As healthcare demands rise, several companies have teamed up to build a modular solution intended to offer fast additional surgical or patient treatment capacity. Hunt Electric Corp., Bloomington, Minn., is at the center of the effort, embarking on a project that could generate hundreds or thousands of healthcare units.
Hunt first partnered with technology firm Synergy Med Global Design Solutions in 2019, and the companies now have eyes on healthcare’s future delivered in an intelligent pod devised out of a steel cargo box.
Synergy Med initially developed the pod system for military use in areas of conflict, and the company contracted with Hunt Electric to fabricate the mobile unit. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, however, the company pivoted the solution to serve as pandemic healthcare support. The company met with Hunt Electric to help develop and build the first mobile healthcare units. The Mobile Clean Cube Container’s (MC3) purpose is to provide a sterile modular office and patient-treatment space. The pod contains areas for patients and separates the sick from those at risk of infection.
It’s a long step away from its traditional services for Hunt Electric—a national electrical design, build and maintenance contractor established in 1965. Altogether, Hunt Electric employs 2,240 people, including about 700–800 electricians in the local Minnesota market. The roughly half-billion dollar company has three other offices in Duluth and Rochester, Minn., and Hudson, Wis.
In Hudson, Hunt offers a vast prefab site with more than 150,000 square feet of construction space. Nearly 75,000 man-hours were completed in the prefab space last year alone. Work focuses on projects such as conduit for a new GM automotive paint shop in Spring Hill, Tenn., and lighting work for Project Zero in Detroit. The company’s prefab products are installed in 41 of the lower 48 states, and regional electrical contractor partners usually install the prefabbed systems.
Hunt has been diversifying over the last few years. Part of that has been developing the mobile, multifunctional, self-cleaning containers now used in hospitals around the country. Hunt’s prefab site has space to build 12 units at a time and can produce them as fast as one per day.
John Axelson, Hunt’s president and CEO, said Hunt already builds solutions for the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Postal Service. Since the earliest Synergy pods were built with the military in mind, Hunt was a natural choice as a prime contractor to fabricate the pod. Prefabrication company Ridge Systems, a division of GE Johnson Construction Co., also built a unit at its site in Colorado, with Hunt acting as consultant.
“Synergy had asked us, ‘Could you work with us to build a prototype?’ and we took the gamble,” Axelson said. Because of COVID-19, “we had spare hands around, so we took that risk.”
The MC3 units now in use serve as clinical space or operating rooms. Each pod was delivered to a site and assembled and installed. Each unit starts with an empty, brand-new shipping container.
The units measure 40 feet by 8 feet by 10 feet and can be linked together for larger spaces. Each finished pod comes with HVAC, indoor and outdoor lighting, security and voice/data/video systems. The pods are hermetically sealable and can be fogged for sterilization on demand to eradicate viruses, bacteria and fungi. They also use GPS, RFID and internet of things technology for unit tracking, which can include the personnel, patients, instrumentation, equipment and disposables inside them.
Hunt provides all the building services and subs out the nonelectrical construction, Axelson said. That includes the mechanical work, carpenters, flooring specialists and painters. Hunt’s own electricians provide the power and lighting, security and temperature control systems. Each new container has doors for easy access by physicians and patients, along with windows—one designed for drive-up or walk-up service. The contractor’s team also builds in water hook-ups for fresh and gray water. Hunt even hires the rigger to place the unit at the customer’s site.
Hunt also installs the exterior lighting, lightning protection (in some cases), fire alarms and security, and the technicians include the Cat 5 cable for the low-voltage data needs.
This kind of project comes without models or examples to follow, so Hunt’s electrical engineers and designers worked with a 3D rendering up front, and faced some unique design challenges along the way.
“Trying to get the mechanical space was a challenge,” Axelson said, adding that end-users needed as much lab space as they could get, making the electrical hardware crowded at best. Otherwise “Hunt had the same constraints as you would find on any project,” such as gathering information from end-users to determine where outlets should be spaced.
One of the primary design considerations was how to make the unit flexible for a variety of applications, while building the units in large-scale volume. So the units came with demountable wall partitions to create examination rooms, drug-storage areas, laboratories or surgical procedure rooms. Since the unit is a durable, long-lasting device, it’s intended to be operable for decades and capable of serving multiple purposes.
Synergy also wanted a system where each pod could be located in real-time wherever it went. To make such location services possible, Hunt partnered with Better Building Data, Plymouth, Minn., to design wireless connectivity for the unit, and the company then contracted with Tampa, Fla.-based Silent Partner Technologies to install RFID technology in each pod to identify goods inside.
Synergy’s MC3 was designed so that, once the units are received, local electrical contractors can quickly take charge of hooking the system up.
Ben Foreman, then Hunt’s lead construction manager, would go to work for Synergy where he is now vice president of global production.
“We’re always going to need qualified electricians to install these things,” Foreman said.
Hunt is focusing on ensuring the design makes installation straightforward for that purpose.
“Even though they are not hands-on,” during the installation phase, Foreman said, Hunt’s design will “make it easier, for someone down the line to install it well and still turn a profit.”
Electrical contractors will be providing the hookup to electrical panels, pulling conductors and some wiring and commissioning.
“We’re trying to keep smart specialization on Hunt’s side so that installation could be done easily,” he said.
Inside, each finished unit is designed to look and feel like a lab space. Some users have indicated they prefer the space for lab work over traditional, windowless labs.
Construction began in August 2020, and the first pods were available in about four months in places such as Texas and Virginia. Thus far, Hunt and its team of subcontractors has completed about a dozen pods, including a combination of five containers designed to serve as one large space.
In the long term, hundreds of pods are ahead, post-pandemic, to provide surgical space for healthcare facilities separate from the hospitals themselves, the companies predict. In addition to COVID-19 response, the pods are configured for use in treating patients at hospitals, serving as emergency care units following disasters and for military conflict casualties.
For Axelson, watching the electrical contractor’s group pivot during the pandemic from its typical prefab work to the mobile units “was really motivating to see them pitch in, to develop a solution and have the willingness to help more than just themselves. There was a lot of excitement around that,” he said. “That was really important for me, especially at that time when we were trying to figure out what was next.”
The long-term plans are still yet to be made, but Foreman said, “Synergy is still working strategically and tactically how to best leverage the strength of different teammates. On the electrical side, that’s Hunt all day, every day. Synergy is also working with other partners who are essential to the pods, including installers. This isn’t a different type of construction, it’s manufacturing. You still need all the specialty folks.”
Long after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, Foreman said, “We see this being the long game,” and while the initial focus on containerized mobile solutions was born from the necessity created by the pandemic, “people can expect to see continued infection concerns.”
Some healthcare companies have asked Synergy for a large number of the units across the country with as many as 500 operating rooms. Development is on pause for now, but multiple times a week, Synergy and Hunt continue planning by looking at the supply chain and preparing for the growth ahead. Conversation is now around design development and capacity to meet the demand quickly.
Electricians at Hunt, Foreman said, “have skills, capacity and resources to get something like that accomplished. They have placed themselves to expand.” Production can ramp up very quickly, once contracts are signed. For Hunt, he said, “They could turn out one a day, without breaking a sweat.”