Last week’s announcement that the British government had thwarted an alleged terrorist attack planned for flights from the U.K. to the U.S. was disconcerting enough. But the news that travelers would be required to check their laptops as baggage on some flights raised a new level of panic for Road Warriors everywhere as they tried to figure out the best way to protect their Apple Notebooks and pricey Sony VIOs.
“We had a flurry of phone calls from travelers in Europe asking where they could buy our laptop cases. Some were even calling directly from Heathrow wondering if we sold the cases there at the airport,” says David Sebens, VP of sales and marketing at ZERO Halliburton.
The Salt Lake City-based company makes a line of high-end aluminum laptop cases with a shock-absorbent polyurethane foam interior. More closely resembling a portable bomb shelter than a briefcase, the bag also has an aura of geek chic that makes it popular among the techie crowd. The company, which sells thousands of the cases each year, says it has seen a spike in demand in the past week.
Sebens claims that the cases are among the strongest in the world and are proven in tough environments where they are routinely exposed to moisture, dust, and high shock loads -- a major menace to checked baggage.
“The dynamic loads produced by handling shocks, drops, and impacts are almost certainly the most dangerous hazards in a baggage handling environment,” says Dennis Young, a consultant at Kevin Kennedy Associates, an engineering and technical consulting firm. An expert in packaging design and shock and vibration testing, he says that studies have shown that low drop heights [under 18 inches] are common in baggage handling. One study, he notes, shows drops between 6 and 18 inches occurring at the rate of about one incident per trip.
As most design engineers know, it’s not the fall, but the stop at the end of the fall that will ruin your day.
Here’s the scenario: You drop a bag. It falls. It hits the ground. It stops moving. Energy has to be conserved. The question is, “Where does it go?”
Products are protected in a typical distribution environment by packaging systems that are designed to dissipate the energy, either by deflection or deformation. Unfortunately, Young says, travelers don’t have that advantage when they unexpectedly put fragile items into checked luggage. “It’s like comparing the effects of safely braking in a car going 30 mph to taking that same car and hitting a brick wall at 30 mph.”
The result? A fractured screen, a damaged power supply, a cracked exterior case or LCD screen, or any number of other big-ticket repair items. That is, if repairs can be done at all.
For travelers counting on the towel they just wrapped their computer in for protection, it’s unlikely that even an extra-dense, 800-gram-weight one made of Egyptian cotton performs as well as an engineered packaging system.
But the truth is that no one really knows.
For example, Dell Computer, which sells millions of notebook computers a year, had this advice for people looking to pack their computer in a suitcase: “Remove the battery and wrap the notebook in some kind of soft materials so that it cannot be jostled or hit.”
But have Dell engineers ever actually put a notebook into a suitcase full of clothes and tested it? “To my knowledge, no,” says Anne Camden, a spokesperson for Dell. “The problem is that it’s not a repeatable environment. Baggage handlers handle bags differently and different people pack different things in their bags. I may pack clothes, while other people may decide they need to carry cans and bottles. The point is we can’t control how they pack their stuff.”
Dan Gordon is an environmental manager at CMG, a company that does compliance and regulatory testing for a wide range of products, including computers. An electrical engineer, he worked for 21 years as the shock and vibration manager for Digital Equipment Corp., and has conducted his share of “shake and bake” testing on PCs over the years.
“In reality, there are hundreds of different tests for this stuff, depending on the environment the product will be exposed to,” says Gordon. “But the International Safe Transit Association has a standard test procedure [ISTA 1A] for packaged products weighing less than 150 lbs that probably fits the laptops-in-checked-baggage scenario the best. It covers things like random vibration, dynamic compression, and drop testing.”
The tests are rigorous. For example, the random vibration or “shake” test is typically done at a screw-loosening 5 to 300 Hertz at roughly 1 G (a unit of acceleration) for one hour. In the drop test, the product is dropped from a height of 36 inches onto ten different surfaces and in different orientations, including its corners. A product that survives this level of abuse is rated to about 35 Gs, which Gordon says translates to a 3 to 4 ft drop onto a flat surface.
