Behind the B15: The design process of Caterpillar’s rugged smartphone

Updated Aug 12, 2013

CATb15dirtJust a couple of weeks ago, Caterpillar launched a pretty surprising new product. Not a dozer or an excavator, but a phone. A very rugged smartphone.

And to much excitement, I might add. The phone received copious amounts of coverage from mainsteam outlets and the consumer technology outlets alike at its debut during the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, Spain.

What most who got a chance to interact with the B15 took away is that this was a rugged smartphone that didn’t feel terrible to use. The 4-inch, 800 x 480 resolution touchscreen worked well — even with wet hands — it felt nice in the hand and the software flowed smoothly. The B15 runs Android 4.1 and its dual core, 1 gigahertz processor and 512 megabytes of RAM apparently do their job quite nicely.

Equipment World recenty sat down with Dave Floyd, the director of technology at Bullitt Group, the UK-based company that designed the device for CAT. Floyd walked us through the process of designing the B15 as well as what both CAT and Bullitt hoped to accomplish with it.

Floyd said Caterpillar had been looking at licensing a phone under its brand for “probably the last two years.” And while it might seem like a leap for a manufacturer of heavy equipment to get into the business of selling smartphones, Floyd said CAT is no stranger to technology.

“The thing about heavy equipment, we look at them as lumps of steel, but there’s a hell of a lot of technology on board,” he said.

But for a while Caterpillar struggled to find the right fit for the CAT brand. They spoke with some of the larger device manufacturers before speaking with Bullitt for the first time about a year ago, Floyd said.

Bullitt proposed a smartphone that tied in with what Caterpillar is known for: rugged, trusted equipment. Floyd said Bullitt also strived to create a phone that tied in and made sense in the context of Caterpillar’s other licenses like boots and clothes.

And then, Bullitt had a bit of a breakthrough. Caterpillar’s bread and butter is the construction market. Why not design a device that targets it specifically?

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“There’s no tech brand that has captured the heart of that market,” Floyd said.

But by doing that, by producing a smartphone that can take the beating of a day on the jobsite, Bullitt has actually addressed two markets: the construction market and also the everyday consumer who just wants a phone that doesn’t break when they drop it. Floyd said 77 percent of smartphones that break are caused by users dropping them.

“We quite like being disruptive in the market. We’ve got huge ambitions at being the no. 1 supplier in rugged phones very quickly,” Floyd said.

That meant Bullitt really needed to nail not only the look of the B15, but how it felt in the hand.

“What other manufacturers have done is cover the product in a load of rubber and make it look unattractive and very big which means people don’t want to carry the device around,” Floyd said. “So when we approached this device we asked ‘How do we actually make something that’s rugged but looks really great as well?”

“The reason the look and feel was so important is that we want it to appeal to anyone who uses their phone outside. Whether they’re mountain bikers, construction workers or hunters, we’ve got a phone to suit your needs.”

The answer Bullitt settled on turned out to be a mix of rubber and metal — anodized aluminum to be exact. “There’s not many phones using real metal,” Floyd said. (He’s right. Outside of the iPhone and the new HTC One, there aren’t many more.) “So again this is hand-in hand with CAT’s brand, one of the biggest steel users in the world.”

That housing gives the B15 protection to military specifications. The phone is waterproof, dustproof and will survive a 5.9-foot drop to hard concrete. It can also operate in temperatures ranging from 122F to -4F.

So when will you be able to get your hands on a B15 of your own? Floyd says the phone is in production now and Bullitt is currently meeting with the two largest carriers in the U.S. (we’ll assume he means AT&T and Verizon). Floyd said the price of the phone off-contract will be around $400. Typically phones without carrier subsidies start between $600 and $700.

“As far as pricing, it’s around our ambition to really drive the market,” he said.

Floyd said the first shipment of the B15 will be on its way into the U.S. in April and Bullitt is eying a launch onto store shelves in late April or early May.