There's a lot of talk about which companies will “survive” the tablet computer wars as more and more companies introduce their versions of the popular products. Some companies, though, are concerning themselves with tablet survival — against extreme temperatures, dust and dirt, water and rain, and being dropped onto a hard surface.
The ruggedized computer market faces some unique supply chain challenges when it comes to the design and sourcing of its products. Similar to products in the military/aerospace market, ruggedized computers have a long design cycle and an extended product lifetime. The business model that turns out a new product version every six months doesn't work for companies like DAP Technologies, a Tempe, Ariz.-based manufacturer of ruggedized computers.
“Our supplier relationships as well as our manufacturing relationships are strategic rather than project based,” says Khalid Kidari, director of product management and marketing for DAP. “These are long-term relationships that have to be maintained and partnerships with companies that we know will be in business for a long time. And they expect the same of us.”
DAP Technologies has recently released two new Windows CE 6.0-based rugged tablet computers, targeted at the warehouse, field service, and trucking operation markets.
On the component side, the main issue for DAP is end-of-life management if a product line is discontinued. “Components for personal-use computers don't have to survive temperature changes from minus 20C to 50C, so we are talking mostly industrial components, says Kidari. “On top of that, you have to enclose the component in a certain way — ours are both soldered and glued onto a printed circuit board in a sort of double process, so that if a device is dropped the component doesn’t detach from the board.”
On the manufacturing side, DAP has specialized requirements for its outsourcing partners. Although meeting ISO and mil/aero specs help establish a partner's quality processes, “they also have to understand the 'ruggedized' world, and they have to understand our market and our criteria,” says Kidari. DAP conducts an initial qualification process that has to be maintained every year. “We do regular visits, and sometimes corrective action is required.”
Key to DAP's products is how the computers are sealed against dust, dirt, and even liquid. (Most of its products can be submerged in a meter of water for up to a half hour.) The casings are made of a unique plastic that absorbs and distributes shock. The computers are tested with a high-speed camera that records the device being dropped and measures how the material bends to accommodate the impact.
Although the company uses most of the same components that consumer products use, DAP's choice of manufacturing partners is limited by the qualifications they have to meet. DAP is increasing its EMS and ODM business as part of its overall cost-management process. “We are in the midst of a migration path — it's basically the build vs. buy decision,” says Kidari. “We make those decisions based on how we can best get our products to market.”