Olympus tracks Covid-19 with Actility LoRaWan

  • August 9, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

Japanese optical medical equipment maker Olympus is using Actility’s ThingPark IoT platform for a Covid-19 tracking system in its factories.

Installed by local company Macnica Networks, the goal is to reduce the risk of service interruption and spread of infectious disease by quickly and accurately identifying infected people who have been in close contact.

It is using Abeeway sensors and ThingPark Enterprise for private LoRaWan connectivity as software-as-a-service to track the contact history of infected people in the factories.

Olympus has been implementing measures to prevent infectious diseases in response to the spread of Covid-19. The company has been working on countermeasures with the mission of never stopping medical device repairs and was considering the introduction of even more robust measures to reduce all risks to continue operation of the repair centre.

In factories and repair centres, it is difficult to introduce telework fully, and employees inevitably must work on-site. Under normal circumstances, employees work with social distancing but, depending on the nature of the work, they will have close conversations during meetings, trainings, guidance, consultation and so on.

There is also a risk that viruses brought in from outside may cause clusters in the factory. Once an infected person or a person in close contact with an infected person is confirmed, there is no way to measure objectively who the person was in contact with and to what extent in the factory, and the company had no choice but to narrow down the list of people based on vague information from memory. At Olympus’ overseas repair factories, when an infected person was confirmed, the entire production line had to take a leave of absence, which affected the manufacturing and repair operations.

Among the company’s products, there are gastrointestinal endoscopes, which are used for visualisation, diagnosis and treatment of the digestive tract such as the oesophagus, stomach and intestines. Endoscopes are used for regular medical check-ups and surgeries, and therefore require high quality and strict management.

“The endoscopes of today are not only for examination but also have the fate of being a therapeutic instrument for direct treatment,” said Tsutomu Hosoya from the medical repair department. “That’s why it is very important from a social standpoint to maintain a stable supply of equipment by establishing a stable repair system. That is why it is required to repair and return the repaired products received from medical institutions as quickly as possible and with accurate quality.”

In Japan, more than about ten million endoscopic examinations are performed annually. To continue providing endoscopes to the medical field, the company has established a system that enables high-quality repair and maintenance all over the world, and has more than 150 repair centres globally.

The Macnica system monitors the contact status with small sensors using LoRaWan and Blutooth LE from Abeeway, a subsidiary of French firm Actility. The sensors are worn by each employee as a badge and measure the distance through Bluetooth LE with each other. When the contact condition exceeds a standard value corresponding to intensive contact, an alert is sent to the central management application in the cloud. The application displays and records the contact alert status of all devices. The data can be searched backwards in time and date and can be exported as a CSV file.

“The solutions introduced in Japan before were over-spec and highly accurate, and expensive as a result,” said Hosoya. “Moreover, they were still in the development stage, so they were not the most suitable for us, as we wanted to deploy them as soon as possible. That’s why we focused on LPWA using LoRaWan provided by Macnica.”

Atsunori Ikeuchi, who is in charge of systems in the medical repair department, recalled there were some systemic concerns from the beginning.

“We were concerned about whether or not the system would have any impact on the company’s internal facilities, as it uses radio waves, and whether or not there would be any radio wave interference from the already installed facilities,” he said. “In fact, we found out that LoRaWan is capable of long-distance communication, saves power, and is resistant to noise. In this sense, we thought that it would have little impact on the existing environment.”

There was another concern that the number of repeaters would become huge because many devices would communicate with one repeater if repair workers wore the device.

“If a large number of LoRaWan repeaters are required, the operational burden will increase in terms of maintenance and response to failures,” said Ikeuchi. “However, we found out that we only needed about two of them for a single floor, which impressed us once again with the amazing technology.”

This technology is in operation at two factories, monitoring the contact status of 380 and 320 employees. Employees wear dedicated devices on their chest at the beginning of their workday and keep it on until the end of their workday. The badge is small enough that it does not interfere with the work and is operated with little burden.

The company can use this system to determine quickly who an infected person was in close contact with in the factory.

As for concerns about behavioural monitoring, these  were resolve by turning off the GPS function, informing the workers they would only use the contact history in case of infection, and educating them about this.

The introduction of LPWA has made it possible to investigate quickly contact history in an emergency and has created an environment that reduces risks from the perspective of business continuity. The company has also established a stable process for medical institutions that request repairs, which is helping build a sense of trust.

“We have been holding weekly status sharing meetings with each repair centre, and we have received reports that the system is operating without any problems, such as the stable collection of contact history,” said Hosoya.

Some workplaces have begun to use the acquired data to design work lines and work styles that do not lead to intensive contact in the first place. Hideki Ohki, who is in charge of repair centre management and implementation, said: “By looking at the history, we are able to identify the processes that may lead to intensive contact, and we are now considering how to avoid such processes in the process of business improvement.”

LoRaWan lets battery-operated devices communicate with IoT applications via long-range, wireless connections, allowing longer battery life, thus lowering the cost of device ownership. LoRaWan is useful in large-scale deployments because of its availability, cost and reach, due to its use of unlicensed spectrum and the availability of standard low-cost modules with long battery life.

Actility provides the LoRaWan server and an IoT platform for network management – ThingPark – that helps users build network infrastructure by managing LoRaWan gateways, add new LoRaWan devices, monitor network operations, and control the flow of data to application servers.

In the future, the LPWA network is expected to be used for applications such as monitoring the entry history of people in dangerous areas, or checking if anyone is left behind in a factory in the event of a natural disaster.

“For example, we may consider using it to grasp the history of people’s entry into areas where cameras cannot be installed, while gaining the understanding of workplaces, and we look forward to Macnica Networks’ proposals on how to use this system after Covid-19 comes to an end,” said Hosoya. 

Olivier Hersent, CEO of Actility, added: “LoRaWan-based proximity detection and contact tracing can automate the monitoring of new safety policies like social distancing, while empowering employees as part of the new normal in business operations. It is a great and innovative way to protect the continuity of manufacturing and corporate operations with instant return on investment by avoiding costly full shutdowns.”