an apples-to-apples affair. Notebook makers bandy about terms such as “business-rugged” and “semi-rugged” in reaction to demand from consumers and businesses that find durability appealing in the computers they buy.

Roger Kay, president of Wayland, Mass.-based Endpoint Technologies Associates, is a little more direct. “Since a rugged notebook may cost three or four times the price of a similarly configured ordinary notebook, the category is an open invitation to charlatans hoping to charge a premium for something they call rugged, but which is actually less,” Kay wrote in his 27-page report Redefining Rugged: Assessing the Spectrum of Durability in the Notebook Market.

Partly to protect itself from such charlatans, the US Military published a lengthy set of specifications called Military Standard 810F, commonly known as “the Mil Spec” in the computer industry.

The Mil Spec sets forth standards that notebook computers must be considered for use by American armed forces. These standards state how equipment must tolerate abuse from a variety of elements and events known to make electronics fail. These elements range from temperature extremes to sand and dust to the corrosive nature of “salt fog” commonly encountered by naval forces.

Mil Spec standards fall into two categories: those that occur infrequently enough that most non-military computer users can ignore them (salt fog being a prime example), and those that concern anybody who works in conditions that present a heightened risk to sensitive electronics (such as dust, heat or cold).

John Lamb, director of marketing for Getac Inc., a computer manufacturer based in Lake Forest, Calif., claims the US military accounts for more than 50% of its sales. But for a variety of reasons, rugged laptops will enjoy limited popularity outside industrial or military markets.

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