Rugged Myths Busted

Top misconceptions about rugged computers and electronics are addressed.

Rugged computer and electronics products and systems have been around and employed successfully for decades. Rugged solutions are rooted in aerospace and defense, but have proven exceedingly useful in a wide variety of applications, ranging from industrial to law enforcement, homeland security, firefighting, oil & gas, commercial unmanned and autonomous vehicles, and many more. Rugged electronics and computers bring tremendous benefits, such as high reliability and long life even in extreme environments; yet, some confusion exists around what constitutes “rugged.” Common misunderstandings, which are clarified here, can stand in the way of fully realizing all the benefits rugged solutions can deliver.

Myth: All rugged systems are created equal. Rugged computers and electronics are designed from the ground up to withstand the rigors of harsh or extreme environments, elements, and conditions. They are engineered specifically to continue working reliably in situations that would cause average devices, such as those consumers purchase off the shelf, to cease operation.

Consumer- or enterprise-level computers and servers commonly fail where rugged systems excel, including: high altitudes with freezing temperatures; undersea or shipboard environments with fog, mist, and sea spray; helicopters prone to severe shock and vibration, temperature extremes, and blowing dust and sand; and industrial manufacturing floors marked by high vibration, heat, and dust. Rugged systems provide environments that limit deflection, extending the life of electronics.

Another common term, “ruggedized,” refers to products that have been strengthened to provide greater resistance to harmful conditions. It is traditionally used to describe a consumer-level or non-rugged device housed in a rugged chassis, which adds a protective layer. Engineers call on Crystal Group to integrate systems into rugged transit cases, which protect sensitive electronics while also meeting input/output (I/O), cable management, thermal management, and size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements.

Myth: Rugged only refers to the enclosure; it’s just an average consumer device in a hard case. A well-constructed, protective enclosure is an important part of a rugged system, but it certainly is not the only thing that makes it rugged. Fully rugged systems go beyond the external enclosure, delving far deeper than the chassis.

When rugged is done right, the internal electronic components have been selected for their ability to withstand higher and lower operating temperatures, shock and vibration, and other conditions encountered over their lifetimes. In some cases, the electronics require modification to operate at these extreme temperatures. Over three decades, Crystal Group has honed techniques to extend the performance and usable life of rugged devices and boost ruggedness. Among these methods are: the use of high-strength, aircraft-grade, strain-hardened structural aluminum and carbon-fiber materials; stabilization of components susceptible to damage from shock and vibration; increased air flow to hot components; specialized thermal management, essential for sealed systems; and conductive and convective heat transfer mechanisms of components to extend the thermal limits of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) motherboards.

Rugged is not an afterthought, whereby sensitive electronics are only placed in a protective enclosure—not unlike a smartphone being placed in a harder shell. Rather, true rugged solutions are designed from inception to be rugged and manufactured specifically to meet the demands of the intended application and environment, which are addressed externally and internally.

Myth: Rugged systems are much more expensive, and the benefits don’t outweigh the cost. Fully rugged devices do carry a higher price tag than their consumer and enterprise-class, and even ruggedized or semi-rugged, counterparts. As with most things, a premium is paid for products that go above and beyond the norm; a great deal goes into the design, manufacture, testing, and certification of a true rugged system, and it pays dividends back to the user in increased availability, greater mean time between failure (MTBF), and longer operational life than their conventional counterparts. Failures, in the field and on the production floor, can be costly.

Truth be told, 10 percent to 15 percent of the higher cost is attributable to selecting better-quality components. Independent research studies verify that rugged devices provide a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than non-rugged devices. The TCO of rugged computers is reported to be 36 percent lower than conventional computers in environments where rugged computers are commonly used. Harsh environments and conditions can detrimentally affect a non-rugged system’s reliability and availability, worker productivity and morale, mission success, and safety, as well as result in higher failure rates, maintenance and technical support costs, downtime, and hardware replacement costs.

Myth: Rugged is just an arbitrary term, with no formal industry standard or levels. “Rugged” may seem difficult to quantify, but strict military standards (MIL-STDs) establish uniform engineering and technical requirements and criteria for manufacturing processes and test methods. When selecting rugged products, it is advisable to inquire about the company’s experience and legacy related to rugged solutions, certifications, and testing to common specifications, such as MIL-STD or Ingress Protection (IP).

Some key military standards include: MIL-STD 167-1 for vibration; MIL-STD 461 E/F for electromagnetic interference (EMI) characteristics; MIL-S-901D for shock; and MIL-STD 810G for determining how equipment endures extreme temperatures, impact, vibration, humidity, and more. Each of these standards includes multiple levels of endurance to which engineers should pay close attention. Crystal Group, for example, provides products that are field-tested, combat-proven, deployed on more than 500 military programs, and meet or exceed the defense standards described.

High-res-Jim-Shaw-copyJim Shaw, Executive Vice President of Engineering at Crystal Group, has led the engineering department and new product development team since 2006. His profound engineering design acumen led to Crystal Group’s revolutionary rugged series (RS) chassis for military and industrial computing, and grew the company’s rugged product portfolio to include embedded, storage, displays, switches, carbon fiber options, and custom power supply designs. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State University and a Masters of Business Administration from the University of Iowa. Prior to joining Crystal Group, he held an engineering management position at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was nominated as Engineer of the Year three times for his work in high-performance electronics packaging. He has authored or co-authored eight international patents over his career.

About Crystal Group Inc.
Crystal Group Inc., an employee-owned small business located in Hiawatha, Iowa, USA, is a technology innovation leader specializing in both custom and COTS products for defense, government and industrial markets since 1987. Crystal Group designs and manufactures installation-ready rugged servers, displays, networking devices, embedded systems, power supplies and storage devices that fit critical applications in demanding environmental conditions.

The company is certified to quality management standards AS9100C:2009 and ISO 9001:2008. Crystal Group products meet and exceed MIL-STDs 810, 167-1, 461, MIL-S-901, IEEE and IEC industrial standards. Additionally, the company offers integration services, configuration management, product life-cycle planning and 5+ year warranties.

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