He points out, though, that these tests are typically conducted on a “system” consisting of a computer in a box or hard-sided case. Original equipment makers invest in this kind of testing in order to ensure that their products will survive the journey through the distribution chain.
“To my knowledge, no one has done any testing with a laptop in a briefcase or other soft-sided bag,” says Gordon. “More than likely, it wouldn’t pass the drop test.” He did note, though, that he has tested specially-designed, hard-sided laptop cases made out of a resilient plastic that “are very good for shipping.”
High-end luggage maker Hartmann also puts its products through the paces, according to senior Quality Assurance Manager Michael Young (no relation to Dennis). “We stuff our bags with 38 pounds of soft weights so they approximate actual luggage,” he explains. “We then tumble them in a 7-ft-diameter hexagonal drum that has six drops per revolution to simulate the rigors of baggage handling.”
At periodic intervals, engineers examine the bags to see how well the frame, handle, wheels, and zippers perform. Young says that the frame, which is made of polypropylene, is a critical feature. Should the bag take a hit, it is designed to flex and bend, helping to dissipate the energy.
While the bags are rated to survive ten years of heavy business travel, Hartmann won’t speculate on well a laptop would fare inside of one. “There are too many variables with the different laptop makers and different packing and baggage handling scenarios for us to run the tests,” says Hartmann spokesperson Jessica Deerkoski. “We can build what we believe is the best performing bag, but there are always going to be circumstances out of our control that simply don’t allow us to guarantee the survivability of a laptop inside one of our bags.”
Even over at Zero Halliburton, where Sebens says the company works closely with all the laptop makers and has never had a claim for a damaged computer, they stop short of any sort of guarantee. In a written reply to Design News, however, a Zero Halliburton spokesperson commented: “We are confident that our laptop cases can consistently withstand this environment [checked baggage] and protect their contents based on our extensive testing.”
One of the reasons that laptop and luggage makers don’t know about the survivability of computers in checked baggage is that they don’t have any incentive. It’s the perfect code-sharing scenario: It seems a busted computer is no one’s responsibility.
Take American Airline’s position, for example: “Since there are points in the transition of baggage when it’s out of our hands and we can’t control it, we prohibit the shipping of laptops in checked baggage,” says spokesman Tom Wagner, referring Design News to its website where the policy is spelled out under The Conditions of Carriage. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, of course, but we have no liability and your claim would be denied.”
So what is a Road Warrior to do if he has to check his laptop? Evenbetter-- what would an expert do? (Keep in mind, though, that none of the people quoted below have actually ever checked a laptop.)
Dan Gordon, the shock and vibration test engineer, doesn’t travel on planes, but he knows what he would do: “I’d either wrap my laptop back up in the original manufacturer’s packaging, or I’d build my own case out of some type of plastic foam, bubble, wrap, and corrugated.” Spoken like a true engineer.
Dennis Young, the packaging expert, says he would rather not check his laptop at all. “But given no choice and being a supporter of safe flying, I would have a good padded small case that stands alone and also fits into a larger, sturdy metal-framed roller bag. I would use the padded case inside the sturdy case, and hope that the handlers recognize it as a bag of clothes, not an expensive laptop.”
Michael Young, the senior quality manager at Hartmann, also likes the idea of a padded case. “I don’t think wrapping clothing around the laptop would work, because it could come undone. What I would do is put my laptop into the padded case, making sure it is centered in the suitcase.”
ZERO Halliburton’s David Seben has checked his Dell PC, but only on small commuter flights. He says he would have “absolutely no qualms” about checking his laptop in one of the company’s aluminum cases with heavy contoured padding inside. “I would just urge a customer to buy whichever size is appropriate for their laptop and go from there.”
Engineer Patrick Digmann, however, may have the best strategy of all. “I am a stodgy analog guy I guess, but I rarely travel with a laptop My tools are cell phone, pencil, paper, and an HP48G+ calculator,” says Digmann, who really is an analog engineer, at Plexus Corp. “I know the business world is supposed to be ‘Go, go go!’ But I normally consider my infrequent travel as a bit of relaxing calm. Printouts of datasheets and schematics and a pad of paper work just fine for me.”