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The “Mil Spec Marketing” of Ruggedized Computers

Written by Brad Brewer

Anyone who’s been involved in purchasing law enforcement mobile computing systems over the years is well versed in the multitude of computing systems available all claiming to be “Mil Spec Compliant” or “Tested to Mil Spec.”

To the average untrained eye, all these claims seem believable, and the products out there in the market often look very durable with chunky rubber moldings, black or gray coloring, sturdy handles and large sealed access ports.

Many manufacturers make great claims about their products being Mil Spec compliant, but are they really? Or are they simply stating that they met the bare minimum requirements of a select few required tests and never actually had an independent third party verify and publish their results? Independent verification is the bare minimum you should be asking for when considering a ruggedized computer purchase.

Now, some manufacturers say they have third party testing and verification, but do they really? Does their claim have an asterisk beside it, and is the phrase “testing modified” in the small print? What exactly does that mean? Who modified what? Next time you go take a test at the motor vehicle office or in a night school class, ask the instructor or teacher if you can have the testing “modified.”

To be clear, the proper definition of Mil Spec refers to the military standards developed by the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure products meet certain requirements, commonality, reliability, total cost of ownership, and compatibility with other defense-related systems. Previously for laptops, the specific section was 810F, and it’s now 810G. Most are also aware that the military itself doesn’t do any testing; it just asks the manufacturers to meet these standards in order to be deemed acceptable.

Just as the NHTSA Five Star Safety Rating System has become standard for crash rating in the automobile industry, these military standards have become the benchmark for any product marketed as “ruggedized,” especially in the public safety mobile computing world.

If you did some investigating into exactly how these products were tested, you would be very surprised, if not a bit upset, at what you found. Not only are the minimum standards for laptop testing low, they are often not realistic for what frontline operational police officers do with a laptop.

Case in point: the dreaded Mil Spec 810G drop test. Most consumer-grade laptops don’t fair well with a 3-foot drop to the ground, liquid penetration or continuous vibration over long periods. In law enforcement, laptops must be able to withstand this kind of abuse and more, or they become out of service far too frequently.

So let’s look at what the Mil Spec requires each of the laptops to actually do to pass testing in these critical areas. The 3-foot drop test is probably the most misunderstood of all the required tests. It requires that the powered “Off” laptop must turn “On” or “Boot up” after being dropped from 3 feet onto a hard surface. To pass, you can have the laptop “Off” and drop it flat. If the first one doesn’t pass, then you can use up to four more laptops, and if one passes, you can claim success, because you passed the test to the Mil Spec 810G requirement. What? That’s completely unrealistic. Cops don’t turn off their laptops every time before they accidently drop them. When dropped, they don’t carefully make sure they land dead flat either.

So using five laptops to pass this test means you could buy a ruggedized product that meets Mil Spec testing, even though four out of five won’t pass this test. Going back to the NHTSA crash testing example, is it acceptable to have a car company test its cars and deem the model has passed the Five Star crash test if one out of five cars passed? Too bad if you bought one of the four that didn’t pass.

What if the first computer actually passes the testing but the screen is cracked, or the case is damaged? Is this acceptable? Are you going to deploy a working laptop with a cracked screen? Again, this is unrealistic and potentially very costly if the laptop has to be sent away for repairs and remain out of service.

How about this for a realistic test: The drop test is done with a single unit, not five, and that drop test isn’t done only from 3 feet; it’s also done from 4, 5 and 6 feet. Because there’s no way to guarantee which way the laptop will be dropped in the real world, how about it gets dropped from all those heights on every possible corner and edge? Yes, that’s right—a single unit gets dropped multiple times from each of those heights and has to boot up at the end of each drop without any damage to the screen or case. Watch it for yourself at www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqtkEi-37Gs.

At the time this article was written, there was only one manufacturer testing to these realistic standards, and then to ensure proper validation, it also paid a third party to conduct the same tests and to publish all the results—not just the ones favorable to its product. That manufacturer is Panasonic, the leader in truly ruggedized mobile computing solutions for law enforcement.

