Palm-sized computer sales are booming as are its uses for discrete manufacturers who are taking advantage of new software and applications that have been devised for these small, lightweight and increasingly powerful portable computers.

These fashionable, fit-in-the-palm of your hand computers are fast becoming portable data collectors for engineers and technicians on the shop floor who need to collect large amounts of data fast and get the data into a usable, error-free format. For years, PCs and other stand-alone devices have been used to help tally measurement data on the factory floor, but today the difference is mobility.

"The benefit of using lightweight devices is that they are smaller and easier to use and can be moved easily to get the job done," said Paul Mychalowych, president of Advanced Systems Design (Troy, MI), manufacturers of PalmSPC software. "In the past, the marketplace was filled with heavier proprietary devices with larger batteries."

Automakers have quickly seized the benefits of these computers for their measurement, test and inspection processes. Ford, for ex-ample, has purchased as many as 5,000 of these types of units. One application might be torque safety checks during the assembly process. "On the assembly line, components are bolted on at different points, and they have to be checked as they are installed," said Frank Skog, senior specialist for data collection at DataMyte (Minnetonka, MN). "You can't wait until the end of the line to check them because by then they are all covered."

In the past, the results from these spot inspections would be noted with paper and pencil, a time consuming process that is fraught with potential errors. The engineer or quality control worker would carry a clipboard and on various sheets note the measurements, which would later be manually entered into a computer. Transposition errors occurred, numbers were smudged by contaminants present on the shop floor and changes in production were not as quickly detected because the data was not immediately accessible.

Handheld computers allow the engineers to leave the pencils in their pockets and the clipboards at their desk. Typically, a cable runs from the computer to a digital or analog handheld measurement tool such as a micrometer, caliper, height gage, torque wrench, or gap and flush transducer. The measurement data is automatically entered into a statistical process control (SPC) program or another software package.

Accuracy is enhanced and time is saved by using electronic data collection, said Skog. "The final audit on an auto is typically about a 4-hour job," he said. "With pencil and paper it would easily take double or quadruple that time."

The aerospace industry also has incorporated similar handheld devices throughout the years, enjoying the flexibility and the ability to help accurately generate the reams of required paperwork that follow the plane throughout its multidecade life. Boeing, the world's largest aircraft manufacturer, measures bored holes in aluminum substrates with electronic dial indicators and the data is captured via handheld devices. The information is invaluable because even one out-of-specification hole can theoretically compromise safety.

Currently, these handheld devices are used in assembly applications ranging from refrigerators to jets. But, at the computers' relatively low price point, a couple hundred dollars and more for Palm OS-platform devices and $500 and more for the Microsoft system, more manufacturers are expected to incorporate these devices in their test programs.

"People have just started applying them," said Oliver King-Smith, president of Tescina (Fremont, CA). "Right now many people are just kicking the tires. The big impact is to come."

Multifunction capabilities
Helping to drive the influx of handheld data collection devices is the flexibility and multifunction capabilities of these devices, and the variety of software for them. Information can be gathered by almost any device with an RS232 output, downloaded directly into a database and used to create X-bar charts and other graphics.

"Most of the measuring tools have an interface that allows operators to plug in the devices, and more people are beginning to take advantage of the electronic outputs," said Tom Lutz, president of Tal Technologies (Philadelphia). Tal recently released CE-Wedge, its first data collection program for interfacing to Windows CE. "You simply plug the instrument into the port, take a measurement, and then push a button and the instrument shoots the data right to the PC," said Lutz.

Because of the many features that are available, manufacturers need to determine the capabilities they need. "Do you want e-mail in the device or Web access?" asked Skog. "A lot of companies have deviation procedures on an intranet, which is a very handy thing. Instead of having to walk off to who knows where to find a piece of paper that is three versions behind, it is right there." A number of improvements have been made to these systems, making them more attractive to manufacturers. More software is available including a multitude of SPC packages, bar code reading and calibration software. Color screens are becoming standard, or at least more affordable, replacing the black and white screens that engineers found hard to read without using the battery-draining back light. Overall, battery life has also undergone a major improvement, augmented by less power for the operating systems.

"For someone whose job is to walk around all day, batteries that run out every couple of hours is a severe productivity drain," said Mychalowych. "Either they would need to lug a cart full of batteries or they would constantly have to run to swap these things out."

The CE vs. Palm battle
Manufacturers have two basic platforms when it comes to palm-sized data collectors. The Palm operating system runs on computers produced by Palm and Handspring, while Microsoft's Windows operating system runs on the Pocket PCs made by Casio, Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Symbol Technologies. While the two systems have many of the same functions and are similar in shape and size, they do have their differences.

"Companies are trying to build a corporate infrastructure of like systems, and managers and engineers are picking battles over which to go with," said Mychalowych.

The Palm OS system is the cheaper of the two, starting at about $150, and it has the dominant market share at an estimated 85%. Because of this, it's predicted that many innovative software products will be launched to serve this large customer base.

"The Palm is the lower priced unit with plenty of functionality and capability and a dominant market share," said King, whose company sells a Palm SPC product. "That is what people feel comfortable adopting. Our opinion is that the people will not support the Pocket PC, but if it does take off we will support it."

On the other hand, the Palm products are not considered as rugged as the Windows product, although bumpers can be purchased to help in protecting them, and the Palm's processor is not considered as fast, according to some computer industry publications.

The Windows CE 3.0 operating system, Microsoft's newest CE version released in 2000, shares many of the same functionality as its PC-based big brother. For example, it can run Excel spreadsheets, which are desired by many engineers, said Lutz. The Pocket PC also is considered more rugged.

"Windows CE is a full-blown multitasking operating system," said Lutz. "If you are doing sophisticated applications such as industrial control, then there is no contest."

On the other hand, Windows CE 3.0 is Microsoft's third attempt at building an operating system to compete in the Palm computing market. Also, the product comes in at a higher price point than the Palm versions, which is a hurdle, considering its lack of marketshare.

Future impact
As the battle wears on, it seems that the consumer is the ultimate winner in the Palm vs. Windows battle. Faster processors, enlarged memory, more powerful software and increasingly diverse applications are expected to be released which will help to simplify measurement and testing tasks.

"We get more and more pressure to build more analysis into the software," said King. "Many manufacturers want to do X-bar charts and histograms. Many manufacturers want that type of capability pushed down to the Palm Pilot level."

Skog added that companies want this data actually tied to their production systems. "If it detects that lug nuts are loose on body sequence number 123, it will alert the operator that there is a suspect lot up to that point," he said. "It becomes not just a quality issue, but it is tied to the manufacturing process."

With these new improvements comes the possibility that the top of the line system bought today may be eclipsed by new products with each turn of the calendar.

"Technology changes every 3 or 4 months," said Mychalowych. "Manufacturers should be prepared. But you can get a very high return on your dollar so companies should experiment with this stuff. For $500 you can do the job electroni-cally, and be faster and more accurate."