Is rugged equipment worth the cost?

A lot of vendors assume that if you respond to disasters that you need ruggedized equipment.  They must have a picture in their head of my colleagues heading into disaster zone with satellite phone in-hand, military spec ruggedized laptop under the arm, BGAN in the backpack with an intention of sitting down in the mud and rain to work. Truth of the matter is that the answer is simply “it depends.” And I hear the collective groan from everyone reading this that simply and it depends should never be used together in the same sentence. 

It depends on how critical that single unit is.  It depends on the operational environment (wind, rain, sand, dust, etc).  It depends failure rate – but not of the manufacturer but of the organization using it.  There are times when that single unit’s failure can create a true life or death situation.  The single computer used by first responder in a police car, fire truck, hazmat unit, and an ambulance may be needed to provide critical information.  The failure of the device may cause the first responder to lose precious time in their actions which has a trickle down impact to the effectiveness of the response. 

A tree with a large rain cloud behind it.On the other hand, there is more room and flexibility for failure when that single computer is actually part of a package of 5, 10, or 50 computers.  If one computer doesn’t work, just toss it back in the case and grab another one.  The operational environment can be simple test.  If the equipment will be used inside, then it just needs to survive shipping and setup.  Most decent business class machines should survive fine as they are built to better quality level then general consumer grade.  However, when evaluating the use outside and temperature, think of the end-user.  They’ll probably wilt or freeze long before the equipment reaches the outer limits of the operating temperature.  Water is the biggest threat to electrical equipment.  Working outside in the rain, mist or high-humidity areas probably warrant at least water resistant computer.  Keep in mind that pulling the computer out of an air conditioned office or vehicle to high-humidly field operation will cause condensation outside and inside the computer.  Enough condensation and you have problem. 

Here is the single biggest factor on how rugged computer needs to be: the end-user.  That will dictate the mean failure rate or time between failures.  If they are aware enough to handle the computer properly, then less rugged computer will be fine and can last until it is technically obsolete.  Yet, I’ve heard antidotes of end-users accidentally tearing the screen off Panasonic Toughbook® just because they packed up to go home too quickly.  There are some regular business travelers that will beat up their non-rugged computer lot more then the rugged computer hard mounted in vehicle. 

Once you know the factors from above, now you can start to look at cost benefit of rugged versus non-rugged.  Even if one-in-four of your non-rugged computers fail in the field and the loss of the computer during an operation is acceptable, then it would still be cheaper to buy non-rugged at half the cost of rugged This same concept applies to all equipment.  I had vendor offer ruggedized phone that was over $400 per handset.  Given that can get a regular cell phones way cheaper than that, there is no way that it was cost effective.  Sexy looking rugged equipment also creates another issue of theft and loss.  If the phone is attractive, less honest folks will be more likely to say it was lost and keep it for themselves thereby increasing the rate of replacement.  A common type of theft is people stealing the SIM cards from phone.  The phone can be returned without the SIM card and people won’t know right off.  They put the SIM card in their own phone.  The billing is tied to the SIM card so the thief racks up high charges without even needing the phone.  This isn’t discovered until the bills roll in because — according to the inventory — the phone was returned so no eye brows were raised. 

These factors add up to why my team in the Red Cross does not use ruggedized equipment (although there are some exceptions).  Our technological footprint is large enough that single computer failures do not stop our operational drive. 

We add 15 minute rule as well.  If problem takes more than 15 minutes to fix, grab another device and move on.  The failed device gets marked with blue painters tape (not duck* tape) and it will get fixed after the disaster.  Our focus is speed to scale and we can’t afford to be slowed attempting field repairs when additional equipment is readily available.  That is the view from my seat.  Each organization’s mission will need to consider it for themselves, and may have other factors that play in

*Oh and yes, it is duck tape, not duct tape.  The origins of this lovely stuff is from the military who need strong tape that would adhere under water.  Personally, I find duck tape to be crap on ducts and prefer metallic tape.