Ask the Expert: Should I Be Replacing My Fixed Vehicle Computers with Grab-and-Go Rugged Tablets?

Learn about the differences between these two computer form factors and whether one is a better fit for forklifts.

A forkfift operator looks at the scren of the rugged tablet mounted in his vehicle
by Your Edge Blog Team
January 28, 2021

As regional product managers for Zebra’s vehicle computing and rugged tablet solutions, respectively, Alex Holdsworth and Leonardo Borgini field a lot of questions about which form factor is better suited for use on material handing vehicles such as forklifts.

Fixed computers have been considered the gold standard for decades, mainly because of their durability and impressive endurance capabilities. Yet, they are far from mobile in the traditional sense. That’s one of the reasons why Leonardo says many manufacturers, warehouse and yard operators, distributors, and transportation and logistics managers are now reconsidering their in-cab computing technology.

With workflow models, worker demands, operating systems (OS) and wireless technologies quickly evolving, rugged tablets are gaining favor among those who spend their days on the move inside the cabs of forklifts, especially those who frequently work outside the four walls of a warehouse or factory. Yet, even the most rugged tablets may not be recommended for some forklift operators who spend all day inside the four walls – especially if they are used in freezers, cold outside environments or other areas where condensation may occur. But that’s just one of the reasons why Alex says that many customers shouldn’t be so quick to replace their installed base of fixed vehicle-mounted computers.

Below, Alex and Leonardo weigh in on a number of frequently asked questions to help you decide which form factor will best support your forklift applications moving forward: 

Your Edge Blog Team: We understand that most forklifts and other heavy machinery used in manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and transportation have historically been equipped with fixed vehicle-mounted computers. Why is that?

Alex: Fixed terminal solutions have been used for material handling applications over the past several decades because they have consistently proven to meet operational performance and durability standards for critical applications and use cases.

Your Edge Blog Team: Then why are some organizations now compelled to switch to a more mobile, rugged tablet-based solution? Some might argue that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

Leonardo: Ironically, the break-fix scenario is what is driving some organizations to permanently remove fixed vehicle-mounted computers from forklifts and replace them with easily removable rugged tablets. Because of the way fixed-mounted solutions are installed, cables must be unplugged and attachments unscrewed to remove the computer from the mount when it needs to be serviced or transferred to another forklift. This can be inconvenient in today’s fast-paced operational environment. And we’ve heard from many in the industry that it is still very difficult and cumbersome to release some vehicle computers from their mounting systems and carry them into IT due to their size and weight. Now, I should stress that Zebra has worked hard to address this in our device design by offering a quick release mount that allows a vehicle computer to be removed in a similar grab-and-go manner as a rugged tablet. So, this isn’t an issue that Zebra’s customers face. In fact, demand for our vehicle computers continues to grow because we’ve made it simple to service the devices and manage the entire solution. However, not all vehicle computer manufacturers have followed suit, driving many organizations to seek a forklift computing solution that’s easier to handle overall – whether that’s a fixed vehicle-mounted computer from Zebra or a rugged tablet-based solution.

Alex: Something else to remember is that forklifts should constantly be on the move if you want to maximize operational efficiency. You don’t want them to have to stop or slow down for any reason – especially not to deal with a failing on-board computer. That’s why fixed vehicle-mounted computers have long been the primary form factor used on forklifts. They are designed for this specific use case and have very low failure rates. Therefore, you really won’t have a reason to remove them outside regularly scheduled maintenance, and the workflow can be maintained. And, if a customer does need to transfer a vehicle computer from one truck to another, Zebra offers the Quick Release mount option which makes removing the device as easy as removing a tablet.

Your Edge Blog Team: Leonardo, you mentioned that some fixed vehicle-mounted computers are heavier than rugged tablets. Is that because they are larger in size?

Leonardo: Not necessarily. In general, both form factors take up about the same amount of space in the cab, especially when you’re talking about the footprint of the overall solution: mounting system, docking station (if using a tablet) and the computing device itself. So, you really need to think about your workflow requirements. If you need a larger screen to be able to see maps or read detailed information, then you might be better served by a 10” or even 12” rugged tablet even though it is going to take up more real estate – assuming that the forklift isn’t used in condensing environments where visibility issues could arise with a tablet screen. And, if you are fine with an 8-inch screen and don’t need a keyboard, then the tablet would take up less space than a fixed vehicle-mounted computer.

Alex: But if you do need a keyboard, we recommend you consider a fixed computer model that has a built-in keyboard such as the VC8300 as it will take up less real estate than any tablet with a keyboard accessory attached.

Your Edge Blog Team: Aren’t many rugged tablets rated to work in extremely cold temperatures?

