That reinforces the point I hope to make, which is that mobile device manufacturers such as Zebra, that serve the industrial, government, retail and enterprise sectors, employ industrial designers who do more of what their job title suggests – they design devices for industrial uses. Their primary goal is functional form. They want to ensure the devices facilitate maximum productivity and efficiency – that the computing and communications components are fully supported by both the internal and external design.
Consider vehicle docking of a lightweight tablet, such as one of the Zebra L10 rugged tablets.
The Zebra L10 XSLATE® is a 2.8-pound rugged slate tablet with a 10.1” screen, and the vehicle dock that accommodates it is what we call a “designed-for” accessory since it is designed for this specific device form factor. Because the tablet and dock are designed to work together, a lot of thought is given to the combination design by both Zebra and its mounting accessory partners, including safety, installation and use ergonomics.
Design engineers must also consider what might happen if there is an accident and adjust the design form accordingly. For example, the mounted tablet can’t block airbags, and it must also be secure enough to not become a projectile within the cabin. From there, decisions are made about how the mobile device can and cannot be mounted. Ideally, brackets would extend to the dashboard, thus keeping the tablet out of the way of a deployed airbag. Installers generally have access to specific brackets for common types of trucks used by field service. Heavier “mobile” devices, like laptops, may require a mounting pole that is bolted into the floor.
That brings a set of secondary issues into consideration. Will the installer just use an easy-to-access flat spot on the floor for the mounting pole? If so, could that cause the tablet to interfere with airbags? And, since heavier devices require stronger bolts, which means larger bolts, is there a risk that – with this particular mounting dock and/or tablet design – that installers could accidentally drill holes that damage parts beneath the floor? Or could the larger installed bolts interfere with other equipment or potentially harm the driver or passengers? There have even been recent cases of exhaust fumes from beneath the vehicle leaking into the cab and causing carbon monoxide poisoning of police officers.
And yes, while there are ways to install third-party heavy mounting poles without these risks, it becomes dependent on individuals. Usually, it is done correctly. But the better option is to develop tablets and docks that can be mounted into the dashboard or a least utilize a lighter pole which doesn’t require massive bolts through the floor. This is another case where the “square” rule applies: doubling the weight of a tablet and its dock squares the forces exerted when there is an accident.
The point is that designing a single tablet for vehicle docking use cases demands that industrial designers make a lot of small but critical decisions. How will the dock be implemented so that it:
- Is easy for the tablet to insert and remove, ideally with only one hand?
- Always has enough force to keep electrical connection in a vibrating and bouncing truck?
- Does not allow damage to transfer from one tablet’s or dock’s connector to another (via the failure scenario known as “pin virus”)?
- Allows for a small footprint to increase mounting choices and ultimately safety?
- Avoids interference with airbags and other safety considerations in a multitude of vehicles?
- Looks good too?
And that is a short list.
For example, rugged enterprise grade tablets that are expected be used in a vehicle dock are designed with a pogo-pin style connector. Essentially, the dock is equipped with pins on springs (like a pogo stick), which apply pressure on metal pads engineered into the bottom of the tablets to maintain electrical connectivity. But this design is more complicated than it sounds. If the springs are too weak, electrical connectivity is lost in a vibrating, bouncing truck. And if the springs are too strong, it is actually hard for a person to insert the tablet in the dock. (The Zebra R12 XSLATE tablet has 48 pads on the docking connector – if you simply make each spring strong enough, times 48, that is a lot of force. ) So, a balance is needed, and it is more than a compromise between too strong and too weak. The vibration “signatures” of various trucks are studied, which informs the designers as to what thickness of spring steel to use, how many windings in the spring and more.
The mounting configuration and tablet-dock design needed for each customer’s vehicle and tablet model selections can also vary greatly. In Europe, it is more common for field service companies to lease their fleet vehicles, so when the lease is up the vehicles must be returned in good condition. They don’t have the option of drilling holes into the floor to mount their workers’ tablets, so many European companies gravitate to tablets and vehicle docks that are designed for dash mounts, which usually mount by sliding next to the radio to an internal mounting point. These mounts can be removed and don’t leave a visible mark or gap. Whereas, in the U.S., trucks are usually larger and purchased outright, so floor mounting holes – and, therefore, larger tablets – can be used.
As you can imagine, all of these small worker and workflow considerations can quickly add up to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of design criteria made for each product design. That is why many companies guard their proprietary designs so closely. A lot of work was put into making them just right.
Designed-for tablet/dock pairs deliver superior performance in lots of areas, and most of the underlying work isn’t visible to customers. But this level of detail permeates every design decision, especially at companies that primarily serve enterprise, industrial and government organizations. Industrial designers for rugged device manufacturers like Zebra prioritize functional form and work with partners to ensure the design of third-party accessories – such as vehicle docks – follow suit.
Consumer tablets are thin and light, but often require third-party docks and accessories that weren’t designed for a specific tablet, and that results in a whole host of compromises and missing features. Heavy commercial-grade tablets and notebooks require large vehicle docks and installations that could interfere with air-bags and even damage the vehicles’ underfloor wiring and exhaust lines. Fortunately there is a class of mobile devices which are designed with their vehicle accessories for use in vehicles. Those are what you should consider.
This is why I’d be most comfortable installing a fleet mobility solution that was designed at one company for the whole of the use-in-field scenario. Industrial designers who focus on functionality over artful form in a profoundly detailed way – whose decisions are not arbitrary, whimsical or emotive – will deliver products that you can be confident will work best. At the end of the day, that’s the design that matters most to end users who want their devices to conform to the way they work and not the other way around.