A regional supplier of USA-made sealing screws played a key role bringing to market a software-driven proximity tracing technology.
By Mark Langlois
Proximity Trace is a safety and information-gathering device worn on a belt, shirt pocket, or hard hat that helps people stay six feet apart. It hit the market about four weeks after someone had the idea for it, an example of manufacturing and design ingenuity in the face of COVID-19.
Triax Technologies, of Norwalk, Connecticut, created the device at the request of construction industry customers. The construction firms wanted a way to help maintain social distancing for workers, provide contact tracing, and keep people safe and working at the same time. The result, Proximity Trace, combines software and hardware. A worker wears a physical device, TraceTag, that collect jobsite data, which it transmits from the worksite to computers that sort and analyze the data on the dashboard.
“It’s a cloud-based software solution. Tablets, trailers, phones—it works on any connected device,” said Lori Peters, vice president of marketing at Triax, in an interview with D2P. “It collects information from people and objects where you wouldn’t normally have that information. This data collection is one step on the digitization of a workplace. It’s the internet of things.”
Triax serves customers in the construction, energy, industrials, mining, and manufacturing industries. The company was founded in 2012, and its first product was a sports helmet that measured head impact trauma. The helmet created data that scientists and researchers study to understand head trauma in sports. That early product put Triax in contact with insurance firms. The insurance companies suggested that similar devices might find customers with safety problems outside of sports, including in construction, mining, and heavy industry. Triax Technologies then created Spot-r, a device worn like Proximity Trace that gathers information at worksites.
Spot-r Device Paves Way
The two-ounce Spot-r clip identifies the worker’s location in a work zone, and that location information has improved injury response time by up to 90 percent, Triax said. It records time and attendance for a streamlined check-in, check-out process. It detects free falls. It can provide a communication link to report injuries, safety incidents, and hazards with a push-button function.
The Spot-r clip can sound alerts, and the Spot-r EvacTag, a related product, can sound a 100-decibel alarm with flashing lights to evacuate a worksite, indoors or outdoors, in an emergency. The device can be used on equipment to report if it’s in use, and who is using it. That information can inform management if the person using the equipment is trained and qualified to use it. A customer might also use the data to see which pieces of equipment aren’t in use, and if any equipment is redundant. That saves money.
Depending on the zones set up in each site, the device tells customers where workers are. Triax said this information can be extremely useful to its clients who want to know if their trades are working in the correct locations, whether or not all workers who should be on site are on site, and if they have enough people on site to keep the work on schedule.
The Spot-r system device is the hardware stepping-stone that Triax used to create Proximity Trace. With everyone on a job site wearing the Proximity Trace TraceTag device, data is generated that keeps workers safe. For example, if two workers stand too close, an alarm sounds on their devices. The devices are typically set for the CDC-recommended six feet, but some companies ask Triax to set the safe distance at 10 feet.
When those alerts arise, the device sends signals to a nearby pod on a sub-gigahertz frequency, a proprietary technology. Relay pods or gateways extend the network and push the data from the job site to the cloud, where the data is organized for the customer’s use. That signal is transferred from the job site through an LTE connection to company computers, where the software reads, sorts it, and posts it on the software dashboard. The stored information can be recalled later if a worker gets sick. The information about who was near whom would inform decisions about who needs to quarantine and why.
A benefit of using the system, Peters said, is after a month or so, the system records fewer alerts, because workers learn what six feet is and they stand farther apart.
An Environmentally Safe Device
The TraceTag device used in Proximity Trace is Class 1 Division 1 certified safe because it is sealed. Nothing leaks in or out. It is considered safe in flammable environments, such as mines and petroleum industry sites, because it won’t emit sparks. It is sealed against any leaks, which is why it is considered “green.” No oils or other contaminants leak into the environment. At the same time, it’s durable because the seal keeps out dust, oil, blood, or contaminants from the environment.
When the construction customers approached Triax Industries about making a product that became Proximity Trace, the first go/no player at Triax was Justin Morgenthau, the chief technology officer, who understands the company’s software, hardware, and firmware. Morgenthau leads product development. Morganthau decided Triax could create Proximity Trace. Three weeks later, Triax was testing the device. Four weeks later, it was in customer hands.
“Those problems always start with him and he’s thinking up ways to solve it,” said Peters. “He brings in the teams. They’re programing the firmware for the device and the field engineering team has to check it out. Does it work? We won a lot of early business because it works. You don’t really think about what six feet is until now.”
Greg Probert, a mechanical engineer, manages the hardware team, the mechanical engineers and the electrical engineers. As manager, manufacturing and product design, Probert makes sure Triax can access the parts it needs to build a product. That was true for Proximity Trace.
Triax needed a sealing screw and Probert could picture it in his mind. It needed a tiny gasket under the head that would seal the device. He needed a source. Deciding Triax could make an assembly in early 2020 was one challenge but finding parts in early 2020 was more difficult.
“Are we going to be able to source the materials? Is the hardware capable for this?” Probert said during an interview. That was a challenge. Probert decided he wanted off-the-shelf parts made in America with a short supply chain. He said Triax wanted to work with existing suppliers, if possible, firms that were in the U.S. and could manufacture locally with an existing U.S. supply chain. Triax, which is headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, typically looks to the East Coast and Florida for its parts and assembly.
“Triax is a very agile company,” Probert said. “We’re able to look for alternate sources for products. We’re not looking for millions of these. We’re looking for maybe 100,000. We were able to find them on the shelves.”
