By on April 16, 2020

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Ford is experimenting with social-distancing wristbands as a way to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus once factories reopen. In recent weeks, the company has tested various preventative measures at facilities where it swapped from building cars to producing ventilators and respirators to supply hospitals amid the health crisis. While much of that effort revolved around good hygiene practices and the addition of sanitizing stations near assembly areas, Ford also experimented with some outside-the-box ideas.

Workers are now required to complete daily health questionnaires about how they feel and who they’ve been in contact with. But that’s just the start. Most automotive manufacturers are trying to establish a framework allowing employees to return to work without risking secondary outbreaks. For Ford, that means testing dozens of options while factories remain shuttered so the most-useful strategy can be implemented as things return to normal.

What counts as “normal” in this not-distant future sounds like it will be very different than what would have qualified before the pandemic. 

Daily checks for fever will probably become the norm for all manufacturers. While some will probably do it the old-fashioned way (not that old fashioned; just a thermometer in the ear) Ford is actually looking at thermal-imaging scanners that would allow for quick sweeps of employees as they move between areas. In addition to requiring less human contact, running an infrared scanner is also believed to be a more efficient way of assessing large groups of people.

But it’s the bracelets that are the most interesting. Phone applications promising an early warning system for those that have come into close proximity with infected have gathered a lot of attention. Google and Apple are even joining forces to establish something similar to what was used to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea. However, critics have slammed these types of systems as a major violation of our privacy, ready for misuse, and claim they may be ineffective. Most GPS or cell-tower signals aren’t precise enough to work beyond giving your general area, anyway.

One suggested workaround is to use Bluetooth to have phones interface with each other (which is what Google/Apple are doing). But that again has problems. Such a system would only be able to tell you that you were in contact with an infected person after the fact, and both parties’ names would be added to databases (that some say are a bridge too far). Famous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden famously called all such measures ineffective in an interview with Vice Media co-founder Shane Smith, warning that they may have ugly implications in the long-term — implications that would be nearly impossible to undo.

“Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? Will those capabilities begin to be applied to small-time criminality, for political analysis, for doing things like performing a census, political polling,” he said. “No matter how it is being used, what is being built is the architecture of oppression. And you might trust who is dealing with it today. You might trust who runs it. You don’t care about Mark Zuckerberg.”

“But someone else will have this data eventually, some other country. In your country, a different president will have this data eventually. And someone will abuse it.”

Truth be told, a lot of the preventative measures being floated play into a fool’s paradise to some degree. Still, the world needs solutions and time has been a factor since before COVID-19 started its spread.

Ford’s solution seems to remove some of the potential to create a dystopian society by leaving everything at the factory. Rather than relying on cellphone networks, the wristbands could simply work as on-site proximity sensors. Employees can slip one on and, if they’re calibrated correctly, get a buzz when they get too close to someone else (six feet). Think of it as an invisible-fence dog collar intended for people, but without the accompanying electric shock. Actually, upon re-reading that last line, it does sound slightly dystopian.

The full details on the functions and features of the wristbands have yet to be explained, though Ford is currently running them on a trial basis, Bloomberg reports. While the test only involves a dozen employees right now, it could become standard protocol for all factories once Ford goes back to manufacturing cars (and if it feels it’s effective). It’s clear that, whether or not the wristband idea moves ahead, major changes will take place on factory floors around the world when the industrial sector rallies. Things won’t be going back to normal for some time, assuming they go back at all.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

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25 Comments on “Ford’s Wristband Solution: Assembly Lines After the Pandemic...”

  • avatar

    Apparently Ford perfected this technology with its cars over the past three years. People avoided them like the plague.

  • avatar

    1984 is coming……………….

  • avatar

    I can see how this will work out. The guy’s wrist band squawks and he thinks “I can either back away from that guy, or I can get this part installed on that truck before it passes my station, not both”.

  • avatar

    Hopefully the “Corona Cold” bracelets work better than the typical Ford product…

  • avatar

    Neat idea that sidesteps the privacy issues of your cellphone tracking and reporting on you 24/7 (or any other device on your person, ahem prisoner’s ankle bracelet).

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Yeah seems like a solid plan, but must bash it because Ford.

  • avatar

    Speaking as an RF engineer, they’re going to either get a lot of nuisance alarms when they’re “social distance” apart, or there will be a lot of scenarios where two workers can get much closer than desired before it alarms. If they ding workers by the number of alarms in a given period of time and the workers perceive it as being overly aggressive it will anger them. If it’s set up to be lenient then it loses much of it’s value.

    Think of two workers wearing the band (a Samsung smart watch according to the link) on the left wrist. If two workers are standing left shoulder to left shoulder (one facing “north” the other “south”) and at the 6 foot “social distance”, and then rotate so that they’re right shoulder to right shoulder while maintaining the 6 foot distance, the distance between the “bands” almost doubles. If the work stations are spread far apart it might not be an issue, but if two workers are on opposite sides of a car and one or both reach in then the watches could cross the invisible boundary while the workers are still maintaining the appropriate separation.

    And if distance is measured by received signal level between watches, it gets much more difficult to achieve repeatable accuracy due to technical issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if the smart watches are gifted to the workers in short order.

