Though there's little a manufacturer can do to make its products resistant to that kind of damage, handheld product manufacturers are taking steps to make their products more resistant to normal wear and tear and subsequent condensation damage that can result.
Testing Is Key
"There are real-life problems that people in warehouses have to address, and they expect companies like LXE to handle them," says Brown. To that end, manufacturers like LXE have begun subjecting their equipment to the toughest testing ever. Many have now begun to release-or re-release-fully reengineered devices proven to operate at peak performance even in the coldest of environments.
Psion Teklogix, based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, for example, subjects its mobile computers to independent laboratory testing that includes soak tests, cyclical temperature changes ranging from 122 degrees to an icy 22 degrees below zero, as well as rigorous shock and vibration testing.
At Zebra Technologies, testing of its mobile handheld printers includes "harsh environments by way of temperature and exterior elements," says Murphy. "We've specifically made adaptations to the products for freezer environments."
In the past, a big problem with most units had been that they were not airtight, allowing condensation to form on critical components. Today, manufacturers have begun using conformal coating, "a plastic spray that seals all the pins and other components on the motherboards so that even if water gets in, it does not cause damage," Brown explains.
Also big on the list of priorities for manufactures has been the use of more industrial-grade plastics and harder metals, like magnesium, to better absorb shocks. Many have also added thicker housing and rubber bumpers to the outsides of their products as well.
"It's amazing how much banging around a product sees in a day," says Symbol's Viscount. "We have greatly enhanced our products to absorb shocks in the distribution center to minimize failures that occur from drops."
Battery power drain is another concern when it comes to cold storage environments, and manufacturers are responding with longer-life batteries. When batteries do fail, though, many also now feature new data storage methods to protect or back up the data they contain.
Intermec Technologies Corp., Everett, WA, for example, has added what it calls "persistent storage," an onboard, non-volatile memory system which preserves applications and databases even if the battery becomes depleted. Optional removable storage card slots provide even more memory if desired.
"Mobile workers require devices that won't quit on them, no matter what the working conditions," says Mike Colwell, Intermec's vice president. They also need to be kept "productive for their entire shift while protecting the valuable data they collect."
The constant need for testing is a big switch for the manufacturers, who first focused more on functionality rather than ruggedness.
Before Systems Applications Engin-eering (SAE), a hardware and software systems integrator based in Houston, could recommend Symbol's handheld products to clients like Sysco Foodservice, it had to do a lot of testing as well. "We did a significant amount of testing at customer sites. We put them in freezers, brought them out, and them put them back in again," says Bill Elliott, vice president of sales and marketing.
The results, he said, were better than expectations.