Manufacturer develops contact tracing solution

Fleetwood Group is taking orders for electronic badges to monitor workplace social distancing.
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Proximity sensors that communicate with each other are placed in badges worn by employees at Fleetwood Group. Courtesy Fleetwood Group

Fleetwood Group is rolling out a technology solution to help prevent employees from spreading COVID-19 while on the job.

The Holland-based manufacturer has two divisions: furniture and electronics. The former primarily develops products for learning environments, and the latter specializes in wireless, low-power devices.

Jason Grant is president and CEO of the company.

He said when the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear in March, and Fleetwood realized workplace social distancing standards would need to continue after the eventual return to full production, the company’s electronics division began developing a solution that could be used internally to keep employees safe.

“Instant-Trace” is a contact tracing and social distancing technology that uses employee-worn badges equipped with proximity sensors that communicate with each other. The badges vibrate and blink when pre-set social distances — i.e., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of 6 feet — have been breached, serving as a reminder for employees to maintain safe distances.

Programming and data storage are managed through an app downloaded on an iPad. Employees scan the QR codes on their badges at the end of each day as they’re clocking out after their shift, and the data is then uploaded to the cloud via the app.

Contact tracing information can be stored for up to 21 days, should an employee test positive for COVID-19 and human resource departments need to determine who the employee was in contact with in the past 14 days to make decisions about who else to send for testing or put into quarantine.

Additionally, supervisors can use the data to help retrain or discipline employees with hazardous contact patterns with others.

As word spread about Instant-Trace in his personal network, Grant said other businesses began inquiring about whether Fleetwood Group would make the devices available for sale to their companies as they looked to phase their workforces back online with no clear way to prevent continued outbreaks. Their concern was that if work ramps back up, and someone comes down with COVID-19 with no way to pinpoint the source, the whole business will have to shut down again and sustain further revenue losses.

Grant’s short answer — after ensuring the company completed technical trials to be 100% certain of the badge’s functionality — was, “Yes, we can share this.”

This week, the badges will be available to order at $99 apiece. Every employee needs to have their own badge, because each badge has a unique ID that’s associated with the employee’s ID number, and all of the data from that badge will be collected on one specific user and searchable by employee ID number.

Grant said the design requirements Fleetwood set for the product was that it had to be small and lightweight, fast and easy to install, and not require any sort of onsite IT support or significant onsite hardware other than an iPad or Android tablet for the scanning kiosk near the time clock.

The device is designed to go into sleep mode when not in motion and is powered by a battery that lasts up to two months before needing to be replaced.

Instant-Trace is best-suited to open work environments such as manufacturing floors, warehouses, construction sites, mining operations and other “fairly controlled” settings, Grant said.

He said the devices won’t necessarily work for office settings, as the sensors transmit through walls and so may produce “false positive” notifications of violations between workers who are actually separated by walls and thus not in each other’s air space.

Although retail and grocery stores are open-air settings, Grant said the contact tracing function would essentially be useless there, as employees wearing the badges are exposed all day long to customers who are not wearing the badges.

“Some big companies like Apple and Google (are) working on mass consumer contact tracing applications that would make sense and maybe provide some benefit if you go to Meijer or you’re out in public. This system we designed for businesses to be able to use in predominantly manufacturing environments,” he said.

Grant expressed doubt that mass-scale contact tracing devices will be able to be successfully implemented, as individuals are “hypersensitive to being tracked” — even though most people nowadays voluntarily give tech companies full access to tracking their location via their smartphone apps.

Instant-Trace does not track location, he said; it only monitors proximity between individuals.

The badge system is designed to be just one part of a good COVID-19 protection toolkit, Grant said.

“In addition to using Instant-Trace at Fleetwood, we have also implemented temperature monitoring, hygiene protocols and aggressive sanitation efforts as part of a comprehensive approach to keeping our employees safe,” he said. “We are proud of this product and are excited about helping America get back to work again.”

Grant added the Instant-Trace invention was never meant to be a huge money-maker; it was a solution designed to protect the vulnerable.

“We have been sensitive to the fact that some people feel that we’re trying to capitalize and commercialize on what really is a crisis in our country, and that was never our intent. We started on a path of developing something that we thought was the right thing for our team, and along the way, we shared it with some of our own friends and others in our own networks. There was just an incredible interest in it, and it’s just really exploded.”

The company set the Instant-Trace price at a threshold where Fleetwood could at least break even on sales vs. overhead.

Grant said Fleetwood will provide training materials for HR departments and employers on how to use the devices as they are shipped.

Fleetwood is preparing to scale up production “very quickly” and run multiple shifts to meet demand, and it has lined up local partners to help with overflow production as needed.

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