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Fireside Chat with the Xperts: Armor Plate Inspection

As armor plate technology for body armor continues to advance, quality assurance tools for this life-saving equipment needs to improve as well.  At Creative Electron we are proud of the automated X-ray inspection systems now being tailored to meet the specific demands of armor plate manufacturers to insure the quality of these critical components of body armor.  That’s why this week’s Fireside Chat with the Xperts focuses on what we’ve been doing lately with this important application.  Creative Electron’s Carlos Valenzuela and Luke Balona discuss how our high resolution, automated X-ray systems are helping armor plate manufacturers improve quality while also enabling improved efficiency.

Enjoy the video, and then reach out to us directly with any question.  Register for upcoming Fireside Chats with the Xperts and view our archives here.

 

Transcript:

David Kruidhof:
All right. Well, it’s 10 o’clock. Means you know it’s time for another Fireside Chat with The Experts. I’m David Kruidhof, I’m here with Carlos Valenzuela and Luke Balona. And we’re going to be talking about body armor inspection. We recently had an article written about us for the armor plate inspection. So we’ve gotten a couple of questions since then. Get more specifics on it and what we’re doing in this industry. I invited our experts in it to share with us more specifics about it.

David Kruidhof:
Luke, why don’t you give us some background on the body armor industry for those who aren’t experts in the field. What is this, what do they do? Why do they need inspection?

Luke Balona:
Sure. Once again, I just wanted to start out thanking for Body Armor News for writing that article. It’s been a pleasure working with this industry and getting to learn it more.

Luke Balona:
With body armor, there’s a ton of different varieties and types of body armor out there that you can buy. Whether it’s for personal use or for military use. You have soft body armor, usually is like a fabric material and you wear it over your chest, usually strap it on. And then you have different types of plate armor, which is … you have steel, you have ceramic, you have composite. Or you even have like polyethylene, which is more like a plastic material. These are actually inserts that you will insert into a plate carrier. Have a vest with an open slot, and you can put the plates inside. Usually you have one on your chest, one on your back, and you can even put them in the sides if you’d like as well. There’s different levels of protection. It can be certified for level two, level three, three-A, three-plus, level four being the highest level of protection. And all that’s saying is what rating a plate can withstand, what caliber round can hit the plate and the wearer will be okay.

Luke Balona:
And there’s different certifications, whether they’re NIJ certified. But it gets kind of complicated with that stuff. But where X-ray fits in to all of this is that it just comes down to quality. We want to make sure that every end user of an armor plate is protected to the highest degree. So that any plate coming from the manufacturer has been measured, has been inspected, and has been given the okay to be used in the field.

David Kruidhof:
Okay. Makes a lot of sense. Carlos, Luke mentioned several different kinds of armor plates. Do they all benefit from X-ray? Are there certain kinds that really benefit more than others?

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah, we can speak with from personal experience, right? Or ask what Creative Electron is done so far. These are all part of this, well, they’re called SAPI, small armor plate insert. So basically, you have this vest and you have inserts. You have one in the front for your chest, you have some for your sides and your back. And they’re all meant to cover vital organs. Right? It’s not a full coverage. Right? Because these people are soldiers. They still have to be able to move and run. Sorry, I kind of sidetracked on the question, but …

Luke Balona:
That happens.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. Most of the ones that we’ve done so far, there’s some sort of a hard material, whether it’s ceramic or some new type of plastic, whether it’s Kevlar, things like that.

Carlos Valenzuela:
And when you X-ray these you’re able to see inside and you’re able to verify the integrity of this product, right. Whether some foreign object was introduced while it was being made, whether it’s actually … Right now, so far, we’ve been talking about new product, right? What about product that’s been out there for a couple of years, right? And you want to X-ray it again, just to make sure it’s still safe for a person or for a soldier to use. You can detect foreign objects, you can see cracks, you can see everything on any sort of plate.

Carlos Valenzuela:
They go from small, for a smaller chest size, to an extra large. And then the sides are actually a lot smaller. They’re more like four by four inches. And they kind of vary in size and material. Steel is not as common anymore as it’s too heavy. Most of them are become more of a kind of a very modern kind of plastics and like Kevlar and polyethylene, like Luke just mentioned earlier.

