On Factory Floors, a Chime and Flashing Light to Maintain Distance

BERLIN — The 2019-20 National Basketball Association season was suspended for over 140 days after a player tested positive for the coronavirus. But once play resumed in late July, no other players tested positive.

The league was able to evade the virus by requiring teams to live and play their games in an isolated area known as the Bubble, at the closed Disney World resort in Florida.

But a small piece of technology also played a role: a wristband that players, coaches and trainers could wear off the court, and that was required for reporters covering the teams. A tiny digital chip in the band enforces social distancing by issuing a warning — by light and sound — when wearers get too close to one another for too long. The bands have been picked up by the National Football League, the Pacific-12 college football conference and other sports leagues around the world.

The Munich start-up behind the N.B.A.’s wristbands, Kinexon, is happy with the publicity of helping prevent top athletes from catching the virus, even as such devices raise privacy concerns. Now it is looking toward broader arenas: factory production lines, warehouses and logistics centers where millions of people continue to work despite the pandemic.

One of the companies working with Kinexon is Henkel, a global industrial and household chemical manufacturer based in Germany. When the coronavirus infected about a dozen workers in Henkel’s plant in Serbia last spring, the two-week shutdown that followed cost millions of dollars in lost revenue, said Wolfgang Weber, a senior manager for Henkel.

Henkel was already testing an earlier version of Kinexon’s wearable tech, designed to avert collisions between forklifts and workers on high-traffic factory floors. The system’s sensors would automatically stop a forklift if it got too close to a worker.

After the outbreak at the Serbian plant and within weeks of the first wave of pandemic lockdowns, Kinexon offered Henkel a chance to test a variation of that technology, called SafeZone. Its half-ounce sensor, worn on the wrist like a watch or around the neck on a lanyard or on a badge, makes a chime and flashes when another sensor is within a prescribed distance for a set period. Henkel agreed to give it a try.

Testing the devices in real life was important to Kinexon.

“What’s important in this is not only to have the technology working in a lab — what’s important now is to be able to bring the technology to where people need it,” said Oliver Trinchera, who co-founded Kinexon in 2012 and is one of its directors, “be it on the factory floor or on the sports pitch.”

Henkel tested the system on the entire staff of its plant in Raciborz, Poland, a big facility on the southern outskirts of a medieval coal town, where 250 people work three shifts a day making and packaging powdered and liquid detergent for Central Europe.

The sensors were programmed to go off when two people were within 1.5 meters, roughly six feet, of…


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