Alex: All of Zebra’s tablets are rated for operating temperatures of -4° F (-20° C) on the low end and to 122-140° F (50 to 60° C) on the high end. However, we always recommend that customers use a fixed vehicle-mounted computer solution if condensation or icing is possible as this form factor is rated for a much lower operating temperature of -22° F (-30° C). Because they are designed primarily for use on forklifts and, more specifically cold chain environments, vehicle-mounted computers feature heated screens and other internal components that fight off condensation during prolonged use in freezing temperatures and during frequent, fast transitions between extremely cold and extremely hot environments. For example, Zebra vehicle-mounted computers feature elastomeric keyboards that work even when lightly iced, and we’ve added keyboard drainage holes to prevent heavy icing. They also have built-in intelligence with inside and outside temperature sensors to automatically turn the display heaters on and off as needed. Rugged tablets don’t have these features.

Your Edge Blog Team: With that in mind, when would a customer, or forklift operator, be better served by a rugged tablet-based solution?

Leonardo: There are a few clear-cut scenarios in which we would recommend a tablet. First, if your forklifts operate outside the four walls, especially in a large port, railway yard or intermodal where your Wi-Fi infrastructure may not be strong enough to cover the entire footprint, or you may not have Wi-Fi coverage to begin with, then we would recommend a rugged tablet with a WWAN radio. Historically, narrowband technology may have been used to provide wireless connectivity in this scenario, but that technology is reaching end of life. Therefore, you’re going to need cellular connectivity to ensure operators can retrieve workflow-related data, report task status and coordinate actions with other team members in real time. Rugged tablets are the only devices suitable for constant forklift use that also offer cellular connectivity.

We would also recommend a rugged tablet if forklift operators ever dismount during order picking and fulfillment to prep the load for transport, confirm the accurate retrieval of components or completed goods, or conduct quality inspections. Being able to remove the tablet from a secure mounting system in a quick, one-hand grab-and-go motion – and then resecure it to the mount with a quick snap-in action – can go a long way to increasing overall workflow efficiency. Of course, a complementary handheld or wearable computer could also be considered for this scenario. But for some customers, the rarity of the scenario doesn’t warrant an investment in separate devices. Plus, you can get a rugged tablet with a high-quality barcode scanner, UHF RFID reader and a high-resolution camera built in. The operator will also appreciate the simplicity of using just the one tablet to capture and submit data. Just don’t forget to ask about the input/output (I/O) of the tablet and dock if you need connectivity to specialized equipment.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, it sounds like fixed-mount terminals are still the better option in many cases.

Alex: Absolutely. There is not a one-size-fits-all forklift computing solution. I know many warehouse operators have been compelled to modernize their technology architectures in recent months. However, we would probably tell you to stick with the traditional vehicle-mounted computer if:

  • LTE connectivity is not required.
  • your forklifts operate in facilities where it’s challenging to maintain consistent Wi-Fi coverage.
  • you have very limited space in your vehicles but still need a full keyboard to support data entry with a physical keyboard built into the fixed computer.  
  • you need to go into freezers and other environments where there may be condensation.  The heated screen on a fixed vehicle computer addresses visibility issues, and other features such as a heated battery, heated connectors and heated main board will help maintain the performance of the entire solution in these environments. Rugged tablets don’t have these features.
  • your vehicles – and your on-board computers, are subject to more extreme shock and vibration on a regular basis.
  • the cost and complexity of switching from a fixed vehicle solution to a rugged tablet-based one is too significant. You can simply replace or upgrade your vehicle computers as needed without having to also replace your existing mounting systems. I can’t speak for everyone, but all of Zebra’s vehicle computers use the same mounts and power cables and share an accessory ecosystem with complete backward compatibility.  We also have compatibility mounts and cables to replace competitor devices. So, if you want a very quick and easy upgrade option to legacy solutions, this is it.
  • you need to hose down your vehicles — with the mounting system installed. Though, you could easily take out a rugged tablet during cleaning, the docking component may not be as resilient when connections are exposed. For example, Zebra vehicle-mounted computers have a higher ingress protection (IP) rating than any of the Zebra rugged tablets most commonly considered for forklift applications. The L10 and ET5x tablets are IP65 rated and the R12 is IP54, while the vehicle-mounted computers are IP66.
  • you don’t need a Windows® 10 solution for any reason.

Your Edge Blog Team: Speaking of Windows 10: many warehouse operators are migrating to Android™-based mobility solutions because Microsoft ended support for its Windows® Mobile and Windows CE operating systems. Will this have any influence on the computers chosen for use on forklifts?

Leonardo: The computers used on forklifts are in a different class, including tablets. They run full version, professional-grade operating systems (OS) and aren’t impacted by this mobile OS changeover. So, you will continue to have a choice between Android and Windows 10 (with full support from Microsoft) on the forklift.

