Rugged tablet computers that can survive in harsh environments

Many oil and gas companies are looking for ways to make field operations more efficient through the mobile computing revolution. However, the complaint sometimes comes up, "We tried tablets for field workers. They said the devices were too hard to use and too easy to break. So they went back to using paper."

But while some companies have found that their adoption of tablet PCs has not been as successful, others have seen significant benefits, including improvements in productivity, security and cost savings.

Below are some tips for improving end-user adoption and mobility success in harsh or hostile environments, such as those common in the oil industry.

Rugged devices for outdoor use

While a typical consumer tablet may be suitable for the boardroom, field-ready devices must be able to withstand the rigors of the field. This means they must be able to withstand many drops onto surfaces such as a steel floor.

It also means they must be able to withstand major temperature extremes - from the dashboard of a pickup truck on a sunny summer day to the cold of a winter night in Alberta. Because batteries like those in tablets tend to lose power in extreme cold, many field workers who use inferior tablets have learned to stow the devices in their parkas during the winter.

Devices must also survive other types of hostile environments, such as being placed on surfaces that may be covered with a variety of lubricants, fuels and other substances.

So look for a tablet that was designed from the start to withstand the rigors of field use.

Keep it safe

Many oilfield operations pose the risk of explosions and fires caused by electrical equipment. It is important that tablet devices, like other equipment, be certified as safe for hazardous area classifications such as Class 1 Division 2.

If the devices can't be taken anywhere employees work, they won't be as useful as they could be. Choose equipment that is certified for the hazards of the environment in which it will be used.

The software you choose must work with the hardware to allow users to enter data without resorting to a keyboard. This means having a clear idea of the tasks the device needs to perform. For example:

Taking a picture of a pipeline valve.

Reading RFID tags on lengths of drill pipe to verify the size and fit of the pipe.

Writing on the same RFID tags to tell the drilling crew the order in which to use the pipe.

It is best if all functions of the tablet can be performed without tapping - also for safety and comfort for workers wearing gloves. It is important that users can enter data easily, even with the help of a pen.

To ensure that workers who cannot read or are unfamiliar with the English language can use the device, it is important that the software is designed with the workflow in mind. This could include requiring workers to check only one red or one green box to complete a task.

Some work in the oil industry is done in locations where there is a good mobile connection to the cellular network or a wireless hotspot. But much of the work in the industry, especially in the exploration phase, takes place in locations far from these amenities.

Accordingly, employees need to have devices that are fully functional without access to the cloud. This could include being able to collect information and store it on the device for later transfer, as well as view safety and instructional videos stored on the device.

Rolling out the complete package

As an example of implementing a tablet program, a company in the oil industry purchased tablets and distributed them to its employees. While this was a step in the right direction, it wasn't until six months later that the company provided the software needed to make the devices truly useful - and by that time, employees had already decided that the tablets were of little use to them.

While it's essential to choose a device that is rugged, field-ready and C1D2-certified, it's even more important to make sure there are applications that make the device useful.

1. Reality Check - Understand the business processes your company wants to improve.

2. Proof of Concept - Determine if tablets will do the job from a technology perspective.

3. Pilot Phase - Field test to see if tablets really add value to the business process, if the investment is worth it, and if employees actually see enough benefits to use the tablets.

4. rollout - With appropriate training, including how to use the stylus (even with winter gloves), and tips on how to keep the devices functional, including charging when out of the office.

Tablet solutions must be able to provide full mobility to the end user - movement from vehicle to job site, to office, movement on the job site and at the service point. At the same time, C1D2 compliance is becoming increasingly valuable as it allows tablet PCs to be used in a wider range of operating environments.

Oil and gas companies can now easily leverage next-generation mobile solutions and realize significant benefits in workforce productivity, asset optimization, compliance management and improved workplace safety.