Probert knew the same screw that sealed the device must allow a customer to unscrew it. In time, the customer must open the device and replace its batteries. Probert’s first thought was he’d hire a job shop to manufacture the screws. Then a co-worker reminded him about ZAGO Manufacturing.
ZAGO manufactures a wide range of stainless steel screws with a tiny O-ring that sits snugly in a tiny groove etched under the head. The O-rings fit in the groove and the ring seals the opening. Probert said he knew of ZAGO from having seen the company’s display at a Design-2-Part tradeshow in Marlborough, Massachusetts. But because he wasn’t looking for sealing screws at the tradeshow, he forgot about them. “They weren’t a supplier. I’d heard of them, but we’d never used them before.”
ZAGO Manufacturing produces screws, nuts, bolts, and other parts that are reported to meet the highest industry and military standards. The company was founded by Zahavy Rottenstrich in 1993, and it has been making sealing screws to military standards since its founding. The company has also expanded into different lines, including switch boots to keep salt water out of marine deck control switches. Today, ZAGO employs about 23 people at its plant in Newark, New Jersey. The company is ISO 9001: 2015 compliant, as well as DFARS, REACH, and ROHS certified.
ZAGO manufactures security and tamper-proof screws that prevent contamination of air, water, gas and other impurities. Once they’re screwed in place, they don’t unscrew. The company also makes seal nuts and washers with O-rings that form a seal along the bolt’s threading. Probert wanted ZAGO’s O-rings made of nitrile rubber, or Buna-N, a synthetic material that is more resistant to oil, fuel, and other chemicals.
“To create Proximity Trace, we needed a reliable network of suppliers during a pandemic, and ZAGO Manufacturing met our qualifications and more,” said Probert in a release from Triax. “Like our TraceTag, ZAGO sealing screws are made in the USA, and ZAGO has a network of trusted local suppliers.”
Because ZAGO’s screws meet military standards, its commercial customers get the same quality.
“Our commercial customers get the same product,” said Jackie Luciano, vice president of ZAGO, in an interview. “Our customers who order parts as ‘commercial’ are getting the added value and security of knowing if it’s good for the military, it’s good for them.”
The screws have to meet pressure testing in house. There is no loss of pressure or leaking when the screws are tested. Torque testing is required, and tightening doesn’t weaken the head, Luciano said.
“These aren’t penny screws. This isn’t something you can get just anywhere,” she said. “It is specifically designed. It’s not a commodity solution.”
Luciano said ZAGO made a tiny screw for one demanding customer who needed precision sealing and locking for use in a drone. The stainless steel screw was 1/8-inch long with 80 threads per inch. The diameter of the head was 0.060 inch. ZAGO chose the Buna-N O-ring and Vibra-Tite to lock the screw in place.
Luciano said the company’s founder got involved early, which is especially important if a job poses a particular challenge. “He’s talking to the customers, with the engineers on the other end to find out their requirements,” she said. “What is the application? Contact with the customer in the prototype phase makes sure it’s the right product.”
A ZAGO machinist with 15 years on the job manufactured the tiny screws. The stainless steel screw was grooved under the head to hold the Buna-N ring. In all, ZAGO made 5,000 pieces. Luciano said the company works with customers on jobs from prototypes to production runs of up to 100,000 pieces at its 15,000-square-foot factory.
“We didn’t need special tooling,” Luciano said. “The main challenge was the sheer size of the part and the accuracy required. We used a very experienced machinist who set about it one by one, meticulously.” The part quality was checked on a Keyence IM-7020 quality inspection machine.
At its most basic, a customer calls ZAGO to buy an off-the-shelf screw, bolt, or nut. And if a customer wants a prototype or something special? That’s where ZAGO’s engineers come in.
“When we get called to provide sealing solutions to the latest LIDAR product, we ask, ‘What is its exposure? What are the temperature ranges? What material will it require for the O-rings? Seal screws? Seal nut? Pressure washer?’ Sometimes we custom make something we don’t have,” said Luciano.
Nobody Knew COVID Was Coming
ZAGO makes parts from wire and from bar. “We can make just about anything. We source the raw material, mostly DFAR compliant, USA made,” Luciano said. “We make everything here. When customers are really looking to not go overseas, we take care of them here. We can turn things around pretty quick.”
Luciano said she didn’t know COVID-19 was coming, just like everybody else in the world. Despite that, she said the company had been “preparing for it for the last five years.”
“We were automating our machine shop, we were automating our assembly equipment, we were bringing in robotics. We’re now able to work overnight when nobody is here. Just to be more nimble, to produce more with less effort, we were prepared.
“It helped us when we had to have half of our people work from home and half in the shop,” she added. “We closed for a day or two, but other than that, we never shut down.”
ZAGO operates a Haas SL10 lathe and a Universal Robots UR5e series robotic arm. The UR5e robot can work with a machine all night or all day after set-up. “Instead of a human standing in front of a machine and feeding it parts all day, the robot is feeding it parts all day,” Luciano said. One step the machinists provide is shaping each screw and carving the groove under the head.
Luciano said the machine shop is more automated because eight machines can run by themselves after an employee sets them up. “They can run all day. After set-up, they can run all night. We’re able to produce so much more. That really helped us in terms of volume.”
In the assembly area, ZAGO designed some of its own equipment to assemble a screw and its O-ring. “The machine will marry the two automatically. That was able to help us volume-wise in terms of how much product we could get out,” Luciano said.
ZAGO retrained an employee—who previously did routine, monotonous work—to become the robot expert at the company. That led to a raise. “Now, instead of tending a machine, he knows how to program it,” Luciano said. “We have a robot specialist.”