Lifting the lid on TOUGHBOOK’s rugged engineering innovations

TOUGHBOOK’s rugged engineering is legendary, but what makes a TOUGHBOOK a TOUGHBOOK? 

Our Head of Engineering Jon Tucker takes a closer look at the innovations behind almost 30 years of rugged market leadership.

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Anyone who remembers the first mobile devices, will smile knowingly when I say that these first devices weren’t really very mobile. 

For a start, they were very heavy, had no stand-alone connectivity and often seemed to break if you just looked at them the wrong way. In essence, they were a limited version of a desktop device that could be moved outside. It was these early versions of mobile that really set Panasonic on its mission to provide something better for the blue-collar worker. 

The most vulnerable part of a mobile notebook is the LCD screen and that was our first objective. How to protect the screen better. The protection needed to be lightweight but stronger than plastic. After extensive research and testing it became clear that magnesium alloy was the answer. Still used in the device today, it was the perfect material to help make a mobile device rugged. 

It was the beginning of TOUGHBOOK. In many ways the beginnings of our rugged DNA that would filter through our devices for the next decades. 

Driven by customer need

From that first moment onwards, our innovations were always driven by customer need. 

We were the first manufacturer to incorporate a CD ROM player into a mobile device because a major utility customer wanted to provide detailed schematics and data to its engineers when on location.

We were also the first to integrate a mobile GSM module into our device, so users could connect back to their office. Businesses told us that the serial connections between their laptops and their early mobile phones were always breaking. So, we fixed it. 

It was also the beginning of our own investment in antenna development in the TOUGHBOOK devices which is even more important than ever today. Workers such as field engineers and the emergency services rely on this connectivity in remote locations at the edge of the network and accurate GPS information for pinpointing locations.

Tablets changed the world

The emergence of tablets and convertible devices in the consumer world also drove innovation. Businesses saw the lightweight form factor and versatility and wanted them for their workforce. But in the world of mobile workers, these devices were more vulnerable than ever. So, we set about bringing our rugged thinking to this form factor.

For example, the hinges on a consumer convertible device were good for around 10,000 open and closes. For our mobile workforce that needed to be a minimum of 100,000. We developed and tested the rugged hinges to this extreme standard and I’m delighted to say that we had zero reports of failure.

When it came to rugged tablets, we quickly realized that the slate approach, with a larger screen, was not going to be sensible for many mobile workers. The sweet spot was a 10-inch screen. It delivered that fine balance of screen size for easy viewing, in a device that was lightweight enough to be held in one hand for long periods, with a battery life that would work for a full shift.

But the biggest obstacle to overcome for tablets in the mobile workforce was the screen itself. Consumer tablets in bright sunlight were almost impossible to see and touchscreens almost impossible to use when it rained. Our innovation came in the form of a screen that was bright enough to be seen clearly even on the sunniest days and an auto-detect touchscreen that would ignore rain and recognise input from a bare or gloved hand or pen.

Aggregation of marginal gains

In many ways, today the major challenges of rugged mobility have been overcome. 

So where is the focus for innovation in rugged devices right now? 

Like Dave Brailsford, who managed the British Cycling Team to incredible Olympic success, our focus is on the aggregation of marginal gains. Finding those small details that we can improve upon from generation to generation of the device that ultimately adds up to major usability and productivity improvements.

Take the introduction of our smart battery technology. Businesses can now automatically monitor the performance of the battery in individual devices and when performance drops, issue a replacement. This keeps the device working at optimum performance and eliminates unscheduled downtime.

Our modular approach to the design of our TOUGHBOOKS enables customers to use a consistent model of the device but configure it easily for different mobile workers’ requirements using the customizable ports and bays.

This thinking also extends to our ecosystem of peripherals for our devices. Keeping important items such as the battery packs, power adapters, carry straps and docking cradles backward compatible means that organisations do not have to reinvest in these things again when they upgrade their devices.

A zero endgame

So, where does it all end? 

Well, we already have the lowest rugged device failure rates in the industry but our ultimate goal would be zero failures and zero unscheduled downtime. It may seem a pipedream but our entire approach is built around this goal. In making it a reality, quality must be a habit, not an event. We are obsessive about capturing every learning from every iteration of our devices and adding it to our TOUGHBOOK engineering bible.

It's that continuous improvement that will ultimately lead to achieving our goal and for me, as an engineer, that achievement will be the ultimate in rugged innovation.

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