Businessweek calls the smartphone revolution an Android revolution. So much so that the article recounts how the operating system was on Steve Jobs’ hit list. Worried about the impact on the Apple iPhone, in 2010, he declared, “I’m going to destroy Android.”

Well, Android is still standing, and now, with smartphones being regarded as handheld computers, Android is a case where technology developed for smartphones has gone on to become operating systems for computers.

For instance, a growing number of organizations need flexibility in their industrial operations, including low-temp operations. More and more plants and distribution centers are turning to panel PCs that have Android operating systems for monitoring and controlling low-temp processing and material handling operations.

Working in the low-temp environment 

Given the complexity of the low-temp supply chain (otherwise known as the cold chain), the increasing compliance standards, the tight profit margins in this business and the risk to a company’s reputation if a breakdown in safety occurs, this is not the place for outmoded technology.

Many in management claim they like to be on the cutting edge. Yet, Android is an example of a technology that is not finding its way into the business space as fast as some might imagine. 

Despite the promise of this and other technology, no matter how revolutionary the development is, these advancements generally seep in rather than charge into general use on the processing plant or distribution center floor. Too often, management views change as risky, waiting to find out if these advancements work elsewhere before bringing new systems, equipment or processes into their operations. For many managing these operations, their jobs depend on the type of approaches and equipment they bring onto the floor.

The industry will be using Android -- eventually

The time of Android as a business tool is coming. This system has been operating in a growing number of rugged mobile devices and touchscreen panels in processing/production/distribution, particularly in low-temp.

For starters, Android is a more robust and powerful operating system than legacy Windows technology. However, if management isn’t sold on this operating system, then consider how Microsoft is sunsetting mobile OS platforms such as Windows Embedded CE 6.0, Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 and Windows Embedded Compact 7. The death watch of these long-used platforms is ticking onward.  

A survey of logistics professionals found that 56% of respondents planned to increase Android use over the next three years, as outlined in this column written by Ivanti Supply Chain, South Jordan, Utah. The hold outs are no doubt looking to wring a few extra years out of their legacy systems before device manufacturers turn off the support spigot. 

So, with the door being shut (albeit slowly) on the these older OS platforms, low-temp operations will eventually benefit from Android’s low cost, its built-in Bluetooth and near-field communications for transferring data between two Android devices, and it’s effective support for voice sensors and touchscreens. 

Advantages of the Android operating system

For starters, it’s customizable. For low-temp processing and material handling operations with unique requirements, app development can be an enormous benefit. The evolution of Android computing is accompanied by an army of android software developers that take advantage of a simplified software development environment. Android developers can easily customize applications to accommodate unique I/O devices and create GUIs to manage any industrial application. The mobility and device-agnostic aspects of this software is the basis for many new industrial automation infrastructure implementations.

Android uses fewer system resources than most other operating systems, so it requires a less powerful processor to operate. This design saves energy and allows Android to run on smaller devices. If your application is simple, and you only need to run one or a few programs, you would spend less getting a panel PC with less computing power that gets the job done just the same.

Android panel PCs are a lower-cost alternative to traditional Windows panel PCs for several reasons. Android computers typically include ARM processors, which are more cost-effective than Intel processors. Android industrial computers are not subject to the operating system license fees required with Windows-based computers.  

Android industrial computers do not require the additional storage capacity and memory requirements necessary for Windows-based computers. The cost savings associated with these differences is driving the industrial factory automation industry toward Android-based computing.

Since units operating on Android are also generally smaller with less demanding computing requirements, operations can reduce costs but deploying just the right sized device needed. Device sizes can range from 7 inches all the way up to 21.5 inches. 

Can the PC panel live up to the demands of low-temp?

Avoid the temptation of thinking that because the Android operating system is on devices on the shelves in the big box stores, these will work in the cold storage environment.

Just like all the other equipment and systems that make a low-temp environment run, here are some critical musts when selecting a PC panel to run Android for these operations.

Cold rugged. Refrigerated food areas are at below 45°F. Frozen food areas are at below 0°F. Panel PCs must have components that can operate in these conditions.

Water resistant. Given that panel PCs house sensitive electronics, they must withstand blasts of water and chemicals from clean-in-place operations. PCs with stainless-steel front bezels protect the components and will not degrade or rust from exposure to liquids. An IP66-rated front panel will stand up to the waterjets.

Keep it clean. Not only do panel PCs need to stand up to the equipment in the area being cleaned, it also must be suitable for frequent, easy cleaning to avoid food contamination. Fanless rugged panel PCs meet that requirement with a minimum of openings where germs can hide as well as housings that can withstand industrial cleaning agents.

Touchscreen design. Many software applications are designed to run at specific LCD resolutions and aspect ratios. A web-based application for food manufacturing may require a panel PC screen resolution of 1920x1080, as the layout of the on-screen menus and tabs are scrunched when displayed on LCDs with lower resolutions. 

Bigger is not always better. Often times there are physical space constraints in production areas. In this case, the application would require a 15.6-, 18.5- or 21.5-inch LCD size, as these are the only LCD sizes that support 1920x1080. It is important to consider the software application requirements when selecting the LCD size of your panel PC. 

In the cold processing and storage environment, these screens must be sensitive to gloved hands. Computer panels with resistive touchscreens are still the most prevalent in low-temp computer applications, as they are pressure sensitive, which means they can be used with gloves, as well as bare hands or a stylus. 

Take computing through to the next generation. In the tech world, change is a fact of life. Inevitably Android will someday be replaced by another form of technology. Though it is one thing to take advantage of the latest advancement, it is another for the device the system runs on to make it all the way through the current technology cycle, especially in the demanding world of low-temp. 

Time for a change

Low-temp management is expecting that their operation can document every movement of a product. This tracking can be done automatically through using a barcode, RFID tag, QR code or digital watermark. Despite the critical need for accountability, many processing facilities and distribution centers are using devices that run on legacy Windows systems. With the availability of Android, why try to meet 21st century expectations with 20th century technology?