Building tough notebooks

Army officials are looking to reconcile lessons learned about the use of computers during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Soldiers love their commercial notebook computers, but the notebooks don't withstand harsh environments.

Because not much can be done about commercial technology, Army officials are rethinking their acquisition strategy. It may be less expensive to purchase a more durable notebook rather than buying office laptops that will likely need to be replaced.

Officials from the Army and Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. met last month to discuss a reduced rate for the company's Toughbook notebook computers, which the Army bought through the Common Hardware Software-2 (CHS-2) contract, service and industry officials said. The notebooks worked well — but not flawlessly — in Iraq and Afghanistan, they said.

"Business notebook computers are not designed with military specifications in mind," said Lt. Col. Gale Harrington, product manager of common hardware systems in the Army's Program Executive

Office-Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO-C3T) at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Computer maintenance technicians with General Dynamics Corp.'s C4 Systems business division in Taunton, Mass., which won the $945 million CHS-2 contract in 1995, spent a lot of time cleaning the nonruggedized machines.

"A lot of dust got in," said Harrington, who oversees computer acquisition and maintenance for PEO-C3T, the service's warfighting information technology

organization.

About 80 percent to 90 percent of the business notebook computers in Iraq experienced problems, according to industry officials. The cost of one laptop and its replacement could approach the price of one durable Panasonic Toughbook, said Dante Conrad, senior manager of Army accounts for the company's Northeastern U.S. business region.

The newer CS-73 and CF-29 Toughbook models cost $4,300 to $4,600 each, Conrad said. He declined to comment on the reduced prices that Army and Panasonic officials discussed.

The service can cut costs and increase work output by providing more rugged devices to soldiers who need to use notebook computers in the office and on the battlefield, Conrad said. "You get a more productive user," he said.

The Army's discussions with Panasonic are sensible, said Harold Youra, a consultant who matches small vendors with big systems integrators to provide IT solutions to the government. "The question is can the Army and Panasonic both afford it. Can it be a win-win situation?" asked Youra, president of Alliance Solutions LLC in Baltimore.

Soldiers had varied opinions about the failure rates of notebook computer products bought through CHS-2. Service and industry officials said 2 percent to 30 percent of ruggedized laptops malfunctioned, and 30 percent to 90 percent of nonrugged laptops malfunctioned.

The Army purchased about 7,500 Toughbook products through the CHS-2 contract. Of the Toughbooks used in Iraq, 8 percent to 10 percent failed, said Ashok Jain, PEO-C3T's acting director for common hardware systems.

"We're generally satisfied," Jain said. "We can live with an 8 percent failure rate. A lower number would be better. We prefer 5 percent. We want to get to the absolute lowest failure rate possible." He and Harrington said they consider Toughbooks the industry benchmark for ruggedized laptop computers.

Panasonic officials reported fewer Toughbook failure rates, said Melissa Payton, senior business development manager for the company's federal business division. She said the CS-72, in use for 41 months, averaged a 6.19 percent failure rate; the CS-73, in use for 11 months, averaged a 0.53 percent failure rate; the CF-28, in use for 38 months, averaged a 2.61 percent failure rate; and the CF-29, in use for six months, averaged a 0.96 percent failure rate.

"As a sales rep, I'm happy when the product failure rate is less than 5 percent," Conrad said.

Shrapnel, sand and dust caused the most problems for Toughbooks. Army officials also occasionally found cracks in the computers' liquid-crystal displays, Jain said. "Sand and dust did not cause a problem if you cleaned them," he said.

Heat did not affect the Toughbooks. The magnesium casing protected CF-28/29 models in the 100-degree temperatures of the Iraqi desert, Jain said.

Army officials would like improvements in ruggedized notebook computers to include better protected keypads and screens and computer hard drives without moving parts, called solid-state drives. But these updates would increase costs, Jain said.

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