Luke Balona:
And yeah. And to elaborate on your question a little more, too, is, yeah, not all X-ray or not all armor plates need to be X-rayed. I don’t see steel being a very useful X-ray application. If there was some bit of corrosion or pitting, that would be an issue to the plate. You can probably see it digitally.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Well, what if it cracks? If it cracks, then you could X-ray it. If it’s cracked.

Luke Balona:
That is true. That is true. Because a lot of the steel plates that do have coatings on them. Yeah, so that could be … Yeah. It could be an issue … That could be an application, but I mean, like you said, they’re less common.

Carlos Valenzuela:
They’re becoming more modern. More protection with less weight, but more expensive.

Luke Balona:
Yeah, exactly.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. They get smaller, they get thinner, but they also protect against higher caliber rounds. But they’re actually becoming very expensive. Right? And one of the things that the government, all this, it’s like a bidding war. Who is willing to make these plates for cheaper? Right. You got to make the inspection process as efficient as possible. This is where someone, where equipment comes in.

David Kruidhof:
Speaking to that, how has technology improved with the last 10, 15 years to make that easier or to make it less costly from the inspection standpoint?

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. And that’s a great question. We at Creative Electron, we didn’t invent X-ray technology. We were trying to make it as good as possible and as efficient and to the average user. To my knowledge, I saw some pictures online of some of the original X-ray machines designed for armor plates. And they were huge and slow. And my idea was that they kind of needed to get revamped, right? Especially in this new era of digitalization. People want their data now. They want things to run fast. They want to see on live, how many plates that failed today, how many plates failed in this hour? All these sorts of things. A lot of the technology has been, one, improving image quality. Transferring from old school or digital, going to a digital detector over film or CR, which takes like a scanner and more of a longer process.

Carlos Valenzuela:
A scanner would take about two minutes to process a plate. Our technology can do it in six seconds or even shorter, right? Six seconds is just to optimize to get the best image possible. But aside from that, everything else that comes with it. It’s more efficient motors, faster computers, all that stuff. This is what the industry kind of needed. And so far we had a pretty good experience with customers. And the customer feedback has been great of some of the things that they didn’t know you could do with an extra machine.

Luke Balona:
And yeah, to touch up on something you said, as well, these armor plates, they are become more advanced. And with anything that becomes more advanced like that, the manufacturing process has to be more precise and it has to fit those demands. Your inspection equipment also has to fit the need. If you’re using older technology, you don’t have the proper imaging filters or the proper resolution. You might not be able to catch as much as you need to.

Luke Balona:
If you’re looking at a bonded two layers, like the bond between two layers, and you’re looking for foreign objects, for example. If there was something on an older system and you just couldn’t see it, you wouldn’t see that there’s a little break in that bond. If there’s a piece of fabric, it’s not going to adhere as well. And it could … I don’t mean to be morbid, but it could be life or death for the application. And it kind of has to … I don’t know, I guess your inspection has to match the advancement of the technology in the plates.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. And something, now you have this just state-of-the-art machine, right? Creating this digital image of your plate. Now you have endless tools to analyze this plate, right? Whether it’s AI, right. If your defects are weird, if they’re cracks and they’re not very … not on the same area, you can use this deep learning approach where you take a lot of pictures and the system starts to understand and learn what a defect looks like. You can do automated measurements.

Carlos Valenzuela:
It’s kind of endless the amount of the kind of information you can get from one image. We’ve done projects with AI where we detect cracks. We also done projects where we measure the plates. The need of a actual measurement tool outside of the X-ray machine, it’s neglected, right? We have with machine that can do inspection, measurement, and even, let’s say, sorting, right? If you put a plate and you expect to be a small, but you measure it and measures more like a large, then the system can flag it.

Carlos Valenzuela:
It’s so much information that it’s almost tailored to what the customer wants or what this specific customer needs. Right? You have all this information, you have all this data, what do you want to do with it? That’s what it becomes, right? You don’t want it to do too much and kind of slow down the process or over complicate it. But it’s up to the customer and the end user to decide what they want to do with it.

