New design approach in Android-based touch computer with industrial-grade scanners promises substantial productivity gains
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
On January 7, 2016, Zebra Technologies introduced the TC8000 enterprise mobile computer, which the company says will result in significant gains in productivity and decrease worker fatigue. This is accomplished via an ergonomically re-architected device concept designed to optimize workflows and reduce repetitive motions, saving an hour per worker per shift. That's very big news indeed. So what did Zebra do, and what's the basis of Zebra's claims?
Here's the situation. For many years, warehouse operations have been benefitting from handheld computers with built-in scanners to keep track of and manage the thousands or tens of thousands of items in a location. A typical workflow consists of the worker looking at the computer display to get directions to an item, moving to that location, scanning the location tag, looking up the product and quantity, locating the item in a bin, scanning the bar code, completing the task and moving on to the next pick. Due to the design of standard handhelds where the scanner axis is perpendicular to the display, each pick results in a sequence of tilt-to-read and tilt-to-scan motions. Each tilt is no big deal, but it does add up to time and energy wasted.
To address the issue of wasted motion and needless fatigue, Zebra meticulously researched the workflow, met with users around the globe, performed human factors and ergonomics analyses, and then came up with an entirely new design, the Zebra TC8000. It drastically cuts the number of tilts during the workflow by rearranging device components — handle, display and scanner — to minimize motion.
How does it do that? Whereas conventional pistol grip scanner devices have the grip pointing down, the display up, and the scanner forward, the TC8000's grip is inline with the display and the scanner points away at an optimized angle.
That means a worker holds the device in a very natural way during the workflow, with the hand in position like in shaking hands. Slight raising and lowering of the arm for scanning and reading the display replaces the fatiguing sharp wrist motion of conventional designs.
There's still motion involved, of course, and so Zebra also paid attention to the weight of their new device. At about 17 ounces, the TC8000 is roughly a third lighter than most conventional pistol grip mobile computers with scanners. The lower weight further reduces muscle effort and fatigue. Between the design and low weight, Zebra estimates a 55% reduction in wrist motion and a 15% reduction in muscle effort.
Adding to the natural feel of the TC8000 when using the device is its center of gravity. Most traditional pistol grip designs have their weight concentrated in the body of the handheld, making them feel top-heavy. The TC8000's battery, on the other hand, is inside the handle, resulting in a center of gravity that's inside the palm of your hand.
Optimizing, however, also includes some give-and-take. The overall design of the TC8000, and the quest for the lowest weight possible, means there is no physical keypad, and those are often seen as essential to quick and accurate data entry.
RuggedPCReview.com raised that issue in a conversation with Mike Petersen, head of Zebra's mobile computing global marketing.
Mr. Petersen said that there were no plans to phase out the best-selling Zebra MC9x00 Series of keypad handhelds. The TC8000 simply offers an innovative alternative, one with a very short learning curve for today's smartphone-savvy workforce that is completely familiar with the touch interface. Petersen also pointed out some of the software innovations on the TC8000. One of them is All-touch TE, which transforms legacy "green screen" applications (in warehousing, those are still being used on about 2/3rd of devices!) into all touch HTML 5-based apps without coding. According to Petersen, 90-95% of apps and screens require no additional coding at all, the rest can easily be handled by IT.
Petersen also elaborated on the time savings possible with the new Zebra TC8000. In their testing, they found a saving of two seconds per scan. That doesn't sound like much, but consider that a large outfit like Amazon does about 250 million scans per week. If every scan saved two seconds, that adds up to a saving of 138,900 hours per week for Amazon. Even smaller organizations could greatly benefit.
On the tech side, the TC8000 runs Android AOSP version 4.4.x, part of the "KitKat" generation of the OS. AOSP stands for Android Open Source Project, and is an open-source software stack and project led by Google itself, but without the Google Play store and some of the major Google apps, a benefit for devices used on the job. The Android implementation used in the TC8000 is also fortified with Mx security, device management and performance features that Zebra added to the standard Android OS.
As far as hardware goes, the TC8000 uses a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 8060 processor, has 1GB of RAM and either 2GB or 4GB of Flash mass storage. If more is needed, there's a micro SDHX card slot. The procap display measures 4 inches diagonally, presenting a balance between the small displays of legacy industrial handhelds and modern smartphones.
On the connectivity and communications side, there's Bluetooth 4.0 and dual band fast 802.11 WiFi that also supports enterprise voice roaming and voice-directed picking. NFC is optional, as is an 8-megapixel autofocus camera with f/2.4 aperture.
For scanning, the TC8000 offers two options. One is the Zebra SE4750 imager that can read just about any 1D and 2D bar code as well as fully searchable and editable documents. The other is the Zebra SE965 1D laser scanner engine that provides a very wide working range from near contact to about 15 feet (see Zebra SE965). Also of note is SimulScan, a document capture app that makes it easy to capture labels on boxes and pallets that contain multiple codes, as well as forms that might also contain needed text, check boxes, signatures, etc (see SimulScan page).
The Zebra TC8000, of course, is a rugged tool for the job. There's IP65 sealing, which means total dust protection and also immunity to low pressure water jets from all directions. The TC8000 can handle 8-foot drops to concrete at room temperature and 6-foot drops over the full operating temperature range (which is -4 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). Zebra subjected it to 2,000 tumbles from a height of 3.3 feet, vibration, thermal shock, humidity, etc.
To say that the Zebra TC8000 is an intriguing new product is an understatement. The thought and effort that went into analyzing workflows and and coming up with an entirely new device that optimized operations and may significantly increase productivity is most impressive. The Zebra TC8000 brims with potentially game-changing innovation, and should have a substantial impact on its market.
Below is Zebra's TC8000 product overview:
Specifications Zebra TC8000
Enterprise mobile computer
Dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 8060
Android AOSP 4.4.3 ("KitKat") with MX Mobility Extensions
1GB RAM/4GB or 8GB Flash pSLC
1 x micro-SDHC/SDXC Card
Transflective LCD, Corning Gorilla Glass
4.0"/800 x 480 pixel WVGA
Capacitive multi-touch (finger/glove or optional conductive stylus)
-4° to 122°F (-20° to 50°C)
Multiple 8-foot drops to concrete at room temperature
2,000 1.0 meter tumbles at room temperature
Sine 5-2000 Hz, 4g peak, 1 hr/axis; random 20-2000Hz, 1hr/axis
9.2 x 3.0 x 2.5 inches (233 x 76 x 64 mm)
17.2 ounces (490 grams)
Rechargeable, hot-swappable Li-Ion 6,700mAh
Integrated 1D/2D SE4750 SR or MR imager OR 1D SE965 laser