Breaking the tradition of using specialized products
Faster turnaround of technology developments benefits everyone, from the integrator to the front line
Given the complexity of their systems and the stringent standards they have to meet, rugged systems developers have traditionally taken a relatively long time to produce their devices. But with users looking to get their hands on new technologies much faster than they have in the past, the rugged community will have to dance to a much faster tune.
The military in particular, faced with an outmoded acquisition process that is expensive and takes years to get what eventually turns out to be outmoded technology into the hands of warfighters, is looking to develop a much accelerated development process.
Heidi Shyu, acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, was blunt about that when speaking to the 2011 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition last October, saying that things changed the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. The new order requires agility in order to meet an agile enemy, she told conference attendees.
“And in order to be more agile, we know we need to emphasize mature technology and less cost,” she said, so the focus of the new approach will be on using more commercial-off-the-shelf technology and the “it just works” maturity that comes with it.
Key decision-makers in government have become more receptive to different ways of applying technology, as opposed to the traditional green box approach of having things locked down and specialized according to very specific user needs, said David Krebs, director of VDC Research's mobile and wireless practice.
Ultimately, he said, they have realized that only produces technology that “is not designed to withstand various exposures and that doesn’t supply the kind of capabilities that are available to the everyday consumer.”
There are signs that at least some parts of the rugged community understand what’s needed and are trying to react, Krebs said.
“They are trying to keep pace and are trying to deliver technologies that are maybe not state of the art but are nevertheless sufficiently current,” he said.
Parvus Corp., whose longtime business has been building rugged embedded systems to order, actually sees that new emphasis as a lead into a potentially large market. It has built a good business in ruggedizing Cisco networking systems and is looking for other companies it might do the same for.
Juniper Networks, for example, has introduced a board-level router product that is a card that can be integrated into a router, said Mike Southworth, the company’s director of marketing. And there will undoubtedly be other suppliers that need to fit their products to military standards and that also have the same advantages of Cisco of having well-used commercial software.
“That meets the COTS emphasis the military is putting onto things now, and that should continue despite uncertainty over the budget and other things,” he said. “So we will continue to focus on the most cost-competitive COTS products.”
The experience so far with these technologies only proves it’s the right approach, he said, since the ruggedized portion accounts for around one-third of Parvus’ total business “and is growing quite well.”
The need for a faster turnaround of technology developments could also lead to a more decisive segmentation in the rugged market into the “business” rugged, semi-rugged and fully rugged sectors.
“It’s on an application-by-application basis but we are seeing that happen, also because of budget pressures,” Krebs said. “Your are starting to see people talking about products that are 'rugged enough' and are starting to step down to something that’s still rugged, but not quite as rugged as a previous deployment."
At the same time, he said, non-rugged solutions are starting to encroach into the traditional rugged space, he said, though that is more dependent on the target user. In the military, they are more related to such things as training and administrative applications than to operational functions.
Again, it’s an ill wind that blows no one good. Panasonic, at least, prefers to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat and, as far as the business rugged sector is concerned, has planted its stake into the ground over the past year or so with various new systems that use some of elements of its fully rugged line, “though not to the degree required of those products,” said Tim Collins, federal sales director for Panasonic Solutions Co.
“So we’re working with models that have the right price points for these markets,” he said, adding that all of the various levels of rugged products will continue to coexist.
All told, he said, “we’re finding it’s a very lucrative space.”