    • 0 avatar

      That depends how they work I guess. If they ping each other, and respond to each other’s pings, and they use timing to determine the distance, I think that would be kind of expensive for the necessary accuracy (roughly +/- 1-3 inches). If instead you have base stations throughout the building and these triangulate the location of each watch—and command them to buzz accordingly—I think that would have the necessary accuracy and reasonable cost.

      I dunno… I’m not an electronics guy. (I’d love to hear your technical opinion.)

      • 0 avatar

        Apologies…this got kinda long-winded…..

        The Bloomberg article says the watch uses “Bluetooth” and “short-wave and low power technology”. I infer that means Bluetooth Low Power aka “BLE”. After I posted I looked up the BLE spec and it answered the question in the last paragraph of my post; part of that spec is a “device location” function that uses received signal strength (“RSSI”). I considered it might have used a time-of-arrival technique like you stated. Trying to resolve distance with high granularity using TOA requires very precise timing which implies high bandwidth and BLE channels are only 2 MHz wide.

        Using RSSI has it’s own problems. If two watches double the separation distance the RSSI goes down by a factor of four (the “square-law” relationship). If two watches have a clear line-of-sight to each other and then both people move so their bodies are now in the signal path, that reduces the RSSI even more. People aren’t static objects, they move around and the RSSI will go up and down without the separation distance changing. I’d love to be the fly on the wall when the beta-test results are reviewed. BTW, the “6 foot” figure I pulled outta my @@@ since it’s the social-distance number.

        Triangulation could work in free space but in a factory full of metal that reflects/blocks signals it can get extremely complex depending on the location accuracy desired. And with some of that metal moving in ways unknown to the computation algorithms it can become essentially impossible. One of the most vexing problems in wireless cellular is subscriber location determination. There have been demands by Congress-critters and other non-tech types to locate cellular subscribers with high accuracy, principally for 911 responses. In an open flat desert the solution is almost trivial. In a dense urban environment the “multi-path problem” makes it wicked-hard to do for accuracy better than a handful of city blocks. I used to tell “fresh-outs” (new grads) that calculating signal propagation from Earth to Mars can be done on a decent calculator (or even a slice rule) in less than a minute. To do it with decent fidelity across a typical urban city requires massive number-crunching.

  • avatar

    One problem is that the 6ft. distance may not be enough. The actual distance is about 27 ft. It’s been a long time since my auto manufacturing days, but 6 ft on a line seems difficult, but maybe doable. I don’t know how you’d do 27 ft. It’s been a lot of years, so I could be wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      27ft would very likely require a strong, unmuffled sneeze in someone’s direction, which would be an extremely inconsiderate to do and hopefully would not occur outside a medical setting. That link also doesn’t bring up viral load at all, which might not be an issue for people in a hospital that are around infected people all the time, but it should be a part of recommendations for the general public.

      Also, coughing/sneezing into your elbow (or using a properly worn mask of correct material) can greatly reduce droplet travel.

      • 0 avatar

        “which would be an extremely inconsiderate to do and hopefully would not occur outside a medical setting.”

        Yet it does happen. Even a cough or sneeze into an elbow can cause a diversion around the arm. You also have to consider the location that we’re talking about. In a factory setting, you don’t always have the freedom to put down whatever is in your hands at the moment to sneeze into your elbow. It’s not an office. I spent a lot of time studying auto assembly lines. I know first hand what it’s like. Some of those people don’t even have the time to pause in order to cough or sneeze properly.

  • avatar

    We’re going to look back at this era and be embarrassed at what a huge over reaction it was, so much of this is just the C Suite getting to virtue signal.

    There’s been all sorts of credible studies that the social distancing guidelines aren’t all that effective, and on something that’s being handled, that’s how it would be spread. So get a factory to wear some gloves and a surgical mask (and some common sense) for the next few weeks just like grocery workers. Problem solved, we don’t need to give MegaCorps the keys to the kingdom.

    • 0 avatar

      “We’re going to look back at this era and be embarrassed at what a huge over reaction it was, ”

      yes, the refrain of the horribly mentally deficient. like the numpties who think Y2k was “overblown” because it turned out to be nothing. Um, dumbs**t, it turned out to be “nothing” because everyone got serious and worked their asses off to put in the fixes before it was too late.

      Only Americans are stupid enough to think that “The restrictions and countermeasures worked, so they must not have been needed in the first place.”

    • 0 avatar

      “So get a factory to wear some gloves and a surgical mask ”

      So, where does that virus that the glove touches go? What about the virus that gets caught by the mask? Where does it go? It doesn’t pull a U-turn. What if the glove breaks? That happens. What about proper mask fit? It’s a factory so you’re moving around a lot and things can happen. I know healthcare workers with N-95’s and gloves that have contracted the virus. What about those Smithfield meat packing plant employees in South Dakota? I’m sure they were wearing gloves since it’s food service. Not sure about masks. Yet they managed to get it.

    • 0 avatar


      “We’re going to look back at this era and be embarrassed at what a huge over reaction it was”

      Nothing stopping you from finding your way to South Dakota. I hear that there is a pork plant in need of staff.

      Why don’t you sign a waiver and have a New York nurse walk you through the COVID ward sans PPE!

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