Mobile in All Environments

Rigorous testing of devices ensures they will work in cold storage too.


For years, it was believed that most mobile electronic devices simply could not work for long periods of time in cold storage environments. More and more product testing by the manufacturers of these products is now painting a different picture.

"Cold has always been a problem, but it's not so much the cold by itself as it is going from the cold to other environments, like a loading dock in the middle of July in Houston," says Brian Viscount, vice president of marketing for rugged handheld devices at Symbol Technologies, Holtsville, NY. "A device stored in a freezer and only used in a freezer will never see condensation."

Condensation, he says, and not the cold itself, is the real enemy of most handheld electronics used in the warehouse. Particularly in warehouses where workers move between humid shipping docks, refrigerated zones and sub-zero freezers, these temperature changes cause condensation and other conditions that can wreak havoc on mobile warehouse equipment. Frozen keypads, fogged screens, display failures and corrosion of internal parts are usually the end result, leading to lost productivity and higher maintenance and operating costs.

"Operating in the cold is one thing; preventing condensation is another altogether," Viscount continues. "Once you get humidity inside a device, it's a problem, but if you manage your devices properly, you will not see condensation."

When buying any handheld devices, the first and foremost consideration should be the IP (short for ingress protection) rating. The IP rating scale, put forward by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), involves two numbers. The first number (from one to six) represents a device's ability to withstand dust; the second (from one to eight) represents the ability to withstand water. The higher the IP rating, the greater a device's resistance to dust and moisture. Many products made for warehouse applications, especially those with freezer or multi-temperature zones, now have IP ratings of 64 or better.

Check The Drop Rating
The next thing to consider is the product's drop rating, which refers to the number of feet from which a device can fall to concrete without suffering damage or malfunctioning.

Added importance is given to drop ratings for devices to be used in cold storage environments because the plastics used to make the devices can become brittle-and therefore more susceptible to cracks or breaking-when temperatures drop below freezing. Where products crack, chip or warp, moisture can get in and then cause condensation when going back and forth between cold and ambient zones within a warehouse.

Don't just buy the first model that you come across either, warn manufacturers. "Warehouses want and need their computer technology to work every day, all day. You could buy on the cheap and just replace [equipment] when it breaks, but now you have downtime where a guy can't work," warns Doug Brown, senior manager of mobile computing products at LXE, Norcross, GA.

Once you settle on a device, there are a number of other things that you can do to make sure that the device continues to operate at peak performance. Symbol's Viscount suggests using a heated "boot" on a forklift and placing handheld devices inside the boot for a few minutes immediately after taking them outside the freezer. This, he says, will cut down on the condensation much the same way that defrosters work on car windshields.

To prevent damage that will allow moisture and condensation to get inside devices, it is especially important to keep track of how employees are using them throughout the day. "Some workers may try to break them as an excuse not to work as hard," Brown says. "It's a very common thing for products to come back damaged intentionally by workers."

"We find out a lot about what people are doing with our products," adds John Murphy, manager of product development at Zebra Technologies, Vernon Hills, IL. "When we get things back, we often find the keypads are broken because people are operating them with a pen instead of their fingers. They're dropping and dragging the product, and occasionally, one gets run over by a forklift."

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