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Toll test for PDAs

NCE recommends

Three quarters of site engineers would welcome handheld PDAs. But which one? Arup's Sarah Bowden sets out to establish the best.

Construction of Britain's biggest road project for a decade, the M6 Toll, continues to gather pace. A large majority of the earthworks is now complete, and most structures are well under way. Britain's first tolled motorway will be 43km long, require 57 new bridges, an M6/M42 interchange, and will cost £485M. So where better to establish the benefits of mobile technology in construction?

This was the view of consultant Arup which, backed by a Department of Trade & Industry grant, has set out to establish the first comprehensive best practice guide to the appropriate use of IT on site.

Central to the investigation were handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants). This spring, Arup project leader Sarah Bowden along with 20 volunteers from the CAMBBA contractor consortium (Carillion, Alfred McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and Amec) put four leading PDA brands through their toughest test yet.

The test

On site, the diversity of roles brings people of differing levels of IT literacy, and differing perceptions of its applicability in the field.

To check suitability across age, job type and previous IT experience, four testers were chosen from five user groups: agent, section engineer, site engineer, works manager/ foreman, health and safety/ environmental adviser.

Following a detailed deskbased study, four PDAs were selected for trialling: the Itronix FEX21, Sagem WA3050; Symbol PDT8100 and Casio IT700. These provided a range of sizes, functionality, ruggedness and screen types. The Itronix acted as a demonstration of an indoor specification screen outdoors.

Each volunteer performed a series of construction based tasks on each of the four devices.

Typical tasks included finding the width of a room on a house plan and annotate with the correct dimension; finding out how thick the backfill layers should be in a reinforced earth wall; entering the details of a concrete pour into a site diary; and completing a quality inspection on a Catchpit using the Inspection Test Sheet form.

The volunteers were asked to assess the portability, screen clarity, appearance, ease of data entry and input keys.

The results

The results were encouraging.

Some 82% of the participants had never used a hand-held device before, and 30% had never even used a computer but, after only a 10 minute training session prior to the trials, the participants were able to complete 79% of the tasks.

Some 79% of the volunteers said that they would be happy to use one of the handheld PDAs for their work. There was no significant variation across age, job type or IT experience, and contrary to commonly held beliefs, foremen and works managers were most enthusiastic.

However, comments were tempered by the need for proof that the devices would be cost effective, and that usable, useful applications would be the key differentiator.

When asked how the PDAs could be improved for site use, many of the participants recommended that they be more rugged - dust, water and shock proof. In particular, the screen should have some form of cover, they said.

Three quarters of testers preferred a colour screen, two thirds wanted the device combined with a mobile phone, and less than half thought that keyboard buttons were useful, with many finding a stylus more efficient and easy to use.

The verdict

Symbol PDT 8100 www. symbol. com

Cost: £1,212 Dimensions: 213L x 93.9W x 45.7D mm

Weight: 410g Processor: 206 MHz, StrongARM 32-bit

Memory: 64Mb RAM, 32Mb ROM

Battery life: 8 hours

Screen: 320x240 VGA 244,000 Colour LCD Reflective TFT

Expandability: Compact Flash card slot

Rugged rating: IP54, 1m drop to concrete

Features: Bridges the gap between pure pen-based and keybased mobile data collection solutions. Communication options include batch, Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) and Wireless Wide Area Network (WWAN) connectivity.

Includes a high performance barcode reader Performance: The screen was the easiest of the four devices to see in all light conditions.

Although slightly bulky, the hand strap made it easy to carry and comfortable to hold when entering data

Verdict: 78%

Screen: 5

Portability: 5

Appearance: 4

Data Entry: 5

Casio IT 700 www. casio. com

Cost: £1,116

Dimensions: 165L x 85W x 28D mm

Weight: 330g Processor: 150MHz

Memory: 32Mb RAM, 16Mb ROM

Battery life: 5-20 hours

Screen: 320x240 VGA 65,536

Colour hyper-amorphous silicon TFT

Expandability: 2 Compact Flash card slots

Rugged rating: IPX2, 0.75m drop to concrete

Performance: The lightest and smallest of the three rugged devices tested, it was very easy to handle. The screen was readable in all light conditions if a little faint. Many of the volunteers found the sound recording buttons were in the wrong place and accidentally pressed them when holding the device, and this also made the grip when in use less comfortable

Verdict: 72%

Screen: 4

Portability: 5

Appearance: 5

Data Entry: 4

Input Keys: 4

Sagem WA 3050 www. sagem. com

Cost: £650

Dimensions: 131L x 81W x 16D mm

Weight: 198g

Processor: 206 MHz, StrongARM 32-bit

Memory: 16Mb RAM, 16Mb ROM

Battery life: 5-20 hours

Screen: 320x240 VGA Mono high definition 16 level Grey Scale

Expandability: Compact Flash card slot

Rugged rating: None given

Features: Combines all the features of a PDA and a mobile phone into one unit. GPRS, dualband GSM 900/1800, WAP and Infrared make instant access to the Internet easy. It is possible to switch off the PDA while the mobile is left on or vice versa

Performance: This device was small neat and compact, however it is not rugged. The mono screen provided a clear display and the participants found it attractive and would be happy to use it at home and at work

Verdict: 82%

Screen: 5

Portability: 5

Appearance: 5

Data Entry: 5

Input Keys: 5

Itronix FEX21 (Indoor Screen) www. itronix. com

Cost: £1,350

Dimensions: 190Lx 155W x 37D mm

Weight: 790g Processor: 129 MHz

Memory: 32Mb RAM, 32Mb ROM

Battery life: 8-10 hours

Screen: 640x240 VGA 256 Colour LCD Transreflective

Expandability: PC Card slot

Rugged rating: IP65, 1.2m drop to concrete

Features: Offers a choice of integrated wireless communications: Nokia Cellular GSM or ORiNOCO Wireless LAN Performance: As predicted, the participants found the screen almost impossible to read outside. Due to its size and layout this device is more suitable for use in a vehicle or when stationary so that both hands can be used

Verdict: 27%

Screen: 2

Portability: 2

Appearance:3

Data Entry: 3

Input Keys: 3

Portability: do you want a device that fits in your pocket or in a rucksack? Remember site workers tend not to wear jackets in the summer.

Display: colour displays are more pleasant to use, but monochrome screens consume much less power.

Batteries: built-in rechargables Key considerations can save you money, but standard alkaline batteries can be purchased anywhere. An 8 hour battery life is desirable.

Expansion: important to retain flexibility. Add-ons include digital cameras, bar-code readers, GPS, extra memory and wireless connectivity.

Rugged: Do your site staff require a rugged device in order to ensure a longer lifespan for the equipment?

INFOPLUS e-mail: sarah. bowden@arup. com.

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