Building efficiency & cost savings with rugged mobile devices
by Dr. Muzibul
October 31, 2016

Constant exposure to the elements and heavy machinery make construction one of the most dynamic and dangerous work environments. Working in this environment requires robust and durable equipment, including rugged technology. According to a recent construction industry report, more than 80 percent of those surveyed used mobile devices for work purposes. For the most part, mobile technology has succeeded in generating process efficiencies for construction companies—but it has come at a cost. The lack of durable mobile solutions for construction environments often results in damaged devices, communication interruptions and technology cost overruns. Though some rugged solutions do exist, they have historically been offered only to enterprise-level companies, by specialized manufacturers, at a premium expense. However, new rugged mobile solutions have emerged—complete with carrier subsidies—that will allow small and midsize businesses to enjoy the advantages of rugged devices that perform well in the field without sacrificing the cost advantages of a traditional, carrier subsidized smartphone. But how did we get here?

The Evolution of the Rugged Device Industry

For an industry that conducts the majority of its work away from the office, rugged technology solutions are imperative for success. However, implementing on-site technology has posed significant challenges. Construction sites are rough, unpredictable environments—simply walking onto most construction sites requires wearing a hardhat. The same goes for mobile devices. The incredible technology and functionality of modern mobile devices are housed inside lightweight and delicate hardware. As most mobile device users know, dropping a smartphone can result in costly damages. With that in mind, it is no surprise that the construction industry has typically lagged in adopting technology. In fact, a 2014 study found that financial allocation for information technology was lower in the construction industry than in any other field.

Historically, the adoption of rugged mobile technology was a luxury reserved for large enterprises with sizable budgets and access to expensive rugged mobile devices offered by specialized manufacturers. These devices—typically priced at more than $1,500 each—required large investments that small and midsize companies simply could not afford. But adoption of mobile technology is no longer a luxury for construction companies—it is a necessity. Many construction companies have attempted to bridge the gap between technology and budget by moving to consumer devices like iOS- and Android-based phones. Although these consumer devices are not shock-, drop-, water- or element-proof, the devices are dramatically cheaper than their niche rugged counterparts – even when paired with external rugged cases from brands like OtterBox or LifeProof. The logic is simple: at less than half the cost of the traditional rugged device, a company could replace the consumer device every year and still come out ahead. Add in the fact that the majority of workers are already familiar with the operating systems and functionality of consumer devices, and this strategy looks like a winner, at first glance.

But there is more to the story. While this approach has helped construction companies take the leap with a palatable up-front investment in the short term, it remains a risky proposition in terms of long-term total cost of ownership (TCO). The use of consumer devices in demanding work settings leads to a myriad of functional issues and hidden costs that quickly erode any presumed savings. These unforeseen complexities and hidden costs include:

  • Technology downtime leading to lost productivity
  • Insufficient bandwidth to accommodate management and inventory software needs
  • Increased IT support due to device breakage/malfunction
  • Constant technology upgrade costs

According to a study by VDC Research, TCO for rugged devices in business settings, which includes not only the initial investment, but also subsequent costs associated with failures and breakage, is significantly lower in comparison to non-rugged devices. According to VDC’s data, annual TCO for nonrugged devices (approximately $4,000) is actually almost double that of rugged devices (approximately $2,000). And although carrier subsidies can help suppress initial purchase costs, the underlying issues remain. Put simply, the full implementation of consumer mobile devices for business does not offer a viable, long-term value proposition for the modern construction industry.

A New Era of Challenges

The construction industry has certainly seen its fits and starts over the last 2 decades, but the current climate is one of optimism. According to a study from Wells Fargo that surveys contractors and equipment distributors, optimism for increased industry activity remains strong.

However, the relative health of the industry belies emerging challenges that will face the industry in the years to come—challenges that will require a focus on finding and exploiting efficiencies. Perhaps the most significant challenge is a continuing skilled labor shortage.

As a result of the financial collapse of 2008, the construction industry lost a significant portion of its labor pool that has yet to return. Coupled with a slowdown in immigration and increasingly tight immigration regulations, the labor shortage will most likely continue for years to come.

Unsurprisingly, construction companies are turning to technology to fill in the gaps. Many smaller firms are moving toward building information technology (BIM), a growing trend already widely used by larger firms. Technologies like BIM and cloud-based, project-management software platforms are helping to create more fluid and more efficient operations. And they are all driven and connected by mobile devices and technology.

The future of the construction industry will belong to companies that can leverage technology to realize efficiencies and cost savings. Advancements in the mobile industry will help companies of all sizes accelerate the adoption of technology necessary to compete in today’s environment.

An Even Playing Field

While many small to midsize construction companies have turned to off-the-shelf, consumer mobile devices to bridge the widening technology gap separating them from their larger competitors, these devices are little more than a temporary patch. Designed for the average consumer, these devices lack the rugged design features and industry-specific functionality required for the demanding work environments in which construction companies operate. These features include: military-grade weatherproofing and waterproofing, all-weather touchscreen, push-to-talk functionality, scratchproof screens, extended-life batteries and secure VPN support. Going forward, companies will no longer have to choose between budget-busting enterprise solutions and price-friendly consumer devices that lack the hardiness and functionality necessary for working in construction. A new era of rugged mobile devices has arrived in the United States market that blend the functionality and durability of enterprise rugged devices with the affordability of off-the-shelf, carrier-subsidized consumer devices.

Android-based smartphones provide hardened voice and data solutions at a fraction of the cost of Apple’s iPhone. They meet compliance standards and provide security, performance and connectivity at an affordable price point. They also support a robust ecosystem of software/application developers and hardware accessories that turn the devices into tailored solutions for specific vertical markets. Meanwhile, not all construction workers require data services, making rugged feature phones an even lower cost option. All of the devices are certified to Military Standard 810G and are offered by nearly all major carriers in North America, making these rugged devices available off-the-shelf and ready for deployment for an average subsidized price of just $49 to $149.

In a bottom-line business like construction, this new breed of rugged mobile devices will enable professionals and companies of all sizes to utilize technology to realize efficiencies that will help them compete and thrive in the digital age.