When it comes to rugged vs. consumer devices in field service, Michael Lavery, the manager of mobile and wireless systems development at FedEx Ground, knows what he’s talking about. He spoke with Sarah Howland, the editor-in-chief of Field Technologies Online, about why consumer-grade devices don’t work for FedEx in the field — but why he’s considering them for other parts of the business. Below is an excerpt of their interview (the full version is here).
Can you tell us a bit about why a rugged device is essential to the FedEx Ground pickup/delivery operation?
One of the most important things we’ve learned since deploying our first mobile computer for pickup and delivery in 1991 is that the device needs to be rugged. The [Motorola] MC9500 is FedEx Ground’s fourth generation mobile computer, and we have found that a reliable, industrial grade device is essential for our operations. The devices are exposed to all weather conditions and environmental elements on a daily basis as they are used to assist in providing pickup and delivery services across the United States and Canada. We need a device that can reliably withstand rain, sleet, snow, extreme temperatures, and potential drops to concrete or asphalt. Many of the employees working for independent contractors and service providers are completing more than 100 stops per day, meaning these devices are frequently in and out of the vehicle. FedEx Ground and its customers depend on these devices to collect package status information and electronic signatures at the point of pickup or delivery, so a rugged device is essential.
Could FedEx Ground one day use a consumer-grade device with a rugged case?
At FedEx Ground an extremely rugged, purpose built device like the MC9500 is the right choice to support our pickup and delivery operations. These devices can be in and out of the vehicle over a hundred times per day, as well as being handled by customers when collecting electronic signatures. Most rugged mobile computers are put through extensive testing to ensure they can withstand long-term exposure to dust, water, tumbles and drops to concrete. A consumer grade device with a rugged case can improve durability; however, we don’t believe it could survive multiple years within our operation. Additionally, the screen on a consumer device is a concern. Most if not all consumer grade devices use a thin layer of glass to cover the display. They are resistant to scratching but are prone to cracking if they are dropped or take an impact. Consumer grade devices and cases will continue to improve their ruggedness and durability characteristics. However, they are not at a point where they could be successfully deployed in our operation.
You mentioned you’re currently looking into the potential of using consumer-grade devices in other areas of your business.
We are considering a consumer grade device with a rugged case for a specific use within our hubs and stations. These devices would be assigned to certain individuals and primarily used as a replacement for their 2-way radios as well as a tool to access email, reports, and other company-related content. Our goal is to consolidate the number of devices that these employees use to perform their job functions. We have determined that a consumer grade device with a rugged case can work for this application. These devices will be assigned and used as a personal computing tool rather than a shared process or task oriented device. A consumer-based operating system can provide a modern user interface, native applications for email and browsing, and access to thousands of applications. Additionally, training needs should be minimal, given the intuitiveness of the consumer grade operating systems and that most users already have experience with these systems via personal smart phone or tablet.
If you did go the consumer-grade device route for an application like this, would you prefer an Apple or an Android device?
We are considering both platforms. Apple iOS is known for its consistency, and its hardware will be supported for multiple years. Also in its favor are the multiple rugged case options available for iOS devices. If we were to pursue an Android-based solution, we would likely select a device from one of the major rugged mobile-computing suppliers in order to achieve the same level of hardware consistency and lifecycle provided by an Apple device.
Read the full interview here.