A coronavirus-triggered rush for infrared cameras that identify people with elevated skin temperature is causing makers of the devices to beef up supply chains and re-examine their product lineups to meet the increasing requests coming from different businesses.
The first wave of demand came in part from factories and health-care companies, camera makers say, but it has since expanded as companies and governments reimagine entertainment, athletics, transportation and education under the coronavirus.
Scanners that screen the skin to infer body temperature have been a small part of the infrared market, with many thermal-imaging firms focused on other applications, from detecting water leaks to intruders. Those priorities changed as the pandemic made scanners more popular, straining supplies and inviting more competition.
“Everybody and their brothers jumped into this business,” said Gary Strahan, founder of Texas-based Infrared Cameras Inc. and an industry veteran for more than 30 years. Mr. Strahan said he started stockpiling components in January as Covid-19 spread in China and has purchased millions of dollars worth of sensors.
The cameras use orange and yellow hues to highlight people with higher skin temperatures without the close contact required by traditional thermometers. A person’s temperature is a rough proxy for someone who might have a fever—a common symptom of Covid-19, though it doesn’t account for those who are asymptomatic but contagious.
Prices of infrared screening systems can range from $2,000 to $15,000 or higher. The fast-growing market for body-temperature scanners could exceed $1 billion in sales by year’s end, estimated industry publication IPVM, pointing to growth from businesses that had little need for the devices before the pandemic. Historically, the scanners were largely limited to airports, said IPVM, adding that demand could suddenly collapse in a few months if the pandemic eases.
The rising interest in screening body temperature has led makers to prioritize that business.
Flir Systems Inc.,
a leader in thermal imaging, said in February that its skin-temperature scanners weren’t a “large needle mover” for the company, in part because orders placed during previous virus outbreaks got canceled as concerns faded. Three months later, Chief Executive James Cannon called the burgeoning business unit “an extraordinary priority” that garnered $100 million in bookings for the first quarter.
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The surge in demand has put stress on the Oregon-based firm’s supply chain and manufacturing capacity. Flir, which buys components like circuit boards from outside companies, said it is working with
General Motors Co.
to shore up its store of parts. “We’ve been working really hard to bolster those suppliers to find alternate forms of supply,” Mr. Cannon said.
School Health Corp., an Illinois company that distributes medical supplies to schools, said it has fielded millions of dollars worth of inquiries for thermal scanners. Many schools anticipate temperature checks as part of the path to reopening, said Mark Peters, general manager at School Health.
Thermoteknix Systems Ltd. founder Richard Salisbury estimated the firm receives about 15 to 20 queries daily from U.S. educational facilities including universities and high schools. The U.K.-based company said sales of temperature scanners have jumped to 120 a week from five to 10 before coronavirus.
Businesses are turning to temperature checks as they plan to reopen and look to mitigate the risk of illness.
Ford Motor Co.,
which deployed more than 380 infrared thermal-scanning systems across 100 facilities world-wide, said the infrared devices provide an added layer of comfort for employees on top of other safety measures, including mandatory face masks.
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There is a “learning curve with any newly deployed technology,” a company spokeswoman said. The temperature scanners have produced a few false positives but also accurately identified people with fevers, she said.
In addition to Ford, thermal scanners will be used by, among others, Las Vegas casino The Venetian, the PGA golf tour and the Baltimore Ravens’ training facilities.
U.S. officials are preparing to start checking passengers’ temperatures at roughly a dozen airports. The temperature scanners would likely be a mix of tripods that can screen multiple people at once and hand-held thermal devices. Such scanners are already being used at transportation hubs and office buildings in China.
“As people begin to travel more, I think we’re going to start seeing an opening up of places [where] people were beginning to congregate or be able to be together,” said Bill Parrish, co-founder of Seek Thermal. The California-based infrared company said it has received inquiries from public venues, such as amusement parks and concert venues.
To prioritize body-temperature systems, Seek Thermal has had to delay other projects. The company also develops industrial, firefighting and other infrared applications. Seek Thermal said its temperature-scanning system currently accounts for more than 50% of its business.
Evolving demand from customers is raising the complexity of systems, Thermoteknix’s Mr. Salisbury said. Instead of stand-alone thermal scanners, some firms want to connect them with existing closed-circuit television networks, he said, raising cybersecurity and privacy concerns.
Requests from places like football stadiums pose another kind of challenge, Mr. Salisbury said, with fans entering through an outdoor entrance where humidity and temperature aren’t controlled.
More players are entering the market, raising concerns among industry veterans. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration treated such systems as medical devices and required premarket approval, a process that took months. In April, the agency said it doesn’t plan to block products that lack proper clearance to increase the availability of temperature-screening devices during the pandemic.
Manufacturers should still follow existing requirements on device performance and safety, an FDA official said. The agency recommends infrared temperature screening devices have an accuracy within 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
Public health experts caution against leaning on temperature checks to contain the coronavirus. “Screening is an imperfect barrier to the spreading of a pathogen,” said Alain Labrique, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Many in the industry recognize their products’ limitations. “It’s not going to give you the entire story, but it certainly can be helpful in keeping people when they’re not well away from other people,” said Seek Thermal’s Mr. Parrish.
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