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The Unique Challenges of the Ruggedized Supply Chain

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.”

7 comments on “The Unique Challenges of the Ruggedized Supply Chain

  1. Backorder
    February 28, 2011

    Good to read about tablets which are meant for anything other than improving one's cool quotient!

    Jokes apart, I think the article brings out an important topic. The one relating to existence of a thriving ecosystem of ODM and EMS with expertise in Ruggedized equipment. It would be much more economical for companies like DAP to adopt a mostly buy approach leveraging such a network.

  2. Taimoor Zubar
    February 28, 2011

    With a lot of new players entering the tablet market, the competition is getting tough. In this situation, the tablet manufacturers would want to differentiate themselves and try to adopt a niche area. I think the 'ruggedized' tablet is one such area. As the tablet market expands, I think a lot more manufacturers will adopt similar moves. Some might go for ultra lightweight tablets, some might want to take the lead and speed and processing power, some may want to make it graphically enhanced and so on.

  3. Jay_Bond
    February 28, 2011

     

    It's nice to hear about a company that still caters to needs rather than the latest trends. Some tablet manufacturers would definitely have a place in the market by introducing these types of products. There would of course be that big problem that everybody is facing, how do you stay ahead in the market, and keep up with consumers wanting new and improved products every few months? There is a market place for tablets like this, but if they are built to last and withstand abuse, they are not going to get large volume sales. 

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 28, 2011

    I have visited every possible insult on my former laptop and dropped more than one cell phone in the water. I'm really impressed by the measures taken to ruggedize a computer. I actually learned there is a standard higher than the “30 minutes in one meter of water” cited above. I'd be happy with 30 seconds in a shallow mud puddle.

    Anyway, I'd love to be part of the testing process for one of these things.

  5. DataCrunch
    March 1, 2011

    When it comes to ruggedized mobile computing, the two leaders are Motorola (their enterprise mobility group) and Intermec.  The tablets these companies would produce would be able to withstand being dropped and have the ability to operate in an industrial environment.  They would also have integrated barcode scanning capabilities.  Like most of their current ruggedized mobile device products, they are meant to be used in rougher environments and are rarely, if ever, used as a consumer product.  No retail consumer would want a tablet running Windows CE, but in the ruggedized tablet world this makes sense because many of the apps written in the ruggedized mobile computing world are running Windows CE already.    

  6. Ken Bradley
    March 1, 2011

    Barbara, this article brings up a very good point on product and supply chain design. That point is “know what makes your product special and make sure your product, manufacturing and supply chain are designed to deliver on those special needs”. Not everything in ruggedized computers is special. As you state   “Although the company uses most of the same components that consumer products use”: this is a key point. The design must address what is special and what is not. Don’t pay the cost of special for things that are not special!

     

    The military now has a major thrust to use commercial products in applications where they can. Historically, they have paid a high price for assuming that everything was special. Likewise the term “carrier grade” in telecom has long been used to justify elaborate measures and costs when the activities or selections leading to those costs were irrelevant to the outcome. Focus on what matters.

     

    Good article.

  7. kidarik
    March 1, 2011

    Actually, neither Motorola’s Enterprise Mobility Group nor Intermec currently offer rugged tablets. They maybe the leaders in rugged mobile computing, but have yet to produce a rugged tablet. DAP on the other hand has produced several rugged tablets and continue to do so by integrate the latest technologies such as barcode scanning, GPS and various wireless communication. I encourage you to visit http://www.daptech.com and check out some of our products.

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