December 4, 2023

BERLIN – The 2019-20 season of the National Basketball Association was suspended for more than 140 days after a player tested positive for the coronavirus. But when the game resumed in late July, no other players tested positive.

The league was able to evade the virus by asking teams to live and play their games in a remote area called the Bubble in the closed Disney World Resort in Florida.

But a small piece of technology also played a role: a bracelet that players, coaches and coaches could wear off the field and that was required for reporters covering the teams. A tiny digital chip in the band increases social distancing by issuing a warning – through light and sound – if wearers have been too close together for too long. The bands have been picked up by the National Football League, Pacific-12 College Football Conference, and other sports leagues around the world.

The Munich start-up behind the wristbands of the NBA, Kinexon, is delighted with the advertising, which helps ensure that top athletes do not become infected with the virus, even if such devices raise concerns about privacy. Now it is about broader areas: factory production lines, warehouses and logistics centers where millions of people continue to work despite the pandemic.

One of the companies that works with Kinexon is Henkel, a global manufacturer of industrial and household chemicals based in Germany. When the corona virus infected around a dozen workers in Henkel’s plant in Serbia last spring, the subsequent two-week shutdown cost millions in revenue, said Wolfgang Weber, Senior Manager at Henkel.

Henkel was testing an earlier version of Kinexon’s wearable technology to prevent collisions between forklifts and workers in busy factory floors. The system’s sensors automatically stop a forklift if it gets too close to a worker.

After the outbreak at the Serbian plant and within a few weeks of the first wave of pandemic lockdowns, Kinexon offered Henkel the opportunity to test a variant of this technology called SafeZone. Its half-ounce sensor, worn around the neck like a watch or on a lanyard or badge, sounds and flashes when another sensor is within a prescribed distance for a set period of time. Henkel agreed to try.

Testing the devices in real life was important to Kinexon.

“It is not only important that the technology works in a laboratory. Now it’s important to get the technology where it’s needed, “said Oliver Trinchera, who co-founded Kinexon in 2012 and one of them is its directors,” be it in the factory or on the sports field. “

Henkel tested the system on all of the staff at its plant in Raciborz, Poland, a large facility on the southern edge of a medieval coal town, where 250 employees work three shifts a day and manufacture and package powder and liquid detergents for Central Europe.

The sensors have been programmed to turn off when two people are within 1.5 meters of each other for more than five seconds.

The sensors measure distance using ultra-wideband signals, which Kinexon says are more accurate and use far less energy than Bluetooth signals, the other technology commonly used in coronavirus tracing apps.

Mirella Zielinska, who has worked at the Raciborz plant for five years, said she quickly got used to wearing the device on her wrist. On a fast-paced production line where one of the jobs is to package laundry detergent, it was a reminder to keep their distance, she said.


Jan. 18, 2021, 11:23 p.m. ET

“At first we might have been a little worried, but now it seems so normal,” Ms. Zielinska said in a Skype interview while sitting in an office at the factory.

That’s not to say that sometimes the unexpected doesn’t happen. The sensor detects distances through partition walls in the bathroom and, for example, triggers the alarm at undesired times. And during the interview, a colleague of Ms. Zielinska stuck his head in the office and wondered what she was doing. Before she could answer, both beeps went off.

The workers wear the sensors during their shift and remind them to keep their distance even during lunch in the canteens.

Adrian Wycisk, the operations manager, compared the chimes of the sensors to the alarm in cars when people weren’t wearing seat belts. “It ultimately changes driver behavior,” he said, adding that he saw a significant improvement in worker compliance with the safety distance.

The system stores information about when an employee has been around other employees for several weeks – a potentially useful tool for tracking interactions if an employee becomes infected, but which raises concerns that management may see an employee’s movements during the monitored throughout the shift.

Henkel said only a small number of executives had access to the data and that the company had distributed brochures explaining to workers that the badges would never be used to track their movements. The records that the employees interacted with, not the place where the interaction took place. Mr Wycisk said Henkel had vowed to only pull the information if there was a need to trace a coronavirus infection.

The German union, which represents the Henkel workers, declined to comment on the technology.

In the long term, the technology could also help Henkel reconfigure some of its production processes to avoid close contact, Weber said.

Kinexon has sold the technology to a number of well-known German manufacturing and freight companies – tire manufacturer Continental and logistics giant DB Schenker were early adopters. Kinexon said it worked with American companies but that it was under a contract not to publish their names.

In total, the company supplies the technology to over 200 companies worldwide. It’s estimated that his badges prevented 1.5 million contacts a day, a hard number to confirm. The sensors cost between $ 100 and $ 200.

The six-week test in Raciborz, during which no worker tested positive, convinced Henkel to introduce the technology at the production sites for cleaning chemicals next year. How many of the company’s 52,000 employees worldwide will end up wearing the technology will depend on how long the pandemic lasts.

If the vaccines are successful and the pandemic is overcome sometime this year, Mr Weber plans to reuse the sensors for their original purpose: to avoid collisions between workers and forklifts. The fact that such plans would require fewer badges than purchasing it through Henkel is not an issue.

“I would still say it’s a success,” he said.