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Technology in the Warehouse: Consumer vs. Ruggedized Devices

Because mobile devices are so ubiquitous in our culture, it’s often difficult to remember that mobile computers were once limited to warehouse and other industrial applications. Some of the earliest truly mobile devices were deployed for inventory and warehouse management decades ago.

These ruggedized devices are the workhorses of the mobile computing world, but many users have begun to evaluate less expensive, consumer-grade devices for their warehouse applications. In most cases, this is the wrong strategy. While cheaper phones or tablets may provide some initial cost savings, their long-term total cost of ownership (TCO) is often much higher than that of traditional ruggedized devices.

Architecture: Many companies use legacy warehouse software that may have been in place for as long as a decade, and most warehouse management solutions are designed for Windows-based devices. There is increasing support for Android devices (which are available in rugged form factors) but quite limited use of Apple’s iOS in these environments. Most ruggedized devices are also capable of terminal emulation to access these legacy applications, meaning they can duplicate the performance of older devices used with legacy warehouse applications.

Durability: Ruggedized devices are built to withstand shock, vibration, drops to concrete floors, and exposure to dirt, dust, moisture, and chemicals. They are less likely to fail in a warehouse environment than a consumer device, and are much more likely to survive the rough use they will experience. There are some rugged computers that can even withstand being run over by a truck. This durability means fewer failures and less downtime and lost productivity on the warehouse floor.

Device Management: Large mobile computing deployments require robust mobile device management (MDM) solutions in order to make it easier to deploy software updates from a central location, to provision new devices, and to troubleshoot and fix devices that may be spread out over a large building or campus, or across multiple facilities. While some consumer devices also support these solutions, many phones and tablets do not, or they include security features that make it difficult to centrally provision certain applications. Ruggedized devices include support for most MDM solutions and traditional IT provisioning and management approaches.  The rugged devices also provide additional targeted information about device health and user activity that do not exist in consumer-grade devices.

Enterprise Application Requirements: Most consumer devices can’t handle the requirements of high-volume, enterprise-grade warehouse applications. Ruggedized devices have faster, more accurate barcode scanners; longer battery life; support for multiple wireless networking options; screens that can be read easily in both daylight and dark conditions; enterprise-level security features; and additional options to support RFID scanning, GPS, and other technologies. For fast paced, time-critical applications, a camera-scanner simply does not perform accurately and fast enough, decreasing worker productivity. Consumer devices simply can’t compete because they were designed for much lighter usage and different applications.

Security: Ruggedized devices also provide enhanced security features to allow lock-down of applications so users only access what they need to access and prevents hacking into the device or the company’s network.

Safety:  Rugged devices can also provide extra levels of safety in hazardous areas, such as volatile chemicals.   Consumer grade devices are often not even permitted anywhere near these areas.

Consistency:  With new versions of consumer phones and operating system updates occurring annually, it is challenging to provide a consistent set of hardware and software across all devices in an environment for an extended period of time.  Mismatched hardware and software with even subtle differences in configuration and operation can cause confusion with users and unpredictable performance and ultimately errors and inefficiency.

Total Cost of Ownership: The initial purchase price is just one component of the TCO. You also have to take into account the shorter lifecycle (two years, compared to roughly five years), high replacement costs, more frequent device failures, and the cost of employee downtime and lost productivity. Consumer devices may also require separate peripherals for barcode scanning, or protective cases to improve their durability. This adds to the overall TCO.

In fact, 2013 research from industry analyst VDC indicates that consumer smartphones can increase TCO by as much as 51% while reducing ROI by 34%.

The low cost of consumer devices is tempting for companies trying to control their budgets. But deploying consumer-grade devices in the warehouse will ultimately result in much higher replacement costs in addition to expensive downtime and lost productivity. Using ruggedized devices in the warehouse will provide a lower TCO and a higher return on investment.

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