5 Tips for Choosing Tablet Computers for Industrial Environments | Automation.com

5 Tips for Choosing Tablet Computers for Industrial Environments

5 Tips for Choosing Tablet Computers for Industrial Environments

By Christopher Ealahan, Senior Sales Executive, Teguar Computers

Smart phones and tablets are finding their way onto the factory floor and are being given the jobs of data entry, equipment monitoring and system control. Consequently, many factory automation software providers have developed Android applications for monitoring and controlling industrial automation equipment.  The movement towards IoT enabled devices has also contributed to the effort for remote device control and monitoring. 

The factory floor, however, can be an unforgiving place for equipment, especially when it comes to electronics. Very few of these devices make it out of the plant intact or have a long operational life.

Yet, the demand for higher levels of manufacturing and machine reliability means production and maintenance systems are hungry for data. In most cases, the best way to feed that need is through real time entry using portable computing devices; pencil and paper tracking simply cannot meet the demands of today’s industrial environment. 

In fact, many operations use dozens of computers. Thus, maximizing the lifespan of these devices has an impact on cost and continuity.

Meanwhile, many industrial automation application users are realizing the benefit of Android based PCs. Android PCs are a lower cost alternative to traditional Windows PCs for several reasons. Android computers typically include ARM processors, which are more cost effective than Intel processors. 

Furthermore, Android industrial computers are not subject to the operating system license fees that are required with Windows based computers.  Android industrial computers do not require the additional storage capacity and memory requirements that are necessary for Windows based computers.  The cost savings associated with these differences is driving the industrial factory automation industry towards Android based computing.

The evolution of Android computing is accompanied by an army of android software developers that take advantage of a simplified software development environment. Android developers can easily customize applications to accommodate unique I/O devices and create GUIs to manage any industrial application. 

The mobility and device agnostic aspects of this software is the basis for many new industrial automation infrastructure implementations. Additionally, these devices enable interface with ERP and WMS systems and with diagnostic and preventative maintenance programs.

While the benefits of monitoring and system control with Android devices seem obvious, until recently, this was not realizable in a factory environment. A trip to Best Buy or ordering from Amazon will not recruit the computer tablet these assignments require. Consumer-type Android tablets are not suitable for industrial environments, as they lack the ruggedness and environmental ratings that are typically required. 

These jobs need to be done by rugged tablet PCs. Finding the kind of computer hardware that can survive the factory floor and plant yard while providing capabilities beyond consumer-grade devices involves some key considerations. Here are five factors that any industrial user should look for in their search for the right tablet computer:

 

1. Ability to Handle Any Industrial Environment

Computer tablets used on the factory floor will be integrated into manufacturing lines and machine arms, used as HMIs, attached to forklift cages and carts, and on workstations. For the most part, these devices will be used in dirty, dusty working conditions and in areas with temperature extremes.

This is no place for consumer-grade computers and tablets. According to an engineer with one supply chain operation, they had to swap out computers on a continual basis. “They were dropping like flies,” he recalled. These environments call for rugged PCs.

Many operations use rugged tablet PCs that are operated both indoors and out. For example, if an employee is using the tablet PC in a warm vehicle, and then steps out with it into freezing temperatures in the field, it could cause condensation. This moisture can harm consumer products, especially if this usage is routine. Industrial devices, however, have internal components that are not affected by these temperature fluctuations as they were designed with this possibility in mind.

To withstand these conditions, the computer tablet needs a high IP rating, indicating that the device is effectively sealed against the intrusion of foreign matter and moisture, either in the front bezel or for the whole enclosure.

For extreme temperatures, some of these industrial-grade computer tablets have a fanless, heatsink design. These units protect their internal components from particle intake while dissipating heat. They are capable of handling wide temperature ranges and can be taken out into the yard or used next to heat-generating machinery.

 

2. Designed to Run with a Variety of Operating Systems

The good news is that a manufacturing plant has an array of systems to choose from for management and maintenance functions. The bad news is typical computing devices may not be able to interface with it.

As time goes by, the kind of computer tablet you are using now will not dictate future system upgrades. But successful management involves getting the most useful life possible from your devices, and they need the ability to handle the range of operating systems.

These include Windows Embedded, Windows Professional, Windows RT and any other system that gets developed. You will also want to be ready for Linux and POS systems, along with the latest I/O interfaces and ports that can handle higher transfer speeds.

 

3. Touchscreen Design

The two factors crucial for a tablet PC on the factory floor are readability and responsiveness. The lighting on factory floors can range from dim to extremely bright.

Consider units that offer high resolution, sunlight readable LCD lit screens, TFT screens, CCFL backlit, high brightness and wide viewing angle. Readability is crucial because information must be viewed off the screen quickly and any miscomprehension can lead to serious consequences.

The demands of industrial application require screens with a useful life of 100 million touches. Many industrial operations, particularly maintenance, electrical wiring or wash downs require protected hands and the screens can be responsive to the touch with gloves.

 

4. Portability

This criterion doesn’t just mean the ability to operate without being plugged in, but the ability to withstand the rough handling an industrial environment entails. On the factory floor, this handling includes the occasional drop, which can put a consumer-grade computer out of operation. A drop proof tablet PC can withstand a fall of four feet onto a plywood floor.

There are operations where forklifts use on-board computers attached to the cage in order to take directions from the material handling system. The rugged tablet PCs can withstand the jolts in this high movement environment.

 

5. Environments Ranging from Moist to Wet

For the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, having the correct temperature is everything. These products must be stored properly for safety reasons, and during processing, items often need to be heated or cooled to extreme levels. In a refrigerated environment, when equipment is washed with hot water, this can create steam and condensation. For consumer grade computers, these conditions are fatal.

Waterproof tablet PCs, on the other hand, are designed to withstand these conditions. They are able to operate in environments with much wider temperature ranges and high humidity levels.

In a processing facility, a rugged industrial-grade tablet could go from the cold/frigid temperatures of a refrigerator or freezer, and back out to a hot warehouse setting several times a day. These devices are ideal for use in this industry and are able to operate efficiently without any adverse reactions to quick temperature changes.

 

Industrial Grade Computer Tablets Are Tools for Production

Information is key to a productive industrial and processing operation and the means for avoiding costly errors. The information provided by the rugged tablet PCs that employees in these facilities glance at thousands of times a day are the window into the performance of their systems and equipment.

Downtime is deadly. As reliability here is a must, the companies that produce portable tablets rigorously test their devices to ensure that they can handle the extremes.

Since no manufacturing or processing environment is created equal, be sure your supplier can provide you with a device that meets the demands of your operation and is able to achieve your goals of monitoring and controlling systems functions. The right computer will provide the facility with years rather than months of operation.

 

About the Author

Christopher Ealahan is a Senior Sales Executive at Teguar Computers.  Chris loves all things rugged, including computers and the great outdoors.  He frequently works with Fortune 500 companies to deploy and support the best computing solutions on their factory floors.   Headquartered in Charlotte, NC, Teguar is a l provider of custom rugged tablets, and fully enclosed fanless, waterproof, and medical grade touch screen computer solutions designed to perform in extreme environments including clean rooms, outdoor in all-weather types, oil rigs, and manufacturing floors. Teguar Corporation is an ISO 9001:2008 Registered Company. 

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