Fighting Back: Technology’s role in pandemic gets businesses open again

As local businesses reopened in the wake of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, one thing is clear: Things may never be quite the same. In the current period of limbo waiting on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, businesses are turning to new – and not-so-new – technologies to keep their customers safe or adapting their operations to suit the new status quo.

Here are a few of the technologies that are defining the new workplace.

Keen can install needlepoint bipolar ionization systems on both residential and commercial buildings.

Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization

“After a lightning storm, the air is at its highest degree of purification,” said Steve Morse, a co-founder of Traverse City’s Keen Technical Solutions. “A lightning storm is nature’s way of purifying the air, because it creates all these negative and positive ions that that kill all the pollutants and clean the air.”

Needlepoint bipolar ionization harnesses this concept and brings it into interior spaces. Keen’s ionization devices integrate into HVAC systems and create positive and negative ions that attach to impurities in the air, including dust and other particulate matter, gases, bacteria, mold spores, viral pathogens and more.

In the case of particulate matter, the ionization process causes the particles to clump together and drop out of the air, making it easy for those impurities to be vacuumed up or filtered out of the air stream. In the case of viruses and other biological organisms, the ions rob them of their hydrogen, effectively killing them.

Studies have shown that needlepoint bipolar ionization systems are 99.9 percent effective at killing viruses in the air. They act quickly, too. Research from this year suggests that the technology can eradicate 99.4% of COVID-19 viruses in the air within half an hour. The technology is also effective against allergens, odors, and other viruses, including those that cause colds and flu.

The technology isn’t new, nor is it a proprietary concept that only Keen offers. On the contrary, needlepoint bipolar ionization has been around for almost 15 years. Morse says that he installed a system in his house years ago, when his kids were young and were suffering from allergies and asthma. Incorporating needlepoint bipolar ionization into the house HVAC system enabled Morse to take his kids off Zyrtec and other treatments, simply because they weren’t encountering allergens in the home or during sleep hours.

“We didn’t get colds, and they didn’t have allergy problems anymore,” Morse said. “So (needlepoint bipolar ionization) isn’t like this new technology, but now that we’re in a pandemic it’s becoming more relevant.”

Keen can install the systems on residential and commercial buildings alike, with prices starting around $1,000 per system and going up from there depending on the square footage of the space. During the pandemic, Morse says the company has seen a surge in demand for the systems from local businesses.

Installations so far have ranged from retailers like Cherry Republic to local medical and dental offices and even Central High School’s weight room.

While Morse concedes that ionization technology alone won’t be able to end the pandemic or preclude other important safety measures, he does think that the widespread use of the technology could effectively make indoor spaces just about as safe as outdoor spaces – thereby allowing schools and businesses to return to normal with more confidence.

“People are taking precautions with their masks, and that’s great, but it would be nice to get to the point where you can go inside a building and you don’t have to worry about a mask because the air is naturally purifying all the time,” Morse said.


Elevated Skin Temperature Monitoring

Across industries, many businesses have adopted temperature screenings as a prerequisite for employees or even customers entering their buildings. While this practice can help prevent someone from bringing COVID-19 or other illnesses into a workplace, manual temperature checks with infrared forehead thermometers can be inefficient.

Windemuller, a local electrical and communications contractor, is helping to fill this gap with an elevated skin temperature monitoring technology. These systems utilize thermal cameras to detect elevated temperatures in an automated and contact-free fashion.

According to Homer Campbell, Windemuller’s technology manager, the company initially added elevated skin temperature monitoring solutions to serve Michigan manufacturers, which were required by an executive order from the governor to adopt temperature screening precautions as a condition of returning to work.

Since then, the technology has gained popularity elsewhere, as more industries have reopened. Campbell says that, in addition to manufacturers, school districts, colleges, hospitals and doctor’s offices have all shown interest in the technology.

Windemuller offers elevated skin temperature monitoring systems in three tiers, depending on the client’s budget and needs. Options range from a basic tier (a tripod-mounted camera connected to a laptop, which an employee must monitor to determine whether the visitor passes or fails the temperature check) to an advanced solution (which integrates thermal cameras into an existing security camera system and flags any footage that detects a high temperature). There’s also an intermediate solution, which consists of a kiosk for check-in, mask-wearing and temperature scanning.

