Tri-county technologies are being deployed in the fight against the coronavirus response — but getting products in the field is not always easy.
That’s put pressure on Central Coast manufacturers, including FLIR, Seek Thermal, Raytheon and Wyatt Technology to keep supply chains intact as tech firms work with skeleton crews and adopt new safety and distancing practices to prevent new infections on the factory floor.
Advanced thermal imagers were used in previous outbreaks like SARS and MERS and are witnessing a new spike in demand from businesses deemed essential as well as governments looking to protect critical infrastructure.
The latest systems are touch-free and they can remotely flag employees and customers who have elevated temperatures for further screening.
Demand picked up in January from countries in the Asia Pacific region, then later in Europe, driven by governments looking to protect transportation hubs, utilities and other infrastructure, said Frank Pennisi, president of the industrial business unit for FLIR.
“You see it most established there because of the longer history,” he said. “In the U.S., private industry was the one that jumped on and said ‘we need to think about this.’”
Based in Willsonville, Ore., FLIR’s Goleta facility has been the “heartbeat” of the company, Pennisi said. It has around 575 employees in Goleta, and has had to pull in new hires to offset some who have stayed home during the pandemic.
Its Goleta neighbor and rival Seek Thermal also jumped into production, launching its new Seek Scan technology March 27.
“We’ve been able to put together a product that would normally take eight months and compressed it down into four or five weeks,” said co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Bill Parrish.
With 90 employees working around the clock on the project, the company occupies around 30,000 square feet of space in Goleta, where it develops high-resolution thermal imaging devices for commercial and consumer markets. That includes first responders that have been among the first to receive the new devices.
The thermal imaging tools can’t test for or diagnose illnesses, the two tech manufacturers said, but can help businesses and doctors decide where to take precautions or follow up with additional tests.
Ramping up production has been a challenge, as the two firms have had to set new sanitizing procedures and institute social distancing policies. Close communication with vendors has also been critical, as many suppliers have reduced or shut down operations amid the outbreak.
Since its founding eight years ago, Seek Thermal has sought to bring down prices for its products, largely through higher volumes, Parrish said.
“Since we were in the business of low cost and high volume, we have our hands on inventory or soon-to-come-in components that allow us to build a lot of these things,” he said, including core partnerships with regional defense and aerospace manufacturer Raytheon and Texas sensor maker NXP Semiconductors.
Pricing and availability details were unavailable, but it said the devices are “priced significantly lower than other thermal screening solutions.” Handheld thermal imaging products sold by the company range from around $400-$800.
“The people that want to continue staying open are asking for the device, and we know the people that are going to open back up will want it,” Parrish said. “We see the demand as being quite substantial.”
Simplicity was also key to the rollout, he said, including rapid development of software to help analyze the thermal images and integrate easily with existing Windows operating systems.
“Simplicity is really important when you deploy a product like this. We’ve gotten spoiled — we expect to pick something up and have it work right away.”
The outbreak is likely to spur companies to add pandemic planning to their long-term emergency protocols, Pennisi added, with thermal imaging playing a key role in early detection efforts.
“I see this being a bit more institutional at least in places like critical infrastructure and hospitals, and probably more broadly,” he said. “This is new for the United States, but it’s not new for the world. This technology has been deployed for 17 years and that’s given us a lot of time to refine it.”
The outbreak has also meant an increase in demand for Goleta laboratory equipment supplier Wyatt Technology, as its biotechnology and pharmaceutical customers ramp up efforts to find treatments and vaccines for the pandemic.
The company’s light scattering instrumentation is used in drug development to “help solve the puzzle of this coronavirus, to understand its properties, its size, its shape,” said Ross Bryant, vice president of sales and marketing at Wyatt Technology.
That data is also critical in determining the efficacy and safety of vaccines in development, as drug developers head into clinical trials.
The spike in demand has come as other customers globally have come under stringent shelter-in-place restrictions and closed down most operations.
“We are seeing an adverse effect to our business just like everyone, but at the same time we’re doing what we can to move the science forward as quickly as possible,” Bryant said.
That includes a skeleton crew to keep its facility open, while a vast majority of its employees work from home to maintain open lines of communications with vendors and customers.
“Until you follow that complete supply chain, do you realize, some of our vendors at the elementary level, the component level, are being challenged,” Bryant said.
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