Why Are Rugged Tablets the Best Fit for Forklift Computer Systems?

Traditional fixed vehicle-mounted computers serve a single purpose, can take weeks or months to be repaired and often use operating systems (I’m talking about you, Windows CE) that are being phased out, resulting in reduced productivity and increased warehouse costs. In this Q&A, our experts discuss these challenges and explains the difference that vehicle-mounted, rugged tablets are making in warehouses, distribution centers and on plant floors in nearly all industries right now.

Known for their harsh environmental conditions, today’s high-velocity warehouses and distribution centers put unique strains on technology. As the heavy lifters in these settings (ha ha), lift trucks require extremely durable and reliable computers that are cost-efficient, operate even when there is inconsistent Wi-Fi, and also promote safe and ergonomic operation.

Because finding all of these qualities in a traditional vehicle-mounted unit (VMU) is nearly impossible, companies are installing more rugged tablets as their forklift computer systems. In this Q&A, Sonia Arnold, Panasonic Connect Professional Services Executive Account Manager, and Mike Bates, Executive Account Manager, discuss the key challenges that warehouses are facing and explain the value of a mobile tablet for forklifts that includes easily mounted or removed, multi-purpose functionality, modern applications and device management software, services, and support.

Q: What big challenges are warehouse and DC operators dealing with when it comes to mobile technology for their lift trucks?

Sonia Arnold: The warehouse is one of the most rugged environments where mobile technology is being deployed and used. On lift trucks, along with a lot of stopping and starting, there are also extreme temperature fluctuations to deal with (for example, when lift trucks go in and out of the building or cold storage freezers). And anytime you install a computer on a lift truck of any kind, there are safety and ergonomic issues to consider. Companies need flexible solutions that can handle these requirements.

Mike Bates: Another key driving factor right now is the end of life (EOL) of older operating systems – Windows CE or Windows Mobile. Microsoft ends extended support for Windows CE 2013 in late 2023. Many existing forklift mounted units are running on Windows CE and companies must have a plan for what to do once Microsoft’s extended support ends. Even though the hardware itself may still function, they should be worried about the lifespan and the supportability of the operating system.

Q: How do issues like operator safety, Wi-Fi performance, and existing solutions impact the use and type of mounted devices on forklifts in the warehouse environment?

SA: Warehouses are putting more and more emphasis on safety and accident prevention. To help safeguard against operator distraction, companies need the right size tablet that can be mounted overhead or out of the driver’s line of sight. These requirements are pushing companies to think beyond traditional vehicle-mounted units (VMUs), which are bigger and not removeable and also require a high upfront investment.

MB: The trade-off with fixed VMUs is that they’re limited in terms of their ability to expand into new roles or applications. For example, some are simple green screen terminal emulators that support specific functions like order picking and processing. They’re also not removable or portable, so the user needs to sit in the lift truck to use it.

SA: Also, in terms of safety and to prevent accidents due to distracted driving, best practice is to use a solution that locks down the computer and/or keyboard when the vehicle is moving. This reduces distraction-induced accidents by preventing the driver from operating the computer while the forklift is in motion.

Q: What are some better options that companies should consider right now?

SA: Companies want solutions that can scale and provide an improved return on investment (ROI), when used for more than just a single purpose. With a Panasonic TOUGHBOOK tablet solution, they can invest in a stable, highly-scalable, easy-to-support platform across the entire enterprise. Many are rethinking their original VMU approach and installing rugged tablets that serve multiple purposes, like the TOUGHBOOK G2 Windows tablet with barcode scanning and RFID scanning.

MB: We’re also seeing a lot of companies revamping their supply chain or warehouse management software right now. More of them are considering devices that can be used not only with forklift or warehouse management applications, but also for online training, email, or other tasks. With warehouse activities impacting the entire organization—and with orders picking up thanks to the growth in e-commerce during the pandemic—companies need powerful devices that can capture, process and share more data without the need for extensive user training.

Q: How should the use of Wi-Fi factor into a company’s decision to invest in a specific type of mobile device to use on the forklift trucks?

MB: Warehouses are tricky Wi-Fi environments that often require a big investment in infrastructure to get good but often not great coverage. These big, metal buildings just are a challenge and often have dead spots. I always recommend that companies test the connectivity performance of mobile devices in the warehouse before committing to them.

Having a lift truck-mounted device that can maintain a Wi-Fi connection is more critical now than ever because these devices are providing real-time updates or changes to task workflows. Panasonic TOUGHBOOK mobile tablets help solve this problem by incorporating well engineered, high performing Wi-Fi modules designed to optimize connectivity. 

SA: Some companies are dealing with limited bandwidth and the struggle to maintain connectivity by investing in antennas that are attached to the lift trucks. The problem is that this adds a whole new layer of complexity, installation fees, hardware to buy, and technology to support.

When you replace your VMUs with one of our tablets, those antennas often become unnecessary. Also, from a safety perspective, even though the antennas are generally installed in out-of-the-way positions at the top of the forklift, there are times when the cabling or the antenna themselves can get in the way (i.e., by interfering with the driver’s sight line). Our solution offers a cleaner installation that maximizes connectivity usually not requiring an external antenna.

Q: What kinds of companies are using rugged tablets on their forklifts, and how are these solutions helping them be more efficient, safe, and productive?

MB: Lift trucks are used in many different industries, with manufacturers of finished goods being particularly big users of these vehicles. Not only are these companies making goods, but they’re also buying parts, ingredients, raw materials, and machinery—all of which are part of the extended supply chain. Retailers are also in need of mobile solutions, given the millions of square feet of warehousing and distribution space that they use.

SA: We work with paper manufacturers, dairy companies, oil and gas companies, retailers, meat packing plants, and pretty much any other industry that you can think of. When one automotive manufacturer began paying closer attention to forklift safety in its warehouses they called us to provide a solution that locks the tablet and keyboard while the vehicle is in motion. The pilot went well, and the manufacturer has since purchased this solution for worldwide distribution.

Q: How does the Panasonic Connect Professional Services team help ensure a smooth transition over to vehicle-mounted rugged tablets?

MB: When putting tablets on forklifts, companies look at everything from keyboards and printers to scanners and mounting hardware. All of these products have to fit on a forklift in a way that doesn’t obstruct the user’s vision and is easily usable.

SA: We have a team of solution engineers that determine the most ergonomic and safe place to install all of that equipment on the lift truck (along with the wiring, power, etc.). That’s not a simple thing to do, so you definitely want to have some expertise on the ground whenever you’re retrofitting a fleet of forklifts or other warehouse vehicles with mobile technology.

MB: Panasonic Connect is focused on providing technology and expertise to help companies realize operational and efficiency gains in the warehouse. The TOUGHBOOK product line is especially suited for this environment.

SA: We have offered vehicle mounting solutions for years that include integrated hardware, software, mounting component kits and installation services. So we take on the logistics and headaches of deploying new VMUs, relieving in-house resources to focus on other priorities. We welcome the opportunity to work with organizations looking to deploy rugged tablets in their forklift operations. 

To learn more about our forklift installation and mounting solutions visit our TOUGHBOOK Professional Services website.