Modern data collection products come with integrated barcode scanners, ample memory, color touch screens, expansion slots, wireless radio networking, long-life batteries and enclosures that can withstand tough conditions. Source: I&R Partners LLC

The age-old considerations for data collection enthusiasts have always stared them straight in the face while they attempt to select the perfect system for their company’s needs: Capability, flexibility, compatibility, expandability, durability, portability and affordability-all these abilities have caused many to delay the implementation of a system that could ensure their company’s survival and profitability in this competitive global marketplace.

For many years capability demanded a full-blown desktop PC, with more than average resources in speed, memory, graphics, network cards and storage space. Flexibility was limited by such things as gage interfacing. Was it digital, analog, serial/RS232, LVDT, BCD or some other format? Would it interface to barcode scanners? Would it collect variable data or attribute data or both?

Then there was compatibility. Would it talk to all gages, run on the company’s current PC operating system, communicate with the existing network and upload into the existing database for corporate access? Would the company be able to grow into it, starting out small and using the system’s expandability at a later date? Was it durable enough to withstand a harsh shop environment? Was it portable? Would it be able to be held in one hand so that an operator could carry it out onto the wing of an aircraft to take measurements, roam the entire shop doing capability studies and travel offsite to perform supplier audits at remote facilities?

After the appropriate data collection system was selected, there was still one more question: How much will all of this cost? In the past, this figure would be such that it left many manufacturers relying on paper and pencil.

This mobile computer is used as part of a wireless data acquisition system for handheld gaging. Source: I&R Partners LLC

Modern Functionality

Modern data collection products, such as the mobile computer with Windows CE or Mobile, come with integrated barcode scanners, ample memory, color touch screens, expansion slots, wireless radio networking, long-life batteries and enclosures that can withstand tough conditions. Gargantuan National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) enclosures of the past-taking up half a workbench and costing as much as a small car-are no longer required to ensure survival in environmentally challenging manufacturing facilities. And modern accessories-such as cradles, multiplexers, wireless network cards, pistol grips, gage interfaces and wireless gaging-resolve issues surrounding capability, flexibility, compatibility, expandability, durability and portability. The mobile computer, weighing in at just over a pound, fits in the palm of the hand while having the ability to fit any data collection scenario.

From workstations with mobile computers docked in cradles and connected to multiplexers interfaced to a variety of gages, to portable units for the operator on the move, the mobile computer has enabled the data collection enthusiast to conquer the simplest or the most complex data collection challenges.

In terms of functionality, today’s mobile computers are no different than a desktop PC. Unlike the old days, when data collectors had proprietary operating systems, today’s mobile computers run on Microsoft Windows, the universality of which makes them user friendly. Windows virtually enables any requirement to have an appropriate solution using programs such as Word or Excel.

The non-proprietary operating system also enables these mobile computers to be used in areas of the manufacturing plant other than just quality, such as production and material management. With their integrated laser scanners or imagers, and having engines capable of reading from inches to 30 feet away, they can scan just about any barcode. From 2-D to direct part marking (DPM) to radio frequency identification (RFID), these devices enable the collection of data throughout any area of a plant. In the quality department alone, a multitude of information can be entered by barcodes-operators’ names, machine numbers, lot and serial numbers, process adjustments, assignable causes, corrective action, plus all the defect codes needed for attributes.

One of the most popular buzzwords today is wireless. From Bluetooth to Wi-Fi to 802.11 to infrared, data communications have greatly evolved since the days of the RS-422/485 drop lines. No more climbing into the ceiling to string network lines from data collector to data collector. Most mobile computers today come with internal radios for wireless network communications, greatly benefiting portable, handheld data collection by enabling constant, wireless access to a network or server.

A Data Collection Revolution

With the mobile computer possessing so many powerful tools, it is possible to address all data collection needs with a single system, bringing benefits such as a one-time training curve, simple repositioning of operators, the borrowing of units from department to department, one point of contact for maintenance and support, and the ability to justify its cost over the entire plant rather than just one specific area or department.

Speaking of cost, the majority of these mobile computers cost under $3,000, which is well under what proprietary data collectors were 20 years ago-collectors that did not have wireless networking, color touch screens, integrated barcode scanners or the memory of today’s solutions. The miniaturization of the mobile computer has ultimately brought manufacturers a truly plantwide data collection solution. The mobile computer has the power to revolutionize shop-floor data collection as we know it.