If you were to look inside three-quarters of North American police vehicles, you would likely see the same Toughbook computer in all of them. Those Toughbooks are in that many law enforcement vehicles for a reason, and that reason is quality. Panasonic takes the approach that even though its Toughbook failure rates are the lowest in the business, that’s not good enough, and it is constantly striving to make them lower.

Panasonic tests its Toughbooks in 11 Mil Spec test requirements and beyond passes all of them. Potential buyers need to educate themselves on the Mil Spec tests and specifically the ones that match their environment. In Arizona, for example, perhaps dust and heat tolerance testing should be something of significance.

What about vibration testing and its effect on screen hinge strength? Is a lower grade laptop going to stand up to the constant vibration of a police car? In a side impact collision, is the impact force going to rip the screen from the body of the computer if the hinges fail? The screen then becomes a projectile inside the vehicle.

By now somebody out there is saying, “So what? It still passed the minimum Mil Spec requirement. I can buy two cheaper laptops for every ruggedized Panasonic Toughbook. I will just keep a stack of ‘hot and ready’ backups and swap them out on the fly, no problem.”

Policing is a 24/7, 365 day a year requirement—is your tech support the same? At 3 a.m. when an officer’s laptop goes down, it needs to be fixed now, not tomorrow morning when tech support opens up. Laptops for frontline police are mission critical systems now, not nice to have—they are need to have. Officers need information, and as much of it as possible, to make the best decisions when entering into a dynamic and potentially dangerous situation that may require use of force.

Let’s say you have a spare laptop available for the officer, but there’s no tech onsite. While your laptop may already be set up, is it set up with all your CAD, MDT, RMS, NCIC MV system tables? What about your data system network or commercial wireless carrier? If it is, are you paying for a data account on a laptop that sits on the shelf as a spare? Why? Are you going to require the officer to do some basic reconfiguration?

What about the cost of the officer’s downtime, or the technician’s time, or the repair itself—is all that factored in? Nowadays, there are very few professions left where computer downtime doesn’t have a significant impact on productivity. In law enforcement it’s even more serious, because it’s mission critical information that guides the officer to make an informed decision. Downtime is what really needs to be measured, because the associated costs of downtime can be staggering if not realized.

In the past few years with the financial situation across North America, there have been several large agencies that thought they could save big money if they went to a cheaper upfront mobile computing solution, usually as a result of new staff influencing others in making the decision to go cheaper without doing the proper research. In two particular cases, both those agencies suffered significant issues and costs which resulted in their eventual return to the Panasonic Toughbook.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in marketing hype; make an educated decision. Talk to current and past customers, and be careful on exactly who you’re talking to. It’s doubtful that the person who may have been responsible for the purchase is going to be critical of his own decisions. Ensure impartiality in whomever you speak, with and talk to the end users of the solution and hear what they have to say. Who better to tell you the straight goods than those who use it every day? You should preferably speak in an informal setting as opposed to a large meeting with managers or bosses present who may create an environment for political correctness rather than the truth.

Educate yourself, know the boundaries of the testing, and diligently audit all claims made by each laptop manufacturer to ensure validity and integrity.

In the end, it’s failure rates that really count in public safety mobile computing; after all, Mil Spec is just a test. The only true way to determine computer durability is by deploying it in the environment in which you work. So whether or not it passed the Mil Spec dust penetration requirement, consider what the failure rates were when it was deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq or the U.S. desert areas by other agencies. Only by talking to those agencies with long-term deployments in climates similar to yours will you truly know if the product you’re looking to purchase will pass or fail.

Sergeant Brad Brewer is a 22-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. He sits on the Ford Police Advisory Board and regularly gives presentations at law enforcement conferences on mobile computing, wireless technology and police vehicle ergonomics. He can be reached at sgt1411@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of Panasonic.


Published in Law and Order, Aug 2010

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