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Protolabs Accelerates Development Time for Covid-19 Contract Tracing Device

Protolabs helped a contact tracing and social distancing system move from idea to finished product in six weeks, permitting its manufacturer to get back to work and make thousands more of the devices that have subsequently allowed other businesses to come back online.

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Fleetwood Electronics’ Instant-Trace contact tracing and social distancing system, which consists of a badge employees wear, flashes red LED lights and vibrates when wearers are in too close of proximity to one and other, reinforcing social distancing. If an employee is diagnosed with the coronavirus, the employer can use the badges to determine who has been in close contact with that employee and make fast decisions about who needs testing or self-quarantine and who can keep working.

Insta-Trace badge

On the back of the Insta-Trace badge housing, a “button” is molded in where the device is turned on and off. 

Fleetwood (Holland, Mich.) turned to Protolabs (Maple Plain, Minn.) to help develop the product, leaning on the rapid manufacturer for technical support on moldability issues and material selection. Protolabs said its automated quoting system sped the product development process for the Instant-Trace badge housing, with Fleetwood receiving machined prototypes and molded parts within days, accelerating design validation.

Thanks to those efforts, the Instant-Trace went from idea to finished product in six weeks, including production tooling from Protolabs. Fleetwood says it first developed the Instant-Trace system so its 120 employees could return to work safely, but the company appreciated early on how it could help other businesses reopen safely.

The company conceived of the Instant-Trace system on a Friday night in early April, and by the following Monday, designs for the electronics, software and badge housing were complete. Just a month and a half later, in mid-May, Fleetwood, which has multiple patents pending on the system, began making its first Instant-Trace shipments. The company achieved the tight turnaround by partnering with Protolabs, utilizing that company’s online automated quoting and design feedback system.

The Instant-Trace system consists of three pieces: the badge; a customer-provided tablet or smartphone that serves as badge-scanning kiosk; and a cloud-enabled web dashboard for reviewing social distancing data to determine exposure time to others and inform decisions on testing or other responses.

The Instant-Trace is accurate within 6 inches thanks to Ultra-wideband (UWB) short-range wireless technology, versus Bluetooth, which is accurate to within about 6 feet. Fleetwood’s custom UWB protocol gives the badge a battery life of two months and in some cases more than three months. The company worked with a local industrial designer on the aesthetic of the badge housing, which has front and back parts that screw together. An in-house 3D printer was used to test out the housing design.

Protolabs stepped in to help on several fronts. First off, moldability issues centered on a button on the back of the badge, which needed flex but not break since employees use it to turn the badge on and off. Next, while the back of the badge is black, the front part of the badge needs to be translucent so wearers and those nearby can see the LEDs blinking from inside. Protolabs told Plastics Technology that the front and back are two different grades of PC, chosen for impact resistance.

Protolabs, which specializes in high quality aluminum tooling, created an aluminum multi-cavity mold for the project, based on a breakeven analysis at 20,000 units for tooling vs. piece price. Protolabs noted that its online quote tool made it easy to perform this cost calculation. In terms of manufacturability advice, Protolabs told Plastics Technology that they provided guidance on the housings’ draft, texture, and thin sections. Protolabs is currently running the aluminum tool it made to supply Fleetwood with the housing components for the badges. At this time, Fleetwood estimates that it has shipped more than 30,000 Insta-Trade units to more than 100 customers, with the pace of production only growing due to the ongoing pandemic.

Insta-Trace badge

Fleetwood’s Insta-Trace badge keeps wearers from getting too close to one and other, and if someone contracts coronavirus, it provides detailed information on who was in contact with the infected person and for how long. 

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