Alex: The one thing to note is that Zebra’s VC80, which is our professional Windows OS vehicle-mounted computer, is reaching end of life. So, if customers want a Windows 10 solution moving forward, they will need to transition to a rugged tablet-based solution such as the L10 to maintain continuity in back-office systems. The Windows-based software applications can easily be migrated from the legacy fixed-mount form factor to the newer tablet form factor, especially since they have comparable screen sizes, security tools and user experiences in terms of data input and retrieval. Of course, if you’re migrating your entire technology architecture to Android, then you will have your choice of form factor, including the VC80x Android vehicle-mounted computer. Now, we do recommend that customers who currently use the Windows CE-based VC70 go ahead and migrate to an Android-based, vehicle-mounted computer versus a full OS Windows tablet. They are already running a lighter OS version and will likely be better served staying with the same form factor.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, it sounds like customers who still prefer to use a Windows-based computing solution on the forklift can do so unless they need to urgently replace a legacy vehicle-mounted computer that’s reaching end of life or failing for some other reason and want a newer generation model, or they need a solution that will work in a condensing environment. In these cases, they must switch to an Android fixed terminal solution right away. Is that correct?

Alex: Technically yes. Though, we provide complete flexibility to warehouse and yard operators to stay with Windows 10 or transition to Android if they choose. For example, many are having to migrate all their other mobile devices to an Android-based platform, and Zebra enterprise-grade Android solutions offer several management and security features not available with Windows that may be needed depending on the application and environment. In these cases, it could make more sense to standardize on a single platform across all operations for device management simplicity. It can also make it much easier to develop workflow applications if there is OS uniformity across all devices that may be used in that workflow. Interfacing with the same OS across all devices can also improve worker productivity and efficiency. But no matter what the customer decides, we’ll be able to fully support them.

Your Edge Blog Team: What is the average product lifecycle? Does one form factor last longer than the other?

Leonardo: In Zebra’s portfolio, both form factors have a very long lifespan. They’re sold for up to five years and then serviceable for another five years. However, they can easily be upgraded if a new generation model is needed to support evolving application demands or add on new technology capabilities. I wouldn’t say one is favored over the other from this perspective.

Your Edge Blog Team: Are there any other features, capabilities and manageability considerations that we haven’t discussed yet that should be evaluated when comparing forklift computer options?

Leonardo: Well, this list could be quite extensive, and it should always be very personalized to your workflows and operating environment. If I was sitting down with a customer for the first time, I would start by asking questions such as:

  • What type of software applications will you need to run? And what type of hardware capabilities are needed to fully enable those applications?”
  • What kind of power do you need under the hood?
  • Are you going to be running graphics-heavy applications? Do you need a lot of memory? Or power?
  • How will you power the solution, especially if you choose a tablet that may be used out of the cab. Is a hot-swap battery needed? Or special power-saving features or charging capabilities?

This is also the time to really think about which OS is best based on your current and future workflow structures.

  • Are you using Terminal Emulation?
  • Do you plan to eventually standardize your entire operation on Android?
  • What I/O and data capture capabilities do you need?

These computing solutions are long-term investments, regardless of which form factor you choose. You don’t want to have to rip and replace in a year because you don’t have the right hardware components to support your evolving software environment.

Alex: Along those same lines, you need to analyze the environmental factors early on. You may learn right away that rugged tablets aren’t even an option because your forklifts encounter a lot of extreme vibration or condensation. Think, too, about the user experience. Displays should be least 8-10 inches and equipped with a 500+ nit display and offer glove touch input.

Beyond the physical performance capabilities, you want to ensure you’re opting for the form factor that has the right wireless technologies to sustain constant, real-time information sharing as the forklift moves throughout your facility and even outside to the loading dock or yard. As mentioned before, you may need a rugged tablet if cellular connectivity is required.

Leonardo: If you ultimately opt for a tablet-based solution and plan to use the tablet off the forklift in certain workflows, you should also confirm whether it needs Bluetooth or near-field communications (NFC) connectivity to sync with other devices that may also be used in support of those workflows.

Your Edge Blog Team: How much does mounting configuration weigh into the decision about whether to use a fixed vehicle-mounted computer or a rugged tablet?

Leonardo: It’s an important consideration, but more in terms of installation cost. Zebra offers a range of mounting options that makes the installation easy while meeting safety requirements. So, we work with customers to ensure they choose a solution that has a screen large enough for the forklift operator to view while in route but not so large that they can’t see around it. Now, I would argue that one of the benefits of using a rugged tablet-based solution in the cab is that you may have a bit more flexibility in mounting position. Depending on the size and model of the forklift, there may be multiple configuration options in the cage. And you can easily adjust the angle, height, and more to ensure it is within the operator’s reach and line of sight but not creating any blind spots or posing a physical hazard as they get in and out of the cab. Although, as I know Alex will confirm, this is potentially true with fixed vehicle-mounted computers as well.

