Defining the Rugged Smartphone: A Series, Part Two

Not All Standards or Testing Methods are Alike: How to Assess the True “Rugged-ability” of Mobile Devices

There are a plethora of options for consumers and business users searching for the perfect mobile device. And for many, choosing a device that is durable or “rugged” has become a top requirement. Ruggedization can extend the overall lifespan of a feature phone or smartphone, and provide assurance that it can be used more freely by adventurous outdoorsmen, on-the-go athletes and field service workers whose jobsites expose them to extreme weather, temperatures and drops, as well as noise pollution that can obstruct audio clarity.

Navigating the various rugged claims made by mobile-device manufacturers can be daunting, with everything from shatterproof and waterproof to whatever-proof now being touted in the marketplace. Buyers must be able to discern marketing verbage from that of third-party standards and certifications, which directly correlate to the device’s proven rugged performance under specific testing scenarios. At the same time, buyers must be aware that not all testing processes are standardized and that methods can vary from vendor to vendor, often leaving results susceptible to the manufacturers’ interpretations. Furthermore, some will use nuanced marketing language about the standards. For example, saying a product is “designed to” a certain standard is not the same as saying that a device is “tested and certified” to that same standard.

Below is a guide to the globally accepted standards that should be used when evaluating manufacturers’ marketing claims to ensure that the device you purchase today is prepared to meet the challenges you expect to face tomorrow. Keep in mind that these should also be evaluated against a manufacturer’s own testing methods, which, if not publicly available, should be asked for by the consumer.

Ingress Protection Rating (IPXX)

Published by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and used widely throughout the global consumer-electronics industry, the Ingress Protection Rating, or IP rating, is a code given to an electronic device based on its ability to withstand exposure to dust particulates and water. IP codes offer a two-digit rating in the format of IPXX, with the first “X” ranging from 1 to 6 signifying protection from solid particles such as dust and dirt, and the second “X” ranging from 1 to 9 signifying protection from liquid. Definitions of the ratings are widely available online but in general terms, the higher the number, the greater the protection. For example, most rugged devices from Kyocera carry an IP certification of “IP68,” with the 6 indicating a “dust-tight” rating and the 8 indicating the device is “suitable for continuous immersion in water under conditions which shall be specified by the manufacturer.” (Most Kyocera devices are certified to withstand up to 30 minutes of submersion in up to six feet of water.) Overall, a device’s IP rating can serve as a benchmark for quantifying the true parameters of a manufacturer’s “dustproof” and “waterproof” claims.

It’s also important to remember that IP ratings symbolize a device’s ability to “survive” exposure to dust and liquid – not the device’s ability to remain “usable” in those settings. For dust, the charging and headset ports on a device with an IP6X rating will keep dust out of the device, yet, without covers, those ports are susceptible to filling with dirt or mud and being damaged or fouled so they no longer accept charging and headset connectors. Similarly an IPX8 waterproof rating indicates that a device will survive exposure to liquid, yet only a certain few smartphones have capacitive touchscreen displays that actually remain operable when wet.

Military Standard (801G)

Established by the U.S. Department of Defense, Military Standards and Specifications are guidelines that verify that a type of equipment can handle a wide range of environmental stresses that are experienced throughout its service life. The most widely known standard for rugged mobile devices is the MIL-STD-810G. Under the umbrella of MIL-STD-810G are numerous “profiles” describing a range of scenarios against which devices can be protected, notably including drops and falls, shock, vibration, and extreme weather conditions (such as temperatures, rain, humidity and even “salt fog”). Rugged mobile devices from Kyocera typically carry MIL-STD-810G certifications for profiles including dust, shock, vibration, temperature extremes, blowing rain, low pressure/high altitudes, solar radiation, salt fog, humidity and water immersion.

It is important to note that because this standard allows for flexible testing methods, and there is no commercial agency responsible for certifying compliance, the standard has been applied to ruggedized consumer products, including mobile devices and accessories, with varied levels of integrity. Manufacturers can take significant leeway both in their testing methods and how they report test findings, which is why understanding a vendor’s testing methods can be as important as the rating itself.

Non-Incendive, Class 1, Division 2, Group A-D, T4

There is a category of rugged mobile devices built specifically to withstand potential exposure to potentially flammable or explosive elements in hazardous environments, so as not to produce sparks that could cause an electronic ignition. The U.S. Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) has created a wide range of “Hazardous Location” certifications (sometimes called “HazLoc”) for these environments. In particular, the classification of “Non-Incendive, Class 1, Division 2, Group A-D, T4” is indicated for environments where explosive concentrations of flammable gases, vapors and mists may accidentally exist. This certification is of particular importance to those responsible for ensuring safety and business continuity for field, laboratory and floor workers in industries like aviation, chemical, energy, healthcare and manufacturing.

Rugged By Design and Rigorously Tested

Kyocera began making ruggedized devices in 2011 and, in 2013, brought the first rugged smartphone to the U.S. cellular market. Since then, we have invested heavily in our internal testing processes to ensure accurate IP ratings, and to maintain MIL-STD 801G and OSHA Hazardous Location certifications. Our devices are not only rigorously tested and often exceed these independent standards, but also are built from the ground up with rugged components and designed to withstand abuse from the most advanced rugged users, applications and real-world scenarios.

Over the years, we have meticulously captured and analyzed customer feedback to learn how phones break, the various ways in which they are damaged and how users best operate them, taking all that data into account when we design and manufacture our rugged mobile devices. It’s about more than just trying to apply a “waterproof” case or coating to an existing smartphone or switching out a display with stronger glass – if the internal components are not designed properly and with original rugged intent, the end product will neither withstand the damage of drops and moisture, nor perform as expected in the hands of users operating in rugged environments and under extreme conditions.

Buyers must accept that not all rugged ratings are alike and that marketing claims alone provide little tangible proof that one device is any more durable than the next. Buyers should evaluate their prospective mobile devices against the globally recognized standards that are most applicable to their specific needs, environments and worst-case scenarios. These ratings, combined with a manufacturer’s experience and proven track record, may be all you need to know when searching for the best rugged mobile device to survive your everyday.

Tom Zeran is the Vice President of the Product & Development Division at Kyocera Communications, Inc., where he leads the company’s Product Planning and Engineering functions, ensuring alignment within the product portfolio and leading activities to bring those products to market. With more than 30 years of experience in program management and product development in high-tech industries, Tom began his career in the aerospace industry, moving into telecommunications when he joined Qualcomm, Inc. in 1994.  Tom was a co-founder of Peek, Inc., where the company’s first mobile-messaging device was named Wired Magazine’s 2008 Gadget of the Year and won several prestigious design awards. Tom holds four mobile-device technology patents.