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Hard Gadgets for a Hard World: What Makes Rugged Electronics So Tough?

By Chris Maxcer
Aug 25, 2008 6:00 AM PT

Portable electronics like smartphones and laptops aren't generally known for their ability to withstand drops, splashes and harsh conditions. Yet the portable nature of these devices means they're often in the line of fire -- swimming pools and toilets for cell phones, dusty places like construction sites for laptops, or even dairy farms with kicking cow hooves, milk and, well, greenish-brown pies.

Hard Gadgets for a Hard World: What Makes Rugged Electronics So Tough?

Some companies specialize in "ruggedizing" electronics to make them ready for harsh elements and the occasional accident, and some specialize in making their products ready for military or government use. So what goes into making a ruggedized electronic device tougher and more robust than its more fragile counterpart?

Are special technologies and techniques used to protect the vital organs? Is it all just a bunch of metal cases with glued-on rubber bumpers? Or is there something more interesting underneath the tough exteriors?

The Only Spec That Matters

It turns out, some devices are merely tough and rugged, which basically means it's only partially tough and partially rugged. Then there are "fully rugged" devices, which means they actually conform to an industry specification. There are lots of specifications that cover devices for different purposes, but the one that matters most for the types of devices that most businesses and consumers commonly see is the U.S. Army Development Test Command MIL-STD-810F spec. Does this mean that devices that haven't been tested to the spec aren't rugged? Not necessarily -- those devices might still be as tough as nails, but the point is, there's a wide variation of tests and meanings for durability.

The MIL-STD-810F spec has methods for testing a device so that it functions under low pressure/high altitude situations, in high temperatures or low temperatures, in rain or humidity, with shock, gunfire vibration, acceleration, in the presence of salt fog or fungus -- and more.

Common Gadgets

The most common ruggedized devices are cell phones, laptops, portable hard drives and flash drives, and tablets or PDA-like units.

For example, take the Casio G'zOne Boulder cell phone. It's built to military specifications to survive extreme shock, water and dusty environments. It can handle immersion in water, ongoing vibration, solar radiation, among other hazards. One more thing: It looks cool, too. It's received solid reviews, though some haven't been impressed with the phone's call quality, which could be attributed to waterproofing.

The Sonim XP1 is another rugged phone that's well-respected, if not more so than the Casio model. In its review, GSMArena.com called it the "Chuck Norris" phone. "We've seen it tossed and kicked around, run over by cars, treaded on by elephants, dropped in a cement mixer. Meet the survivor form factor," noted the GSMArena team.

The Sonim XP1 has hardened rubber molded to a durable, non-porous casing, and the screen has a special scratch-resistant coating. Weak spots in any device's armor -- its ports -- are sealed with plastic caps to keep moisture and dust out.

Panasonic's Toughbook lineup owns about three quarters or more of the rugged laptop market, but Dell has recently dipped into rugged world too with its Latitude XFR units -- available in Black and Charcoal or Desert Tan color schemes.

Built Tough

In many cases, ruggedized devices utilize stronger alloys for joints and connections so they can handle a variety of conditions without cracking or failing. "At low temperature, solder joints can crack," Roger Kay, principal analyst for Endpoint Technologies, told TechNewsWorld. The ability to withstand temperature cycling is also important, he said.

"The way the military sees it, if you're in the cargo hold of an airplane at high altitude and then drop by parachute to a hot desert, that would be a temperature shock situation," he explained.

It's most critical to protect against dust, vibration and humidity.

"Dust and humidity is dealt with in a couple of ways," Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

"The keyboard is actually sealed. The inputs like USB (universal serial bus) have rubber removable covers," he explained. In the case of Dell's offering, King said the hard drive is encased in a shock absorber-style container. "It cannot only survive drops to concrete but also constant jouncing in the back of a jeep," he said.

Dust can be as bad as moisture -- it can build up in exposed areas, and it can create electrical shorts, particularly if it also picks up any moisture.

A typical manufacturing process is to seal off various areas of the internal components with rubber gaskets rather than trying to create a single sealed case, That way, if one part is compromised, the device might continue working.

