Ruggedised laptops boost productivity and survive tornado

Ruggedised notebooks are designed to take a beating, within reason, of course. Sears Holding Company has been using them for more than a decade. The previous model worked fine after a battle with Mother Nature.

Timex always said its wristwatches could "take a licking and keep on ticking." But Timex wasn't making laptops.

Still, for some businesses, laptops need to take the occasional beating. Some would crumble under the pressure, but others can weather the storm -- literally.

Since 1995, Sears Holding Company, parent of Kmart and Sears, Roebuck and Co., has been putting hardware from Itronix to the test. Itronix makes ruggedised notebooks. Sears Holding has used the Itronix GoBook 1 since 2002. Those models replaced the Itronix XC6000 notebooks.

Sears Holding's in-home technicians use GoBooks - dubbed the Sears Smart Toolbox (SST) - for service order dispatch, GPS mapping, messaging, parts look-up, parts inventory, estimate, credit card authorisations, computer-based training, timekeeping, and some third-party diagnostics applications. The company has more than 10,000 of the notebooks in service across the US.

For example, a Sears technician can go to a home to fix an appliance. While there, the technician can access information on parts and other diagnostics instantly and wirelessly. That, along with the GPS providing the best route to the home, helps the company boost productivity in the field and reduces the number of back-and-forth trips a technician must make. Because the laptops are always in motion, a rugged option is necessary.

Sears Holding is the US' largest provider of home services, averaging more than 13 million service calls per year. That means the laptops go in and out of a truck more than 13 million times; there are 13 million-plus chances for it to be dropped or suffer some other type of damage.

The GoBooks have not really been subjected to serious poundings so far, but SST program manager Daniel Bowman recalled a time with the XC6000s that confirmed the need for a laptop that was a bit more, well, rugged.

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"Our former model, the XC6000, was caught in a tornado disaster which involved the technician and vehicle," Bowman said. "The laptop was later found in a farmer's field and returned to Sears because of the customised 'Sears' label on the top cover. After removing the soil and a basic cleanup of the battery terminals, the laptop booted-up fine." The technician also made it through the tornado unharmed.

While the XC6000 was considered ultra-rugged, the GoBook 1 is one level below. According to Bowman, it can still withstand some harsh treatment, though testing its limits is not really recommended.

"Our technicians understand they are working with a laptop, and although rugged, it is still a laptop," he said. "The SST tends to be handled with a bit more care these days due to the pain of not having one for a day or two while replacement equipment is sent out."

"We have yet to have an incident that matches the tornado story," Bowman continued, "but most of our wear and tear today involves the LCD and touch-screen."

According to Itronix, the GoBook 1 is a rugged laptop capable of withstanding shock, vibration and spills. Recently, GoBook 1 has been replaced by newer models, the GoBook VR-1 and GoBook 3.

Along with Itronix, other rugged laptops include Panasonic ToughBooks, Ergo notebooks, and Terralogic laptops, tablets and handhelds. Typically, a rugged laptop is classified by its stronger outer casing. They are usually designed for exposure to extreme temperatures, between -10 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit; rain, snow, sleet and other liquids - some can handle up to four inches of rain an hour; dust and other particles, and hazardous materials. They are also designed to withstand shocks caused by drops, shakes or collisions with heavy equipment.

Rugged laptops are usually chosen by emergency response crews, industrial workers, mobile technicians, auto mechanics, military personnel or any profession that is predominantly outdoors or in turbulent or unpredictable conditions. Essentially, a rugged laptop needs to be able to withstand a high-speed chase, a blasting zone or a manufacturing plant mishap.

Sears Holding selected Itronix for a few simple reasons, Bowman said.

"Itronix is an industry leader in ruggedised mobile workforces," he said. "And coupled with their helpdesk, depot services, advanced exchange program, and overall client services organisation, the choice was [easy]."

Bowman added that a range of services, a strong warranty, maintenance and general repair were also huge selling points.

"Compared to their competitors, their services really do take Itronix to the upper level in the industry," he said. "As the culture here at Sears continues to be very customer focused, the fact that Itronix provides us with the same level of service that we love to provide for our customers creates much of the selling point."

Although Bowman is quick to sing the praises of GoBook, he said that there are some minor drawbacks, principally the weight.

"From a field usage perspective, it would be nice to have a laptop that was a bit lighter for the technician," he said. "Our technicians already carry tools and equipment other than the SST, so if it was possible with today's technology, I would prefer a fully ruggedised laptop under four pounds."

Though the laptops may be a little heavy to carry day in and day out, the good far outweighs the bad, Bowman said, adding that the GoBooks boost customer service and productivity.

"Nearly every one of our processes prior to implementing the system back in 1995 involved manual processing or required the technician to contact a series of different supporting associates to complete any given service call," he said. "Today, our technicians can offer the customer extremely accurate estimates from a parts, labour and protection-agreement standpoint, [and they can] repair merchandise using advanced diagnostics tools and parts look-up schematics."

Sears Holding has also added such features as split payment options to give customers flexibility in how to pay for collect call services. The company has added GPS mapping to help get the technicians to and from calls efficiently, cutting down the overall drive time. And estimate and billing screens automatically calculate service promotions, tax exemptions, discounts and other mathematical functions that help technicians build rapport with customers on a pricing structure.

"The technician is not spending extra time performing estimates and point-of-sale transactions manually with pencil and paper," Bowman said.

Overall, he said, using rugged laptops has changed the way Sears Holding does business.

"The SST provides our technicians with a suite of powerful tools for automating many of our manual processing activities in the field," he said. "One of the larger benefits, however, is the feedback from our customers on how much more professional[ly] our field service technicians present themselves while in millions of homes each year helping [people] to resolve their household appliance, lawn and garden, electronic, recreational, power tool and HVAC issues. We can make appliance problems go away much more efficiently, and our customers like that."

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