Luke Balona:
I think the most important part of that, just to build on that, is that the systems that we develop will do that fast. It gives you the speed to inspect every plate to that degree fast. It seems like a lot of times with X-ray technology, because it is such an old technology, people will use older methods. And while they can still work, just the speed and the degree of precision is maybe not as high as it could be.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think there’s any major bottlenecks on our system anymore. And I think if you want it to run faster, it’s a matter of sometimes of just getting a faster computer. You want it to be more efficient, get a faster conveyor belt. These things are … they’re easy. We’re not dealing with having to wait for an image to be processed that takes two minutes. The image takes a few seconds. So yeah, I think that’s a good point, Luke. And I think we have a pretty good technology here.

David Kruidhof:
One of the things, Carlos, you mentioned earlier on about inspecting. It’s not just at the point of manufacturer, but later in their life. What’s the reason for doing that? What’s the benefit of this re-imaging of these plates?

Carlos Valenzuela:
Sure. Yeah. And kind of when I was talking about this, I had a kind of like a deja vu moment when I was … me and my wife were expecting our first kid. Somebody handed us down a car seat and they’re like, “Oh, check the expiration date.” And I was like, “Why? The car seat has an expiration date?” And we checked it and it was expired. And it’s just things deteriorate over time. Right? You know the plastic’s more brittle.

Carlos Valenzuela:
And it’s not exactly the same concept here, but what that means is that if this plate was X-rayed five years ago, we don’t know what has happened to it over the last five years. If it’s made out of some sort of plastic, is it more brittle, is a less dense? And one of the benefits, if you have all this digital information, that means that if you X-ray it every year, you’re going to have a picture of it on a yearly basis. And you can see if it’s getting thinner, if it’s getting cracks, if it’s getting smaller just from wear and tear, kind of what it looks like inside. If last year it didn’t have a crack or if it had a crack that just barely passed your criteria. It’s almost like a glass, your windshield, right? It gets tiny and then the next day you’re like, “I think it’s the same size. I’m not sure.” Right.

Carlos Valenzuela:
But on this plate, you have two images, right? Is the crack getting wider? Is it getting longer? To a point where you can’t use that plate anymore. That is just from a kind of technical standpoint. But the reality is, is that these have to be recertified. It’s a mandated by the government. They have to get certified. It’s not just, “Oh, it will be nice.” They have to.

Luke Balona:
Yeah. Just laughing about your windshield, because I just was realizing I have a crack in my windshield. So thanks for bringing that up, Carlos.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. I can get you an X-ray machine for that.

Luke Balona:
Yeah. But that’s a good point, too, is, yeah, once the structure starts to be compromised, there are cracks being introduced into a plate, it’s not going to offer you the same protection. And that recertification process is important, because you could have an older plate. Maybe it didn’t get used as much and it is still fine. It’ll still offer the user protection. Or it could have been used and been in the mud and dirt and been stepped on and thrown around and it’s junk. And you don’t want to give that plate to someone going, “Oh, yeah, this is going to save your life.” When it has all these problems and is offering you much less protection.

David Kruidhof:
It sounds a lot like a motorcycle helmet. Right? I don’t think you’re allowed to buy or sell a used motorcycle helmet. That correct?

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah.

David Kruidhof:
Same principle?

Luke Balona:
Yeah. That’s what motorcycle helmet manufacturers do, as well. If you think your helmet might’ve been dropped and is compromised, a lot of them will inspect them and recertify them or tell you that they’re bad. Because when it comes to things like that, there’s really no substitute for having something that might be broken or might not protect you. And yeah, that was a great example, David.

Carlos Valenzuela:
I think nobody wants to associate their name to a used helmet. Right. And that’s something we haven’t discussed yet, helmets. Right now the topic’s more the armored plates, but helmet is another huge industry for X-ray certification.

Luke Balona:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. No, I’ve heard, I guess I shouldn’t say now, but I heard about police throwing their armor plates or their vests in the trunk and they’re just kind of tossing around. Or in the military, they … I don’t know if they actually pass off their plates when they end their tour. Those kinds of things where you don’t … I wouldn’t want to just pick up an armor plate and assume it’s fine if it’s been through someone’s tour of duty. Right?