The All-Important Hard Drive

In ruggedized laptops, the hard drives are usually kept in a protective case with shock-absorbing material, if not rubberized mounts. "If the systems fall, the drive won't get the full shock," Kay said. Plus, the protective cases are often removable -- a feature the U.S. military uses to better secure the data on the hard drives.

So what's the standard drive these days -- traditional spinning hard disk drives (HDD) or flash-based solid state drives (SSD)?

"The SSD flash drives are far more stable and less prone to error and read problems than a spinning platter drive would be," King said.

The difference, however, might be a moot point these days since makers of hard disc drives are capable of building them with considerable strength.

"Standard disks can be protected quite well," Kay said. "They have accelerometers that can tell if it is falling so it can remove a drive head from the disk so any shock that occurs won't damage the surface," he explained, noting that the drive arms and components these days are extraordinarily rigid.

"It's really hard to get that drive arm to dig into the surface -- even though they are floating microns above the disk to read the data, to get them to go that extra bit takes quite a lot," he added.

In the case of Panasonic's Toughbooks, shock mounting is the key. "Panasonic engineers have developed special materials -- including proprietary super sheet technology -- as well as other forms of padding used in shock mounting to protect these drives in the extreme environments in which they work," Kyp Walls, director of product management for Panasonic Computer Solutions Company, told TechNewsWorld.

Wall noted that while Panasonic has offered SSD drives for some time, it hasn't been widely adopted by customers -- largely, he said, because of the success of Panasonic's shock mounting system. Still, "We have deployed SSD-based Toughbook notebooks in the most extreme vibration environments, such as, for example, helicopters where vibration is a significant risk," he added.

What About Heat?

Because rugged devices are so sealed from the elements, they also have a tendency to retain heat, which can be hard on electronics. If heat can't dissipate through gaps in a keyboard or through open vents, how do laptops, for example, deal with high temperatures?

"These things are not dainty -- there's a large heat envelope," Kay explained. The components often won't be as crammed together as in other consumer-grade devices.

"They can also have doors that can be opened and closed or port covers you can open to run them in a way that's not fully locked down ... but then seal it all back up," he added. Some fan vents, for example, can be set up so that air can only exit, Kay noted. Intake air is pulled through a filtered area, though most device makers look toward fan-less heat dissipation solutions instead.

Side Effects

Ruggedized components often come with a few side effects of the ruggedization process -- and from the primary market forces that lead to sales.

Obviously, most rugged products tend to be large and bulky, if not downright heavy. "They are not meant to be tossed in a briefcase or in your carry-on luggage," King noted.

Similarly, they might look tough, but they won't have the elegant lines of something like a MacBook Air -- a minor detail, certainly, but true nonetheless.

In addition, types of usage sometimes dictate changes in components, like liquid crystal displays that are much brighter than traditional displays so they can work well in sunlight. The side effect? Brighter displays consume more energy and drain batteries faster, resulting in a need for bigger batteries.

From a market force standpoint, many organizations that deploy field-tough devices simply can't deal with frequently changing products. Laptop lines that get upgraded with the latest and greatest processors every few months don't cut it in the ruggedized arena, where stability of components and form factors are much preferred. This means that rugged devices tend to last longer on the market and can sometimes appear behind the curve in terms of typical performance specifications.

All the waterproofing, seam sealing, shock absorbers, and extra rubber come with a price, too. For example, imagine a non-rugged laptop with a street price of $1,000. Want a fully-rugged version with the same basic electronic components? Four times as much. Dell's fully-rugged laptops start at US$3,849, and Panasonic's fully-rugged models go for $3,250 on up. Topping $4,000 with extra features with either manufacturer is quite easy.

Either way, ruggedized devices really do live up to their names.

Who'll Stop the Rain?

At least one Panasonic Toughbook has stopped a bullet from hitting a soldier in Iraq, and a ruggedized MobileDemand xTablet PC used at Box Canyon Dairy in Wendell, Idaho, took a kick from a dairy cow and kept working, despite a cracked touchscreen.

"The rugged laptops are good enough to open up and cover your head in a rain storm ... but they still might not be so good with lightning," King quipped.


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