The leafy office park off Interstate 495 in Boxborough, Mass., feels a world away from the Ebola epidemic. And just exactly how the high-tech sensors Setra Systems Inc. manufactures inside fit into controlling Ebola isn’t immediately obvious.
But if you happened to see the Dateline NBC Matt Lauer special called “Saving Dr. Brantly,” the story of how Samaritans Purse Ebola patient Dr. Kent Brantly had his life saved at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, you would have seen Setra’s products repeatedly playing a quiet but critical role. They’re the sensors next to the doors of the isolation rooms where Ebola patients are treated that ensure the air in those rooms remains isolated from the hospital at large.
“In the case of any infectious disease, you want to keep the contamination from the patient from getting out of the room,’’ David Carr, Setra’s general manager, explained in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “You want to negatively pressurize that room so that any air from outside is drawn into the room, keeping any disease contaminants from getting out and infecting others.”
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The air-pressure-monitoring devices Setra makes typically sell for about $800 to $1,600 apiece, and along with selling them with its own brand name, Setra also sells them as part of building-ventilation-control systems installed by German conglomerate Siemens, Phoenix Controls of Acton, Mass., and others.
“It's a very simple installation,’’ Carr said. “Just cut a hole in the wall, place the device there, and there's a tube that goes to the inside of the room and a tube that goes to the outside of the room” to compare the relative pressure inside and outside the room. Typically the tubes are connected to an electric-outlet-plate-sized silver panel on the wall with a button cover. They can also be networked to a nurse’s stand or building-manager monitor to send alarms when the pressurization has gone out of whack.
Setra has over the years installed more than 22,000 of the monitors in more than 3,000 hospitals, and Carr said inquiries and sales have “absolutely” spiked amid the Ebola scare as more hospitals seek to prepare more rooms to be available for patients.
Besides hospitals, Setra systems are also widely used in super-clean computer chip manufacturing centers and pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical laboratories.
When it comes to technology devices at the price point of Setra’s monitors, you’d often assume it would be far more cost-effective to actually manufacture them in a much cheaper part of the U.S., or in Mexico, or in China.
But the story of why Setra’s manufacturing in Boxborough is a classic example of when and why it pays to make it in Massachusetts.
“We've been able to get very efficient at manufacturing these products right here in Massachusetts, where we want to collocate our manufacturing with our engineering,’’ Carr said. “We have to maintain very tight tolerances with the products we manufacture. The pressure levels we are talking about are down as low as 0.02 pounds per square inch. We have a very high-precision, high-accuracy device. and that's not always easy to manufacture, so we wanted to have our engineering team right near our manufacturing team just in case there's any assistance they need to ensure we're shipping the right quality for what in this case is a very important application to get right.’’
With videographer Abbas T. Sadek and video editor John J. Hammann