According to Campbell, these types of thermal-based camera technologies have been available for quite some time, but have largely been used for industrial purposes to detect safety hazards and other issues on worksites or in facilities.

Since COVID broke, those technologies have been reimagined and repurposed to help accelerate human temperature screenings and to minimize the exposure risks of a manual temperature check. The pre-pandemic prevalence of thermal camera technology means that there are now dozens of different manufacturers creating technologies in this space – something that Windemuller is trying to capitalize on to avoid potential equipment shortages or lengthy lead times, Campbell says.

“We’re looking across the spectrum of manufacturers and across the spectrum of distributors,” Campbell said. “So, say we sold one system last week but our distributor doesn’t have stock of it anymore. There is now a six-week lead time. If we have a customer who has an immediate need, where they want something in place within the next couple of weeks, we can look at a different manufacturer that has a similar solution to meet that need.”

Higher Grounds is working with Michigan Broadband Services to offer fiber internet service to customers on the patio.

Integrated Point-of-Sale Systems

In the restaurant/food service industry, one important hurdle has been figuring out an efficient way to pivot to online ordering, contactless transactions and curbside carryout service.

For Higher Grounds Coffee, that transition has been particularly challenging, due to the multifaceted setup of the business.

According to Tim Nance, who manages the Higher Grounds Coffee Bar in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the challenge for Higher Grounds was that there are two very distinct parts of the business. On one side, Higher Grounds is a global coffee company that sells its products online and ships them all over the world. On the other side, Higher Grounds is a local coffee shop that is popular for people who live or work in and around the Commons.

Prior to the pandemic, Nance says that these two sides of the business were almost entirely separate from an operations perspective, simply because Higher Grounds could never find an all-in-one omnichannel tech platform for marketing and managing both pieces in the same place.

“We always wanted something that could integrate better, especially in terms of inventory management, but also in capturing customers into one location,” Nance explained. “When out-of-town visitors come to the café, we want to be able to market to them when they go back home. But the two different platforms we have (for online ordering and in-store operations) don’t communicate and never have. So, we have kind of had two different customer bases and two different inventory bases.”

When COVID-19 hit, it forced Nance’s hand to find a better way of doing things. He knew Higher Grounds needed a system that could handle the wholesale/online retail side of thing, but could also support in-person sales and contactless online orders. There was still no app or platform built specifically to handle all of those things, which meant keeping the platform that grounded the bigger part of the Higher Grounds business – global online order fulfillment – and then finding another system that could integrate in and fill in the gaps.

“We needed something that could do true contactless online ordering and still fit within our branding, so something that could be customized to fit into our website to look seamless,” Nance said.

That was where things got “complicated,” he said.

“There would be stuff that could provide the features we needed, but it didn’t integrate with key aspects of our website like inventory, order management, or cost functioning,” said Nance. “So there was a lot of trial and error, because we didn’t want to take time and money working on a system that wouldn’t work three months from now for accounting purposes, or that would cause other problems.”

Ultimately, Higher Grounds kept the foundation of its online ordering platform (Shopify) and added an online point-of-sale system called Clover, which supports internet ordering and can integrate with the existing website.

Still, Nance says that he is surprised that there’s not a true “one-stop shop” platform in the food service industry – one that provides solutions for website hosting, online order fulfillment, contactless payment, and other functions – especially as the pandemic stretches toward the five-month mark.

An integrated point-of-sale setup wasn’t the only tech improvement that Higher Ground made due to COVID-19. Nance says the company has also been in the process of expanding its internet footprint at the coffee shop, working with Michigan Broadband Services to offer fiber internet service to customers on its outdoor patio.

The interior of the coffee shop remains closed to customers, with Higher Grounds serving café customers through a pickup window. However, Nance says it was a priority for the business to maintain the reputation that coffee shops have: of being good places to hang out and work.

“We expanded our internet footprint onto our patio so that we can kind of dominate the outside area,” Nance said. “If people are going to be hanging out outside or using the patio as their office, we’d like them to hang out as long as possible.”