Luke Balona:
Exactly. People that are in these extreme situations that are using these plates and this sort of protection, I would imagine the last thing they’re thinking of is, “Oh, I don’t want to break my plate. I don’t want to lay down too fast.” You know? I mean, they’re using them. And they do get tossed around and they are used. And just due to construction, if you’re dropping them, it could shatter. Or, not shatter, but it could be compromised. It could introduce cracking into it.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. And if we actually think about it, if there was a system where you can just get a new plate every month or something. And then the plate you had last month, it just gets recertified. We’re not talking about putting a lot of resources into making sure that this plate is okay, right. Instead of verifying it every year, what about certifying every month, right? If we made a very simple system, which we have, right? You don’t have to … If you get a plate today and you toss it tomorrow and it breaks, you’re not going to know until, who knows. Right. And that’s my experience, right. No, we’re not a … I don’t think anybody, neither myself or Luke or David’s, been in the military. That is just our input from outside source. Right. Trying to make it as easy as possible.

Luke Balona:
One of the things that there always seems to be something that surprises people about just our machines, in general, is a lot of people have this thing with X-ray where they think it has to be hard or it has to be a complicated process. But I think probably that our machines are so easy to use. And usually they’re really … They’re always user-friendly and light. And our form factor is typically pretty small.

Luke Balona:
So they don’t have to be these huge, daunting pieces of equipment. They’re really user-friendly actually. I just wanted to comment, because everyone is always so taken back whenever I’m showing them the machine. They’re always like, “Wait, really that’s it? You just press the on button?” I’m like, “Yeah, you just put it in and press the button.” And obviously, they’re not always that simple, but it can be that simple.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Exactly.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. And speaking of use. In all the industries that we serve, especially ones that aren’t as familiar with X-ray or it’s not as common in their industry, safety is always a concern. Right? You hear about X-rays, that means radiation. That means cancer, necrosis, there’s things associated with that. But these machines are very safe. Correct?

Luke Balona:
Yeah.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Do you want to go, Luke?

Luke Balona:
Yeah, sure. Yeah. They’re extremely safe. And the main reason why is because they’re closed cabinet X-ray systems. Our machines are leaded and double-leaded and have multiple interlocks to make sure that no door can be opened while X-rays are present. All of the radiation being created at the source is fully contained inside the cabinet. And we take strict guidelines to make sure that our machines make those requirements. And that there’s no radiation being transmitted out into the world. We’re always well below what the FDA requires us. I mean, these can be implemented basically anywhere. There’s really no too hard pressing regulations. And due to form factor, they can fit into a lot of spaces and it doesn’t have to take up half of your production floor to have an X-ray machine.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. And I think one of the misconceptions is just radiation in general. The sources we use are what’s called ionizing radiation. It produces radiation through a device that requires voltage. We control when that’s on. This is not radioactive material. You’re not going to open the door and then be exposed to it. It’s only on when we want it to. It’s basically the same as the machines at airports. Our machine for this industry looks like an airport scanner. It has a different technology, different capabilities, but from the looks of it, you will think it’s one of those. It’s very user-friendly, it has a conveyor, you put in your plate and it comes out the other side. Yeah, they’re very safe.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Like Luke said, they’re lined . They’re very heavy. That’s the only bad thing about it. Probably weighs 1,000 pounds. But aside from that, it’s safe. Operators around it are okay. And we re-certify it every year. So we go back, sometimes we go every six months, depending on the use, right. If they want us there sooner just to make sure that operators are trained and they’re using it as efficiently as they can. We can go as sometimes some clients want quarterly visits, some just do yearly. The state mandates us to go back every year, just to make sure that something hasn’t happened to the machine outside of normal operation.

Luke Balona:
Yeah. Typically what I would find funny when I would go and do these services is that there would be more radiation in the background than if I was up right next to the machine in the corner. Because they have this huge lead box that’s blocking radiation. And you would think that the X-ray machine would be creating radiation, not to the outside world. But it’s actually, it would be lower than just the background radiation.