Alex: Indeed, we have worked with partners and customers to install fixed vehicle-mounted computers in both floor-mounted and overhead configurations in the past. This is where it becomes extremely valuable to have a discovery workshop – a consultation session – with the technology provider to ensure you are choosing the right solution for your needs. There are just so many different criteria that must be weighed before a decision on form factor, much less specific device model, can be made.

Leonardo: To that point, a few other things to think about – which I mentioned briefly before – are display viewability and in-motion communication capabilities.  Confirm that the display is bright enough for easy viewing of routing and task guidance in direct sunlight if used outside, that the computer is equipped with loud enough speakers for audible directions and that operators can use push-to-talk (PTT) technology for two-way coordination with colleagues. All of this helps to keep forklift operators’ eyes on the “road” versus on the screen.

Your Edge Blog Team: What about security?

Alex: All IT system components – to include servers, software and edge devices – must be compliant with operational security, safety and regulatory mandates. Given how much sensitive data is flowing to and from forklifts, it’s critical that the on-board computer be configured to support company, customer, partner, industry and government policies regarding information capture, storage, access and distribution. Whether you’re looking at fixed-mount or rugged tablet solutions, make sure to verify their encryption capabilities, user authentication tools and other security measures. Can it be equipped with a Smart Card/Common Access Card (CAC) reader? Does it use biometrics? If running Android, does it have security enhancements, like Zebra Mobility DNA, to help keep the OS secure?  These are the types of questions to ask to protect both your data and investment.

Your Edge Blog Team: So, this is really a decision that must be made in consultation with technology experts well-versed on forklift applications in warehousing and yard environments?

Alex: Absolutely. Any computer you use on the forklift should be highly scalable, easily secured and maintained, and designed to be a long-lasting part of your IT infrastructure.

Your Edge Blog: Is there any cost advantage to equipping forklifts with rugged tablets versus fixed vehicle-mounted computers?

Leonardo: It really depends on where and how your computers will be used. If you only use forklifts occasionally, a rugged tablet solution may be more cost-effective because the tablet can easily be removed from the dock to follow the user. Rugged tablets can also have most – if not all – data capture components built in, which contributes to additional cost savings if you are going to be using the device on and off a forklift.  You won’t have to purchase and maintain piecemeal peripheral components for those off-vehicle workflows. So, by consolidating everything into the one rugged tablet platform, you are significantly increasing manageability and reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO) for the entire workflow technology solution. This is especially true when you want an easily scalable, expandable, upgradeable and/or serviceable solution – or if you are a Windows 10 shop and don’t want to make the investment required to migrate to an Android OS yet.

Alex: However, it’s important to note that there are costs associated with installing a new rugged tablet mounting system that you wouldn’t incur if you simply upgraded to a newer generation fixed vehicle-mounted computer for your currently installed based. For example, a rugged tablet mounting solution requires both a vehicle dock for external power and connectivity as well as a DC converter. However, a fixed vehicle-mounted computer doesn’t require these things because of the system design. That’s why I always recommend you price out the entire solution – not just the computer component – to understand the acquisition costs and TCO.

Leonardo: Good point. At the end of the day, every organization wants to simplify its IT architecture, especially when different workers and workflows demand different mobile computer form factors. By investing in a more transformative and universally applicable platform such as a rugged tablet, organizations may be able to mobilize an entire workforce without burdening IT teams or burning through limited financial resources. But, if the rugged tablet isn’t the best form factor for the job at hand – if it doesn’t increase the forklift operator’s efficiency, accuracy and productivity because the screen is always fogging up, it can’t handle the extreme vibration or it can’t connect to the network – then what good does that really do?

If you want to maximize your return on investment and avoid having to rip and replace systems in a couple of years – or months – then you really need to sit down with someone who can walk you through the benefits and potential pitfalls of both form factors in a very unbiased way and within the context of your specific operations. I know Alex and I, as well as our colleagues all around the world, would be happy to have that conversation with anyone who needs help making the right decision based on current goals and future ambitions.

(Editor’s Note: You can contact Zebra’s material handling technology solution specialists here.)

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Have a Few More Minutes?

Watch as Alex discusses in more detail the material handling scenarios in which rugged tablets and fixed vehicle computers are best suited:

WATCH VIDEO

Did You Know?

Zebra has been recognized as a Leader in the 2020 IDC MarketScape report for Rugged Mobile Devices.* Some of the strengths noted include its wide range of rugged mobile devices, numerous support features and services, in-house developed enterprise software suite and solution ecosystem, and LifeGuard™  extended security solution, which delivers Android security and patch updates for up to 10 years. Download the full report.

You can also learn more about how the Zebra L10 rugged tablet can be leveraged for material handing workflows, on forklifts and foot, by visiting our website or contacting a Zebra representative. Additional information about our VC80x and VC8300 vehicle-mounted computers can also be found online.

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