How mobile communications can improve efficiencies in hazardous environments
22 September 2016
Manufacturers are designing rugged devices that offer optimal performance while withstanding the extreme conditions they operate in, says Getac UK President Chris Bye. This means barriers to adoption are being broken down and organisations are starting to transition from traditional paper-based workflows and manual processing to equipping workers with the devices they need to automate processes, create efficiencies and improve productivity.
VDC Research asked enterprise decision makers in the manufacturing sector about their technology purchasing decisions. Approximately one in five operated in environments with explosive atmospheres. Among those, approximately 70% are either currently using, or planning to deploy specialised mobile computing communications devices to support workflows and applications in these environments. The research report concluded that "by 2019 the market for hazardous rated certified rugged handheld and tablet mobile computers is estimated to grow by 10% from today."
According to the VDC Research report, leading mobile applications in hazardous environments include managing asset reliability and availability, addressing plant safety and integrity and supporting inspections and regulatory audits. Other key uses are key worker safety, access to and input of vital data in real-time, better diagnostics of system or mobile workforce management, collaboration, and worker productivity.
There is clearly a growing demand for rugged tablets or computing devices within extreme environments. With a handful of device manufactures offering technology that will stand the pace, what are the major considerations when adopting the technology?
Connectivity and security are now among the top three criteria when industries look to new technologies for their field workers. This is because they need to be able to communicate quickly, and securely access and transmit critical data in real-time. Reliable connectivity allows field data such as site-specific risk information to be captured and sent to a central database or network in real time. Rapid access to data, or being able to send that data quickly back to base, enhances accuracy and efficiency of demand forecast, inventory control or resource allocation, and can in some instances be the difference between life and death.
For example, Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service crews can be called to a wide range of different incidents at varying locations, from road traffic accidents to factory fires – and each carry their own challenges. The service has adopted rugged tablets which can be docked inside the fire truck. Being equipped to arrive on the scene with advanced information about the location and its potential hazards is a big advantage. With advanced connectivity and the advent of more powerful and fully mobile IT means crews are also increasingly using the technology to gather local intelligence, which can be accessed later to enhance their situational assessment and response.
Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue keeps essential information on specific risks for thousands of separate premises in its area, including industrial and chemical sites and other premises such as airports and hospitals, which means the service needs a high performing unit that can store all of that data and provides access to it quickly. The service also requires a unit that provides the necessary level of security and protection for all the data captured.
Often working in remote locations, connectivity can be at best patchy, at worst non-existent, so it’s important to ensure devices have the latest connectivity features as well as battery life, to ensure the device can last a full shift, or more. To aid connectivity on the move, some mobile devices can be configured to connect to the high-gain GPS, WWAN and WLAN antennas that are mounted on the roofs of vehicles.
With more data being transmitted from various locations, organisations are also concerned with the security of their sensitive and critical data and need to look for encryption and protection against hacks.
Innovations from the chip level (OS) are providing additional levels of reassurance, but for the robust requirements of industry today and in the future, software protecting both data and the hardware itself is a must. This includes encryption and extends to system hardening, peripheral control and centralised management, all of which significantly improve the ability to control devices, enforce security policies, and provide audit trails and reporting, while reducing support and maintenance overheads. It also gives administrators complete control, so they can create separate encrypted user accounts or personas, enforce strong authentication, and manage different application and device policies.
It goes without saying that the mobile devices for these environments need to be robust and resilient to stand up to the drops, vibrations, spillages, extreme temperatures and even chemicals that define a stressful, hazardous environment. Only specialist rugged devices that have been tested against stringent industry standards are going to be able to withstand these environments, and equipment used in environments where there are potential explosive atmospheres need to be ATEX rated.
All mobile rugged devices need to be tested against specific rugged criteria and are awarded ratings that indicate how well they will stand up to shocks and drops, as well as water and dust ingress or extreme temperatures. IP ratings and MIL standards (MIL-STD) are the most widely recognised ratings for rugged devices because they tell a lot about the reliability and performance of a device out in the field. It is important to get the specification correct because this will ensure that the device can perform when workers need it most, but also that it’s not over-spec’d, which will cost more and potentially lead to a heavier device.
The International Electrotechnical Commission’s IP Ingress Protection ratings classify the degree of protection a device provides against dust and water. The rating gives two numbers; the first indicates the degree of protection (of people) from moving parts, as well as the protection of enclosed equipment from foreign bodies. The second defines the protection level that the device’s enclosure has from various forms of moisture, such as drips, sprays, submersions. MIL-STD is a military testing specification that indicates how well a device will cope with extreme temperatures, humidity and pressure.
There are other standards to be aware of as well if the mobile devices need to be docked in vehicles. For example, in the UK the MIRA (Motor Industry Research Association) is the national approval authority that determines environmental and safety standards for vehicles. It has worked with the VCA (Vehicle Certification Agency), to provide standards on docking stations for tablet devices, which need to be accessed in vehicles for example field workers, fire and ambulance and other first responders attending to emergency situations.
Technological features and capabilities
Hazardous working environments usually mean workers are required to wear specific protective clothing in line with health and safety policies. To comply, technology needs to work within these conditions, so for example, a touch-screen that will operate with gloves, or that can be clearly seen in low or bright light conditions. Other productivity and efficiency features that could be important considerations are barcode scanners, RFID readers, cameras and even fingerprint recognition sign on.
Adoption and implementation
There is much to consider when looking to adopt new mobile technologies within hazardous industries. Pilot testing is one of the best ways to find out if a device is fit for specific purposes as workers put them through their paces in the field. It is also a great way to ensure the adoption of the devices - staff need to understand and be able to work with equipment if it is going to deliver the ROI and efficiency improvements they promise. This may mean ensuring that the device is portable enough or perhaps that it runs a familiar operating system such as Windows, as well as bespoke applications.
Overall, mobility opportunities for niche, hazardous environments are increasing rapidly. By applying technology to help manage their mobile workforces, organisations are starting to see benefits including streamlined productivity and greater efficiencies. This is signalling a new trend away from paper-based working to enabling autonomy in the field and with the added bonus of security, all made possible by the latest technology innovations.
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