Luke Balona:
I would just show people just to show them, because there is this like taboo thing about radiation and X-ray. People commonly make jokes and they’d be like, “Oh, well, am I still be able to have kids? Am I going to grow third eye?” I’m like, “No, it’s not like that at all.” The dose rates from our machines are so low. I don’t know. I always try to inform people that it’s much lower and there’s no taboo with radiation from X-ray machines.

David Kruidhof:
Yeah. I think most people are experiencing it if they go to the dentist, they got put on a big lead apron. And then the person leaves the room to turn it on. Right? Makes it very scary. But that’s a whole different kind of X-ray machine. Right. You’re talking about a room. Those walls are usually lined with some radiation safety stuff, material.

Carlos Valenzuela:
One thing to note real quick is that this industry, the armor plate X-ray inspection industries, it’s very established. The people that have been X-raying plates, they’ve been doing it for 20 years. They’ve been doing it maybe probably even longer. Right. What we’re trying to do here is just optimize this process that’s already been done. Just make it reduce … so let’s say an average time, it can take two minutes, let’s say. And now we can do it in 15 seconds, but we can also add defect detection, measurements. The taboo around or the fear of X-ray might not be there, because some of these people already have the experience with it. But it’s also good to know, right, what type of … how are we being safe with our systems and all that stuff. But I think the main objective of us getting into this industry was optimizing the process. Speed, data, and results, everything is just better.

David Kruidhof:
So we’ve been talking a lot about quality. We got time for one more question for you guys. Creative Electron obviously deals a lot with quality inspection for several industries, but another big area is counterfeit detection. Started a lot with counterfeit detection for electronic components. Now we’ve done it for lots of things, golf balls, for fashion stuff, but this can be used in armor plates, as well, right?

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. I think Luke had an experience in this.

Luke Balona:
Oh, yeah. There was an article published about there was a government contract that the government was buying armor plates from a company. And they turned out to be a complete different product from China that were not nearly as … It wasn’t what they paid for. We’ve been doing counterfeit inspection for a long time. And we really can implement it to like any industry. And whether it’s imaging like a golden sample that you know is an actual product and then running comparison software to make sure that they all look the same. Or whether it’s just there’s just a box of 1,000 plates and you run them all and it just tells you which ones look different. And then you can decide later which ones might be of concern or things like that.

Luke Balona:
But I mean, yeah, like I said, we’ve been doing that kind of stuff for so long. It’s kind of like second nature for us. And we do have quite a strong reputation with a lot of like our government contractors and anything government related, because we are 100% … We are made in the USA. And we do make our machines right in San Marcos right down the street from where we are right now. Everything is controlled in-house and there’s no like conflicts of interest or anything. We have no motives to be doing anything poorly.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Yeah. And it wouldn’t be a conversation in 2020 without bringing the pandemic to the conversation. Right? And with the current supply chain disruption, right, it’s always good to buy US-made products. We do the same. Right. We want to create jobs, help the economy, all that stuff. But it’s also, when you buying overseas, sometimes there’s that fear that you’re not getting what you want. Right? And the article that Luke mentioned was just they were just rebranded plates. I mean, they were plates, but they were just not what they were supposed to be.

Carlos Valenzuela:
And my experience so far is that even though all these companies follow government regulations, like they have to measure this, they have to do this, they have to take a round of this size. Every single company has proprietary ways of doing it. They might do something where their secret sauce, right, that will show up different on an X-ray image. Right? So this is where using our system, what kind of benefit in the counterfeit detection. Right?

Carlos Valenzuela:
And I don’t want to say counterfeit, but some say we’d like to use the word more suspect. Where one looks different than the rest. And I kind of touched on this earlier, where maybe it’s just a different category. Maybe you mixed in through the process a different type of plate with another one, but that is what we call suspect or could be a counterfeit. That’s where our technology can come in and help out.

David Kruidhof:
Awesome. Well, thank you guys. We’re a little bit past time, so I appreciate you joining me today in a Fireside Chat with The Experts. If anyone has any questions, you can post them. We’ll have this up on YouTube later today. So you can post questions there or you can just email us and we’ll be sure to get a response out to you. Thanks again.

Carlos Valenzuela:
Thank you, David.

David Kruidhof:
Bye.

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