Latest technology gives Harford firm a 3D view

The days of using two-dimensional X-rays to analyze body armor, troop helmets and projectiles have just been put behind Chesapeake Testing.

That's because Chesapeake, a small company with its own firing ranges and ballistics analysis equipment, has moved into 3D. The firm invested a few million dollars building out its capacity for the next generation in materials analysis: powerful CT scan technology.

The Belcamp company this year acquired a 225-450kV microfocus X-ray and computer tomography system — one of only three in the world made by its manufacturer, Nikon.

With this new CT scanner, Chesapeake can scan body armor that's been hit with a bullet, vehicle armor that's been damaged by explosives and even aircraft rotors with potentially microscopic defects — all in three dimensions. Analysts can look at the insides of composite materials and analyze individual fibers at microscopic levels.

With troops fighting abroad and falling victim to roadside bombs and gunfire, the Department of Defense ramped up its efforts to improve the quality of body armor for soldiers after a public outcry several years ago. Chesapeake has benefited in the rise of independent testing of personal safety equipment for troops and police.

"We saw a big uptick in the research and development of armors, with trying to get lighter weights, better performance," said Jim Foulk, Chesapeake's president. "These different manufacturers who have a new, better idea would like to get it tested" before they submit for testing by the government.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in 2009 highlighted the need for more stringent and independent tests to assure that the body armor the U.S. bought for troops was effective.

"The most important thing we can do for our troops on the front lines is provide them with the best quality body armor possible," said Maryland Rep. C. A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, a Democrat, after touring the facility last week. "The engineers at Chesapeake Testing are working every day to make sure that military's helmets and body armor are survivable, and that's something I support 100 percent."

Chesapeake, a 40-plus person company, is a spin-off of Survice, an engineering consulting firm in Harford County with 350 employees that was founded by Foulk in his basement in 1981. That company has both government and commercial clients.

Foulk said the new CT scanner opens up a wide range of markets for Chesapeake. In the past, doing scanning analysis with older equipment would have cost a few thousand dollars and taken more time to complete. And engineers and analysts would only have been able to analyze two-dimensional X-ray images.

But now, a CT scan can take a couple of minutes, cost just a few hundred dollars, and deliver three-dimensional imagery for analysis, he said.

The company has scored more than $1 million in the past for government work, mostly for testing of equipment for the Pentagon.

The scanner, which essentially takes thousands of two-dimensional X-rays and then assembles them all into a 3D image, has wide applications. For instance, Chesapeake can offer its services to aerospace and automobile companies, who are constantly testing new materials and parts for defects, Foulk said.

The scanner is powerful enough to discern individual fibers in composite materials, down to the level of a few microns.

Manufacturing engineers who have worked with Chesapeake on the scanner "never imagined in a million years they'd see this level of detail," said Chris Peitsch, a company engineer.

The scanner can scan objects as wide as 37 inches. The walls that surround it are reinforced with lead and steel.

James C. Richardson, executive director of the Harford County Office of Economic Development, said the county loaned Chesapeake $100,000 to help with capital costs, including the purchase of the machine, which cost $1.2 million. The company had to buy the scanner and build an addition to its office to house it.

Richardson said the loan to Chesapeake was made with the condition that the company use it to create several jobs. But it was also an investment in helping the company build its reputation in the burgeoning materials analysis industry, and help attract employees and other companies to the county, he said.

"We feel that the machine and the technology it brings to Chesapeake and Harford County will generate a lot of interest in working at this company or working near this company," said Richardson.

Leading Technology Composites Inc., a Kansas-based manufacturer of ceramic plates for heavy-duty body armor, has been testing its plates at Chesapeake for several years. The company now is deciding how it will use Chesapeake's new machine to improve its products, said Dean Richardson, a technical sales manager with the firm.

LTC needs to develop ceramic plates that can withstand multiple impacts from high-powered rifles. The 3D CT scanner will help the company analyze the way a large-caliber bullet cracks the ceramic. Richardson said the firm can then adjust the material and density of the plates in its manufacturing process.

"We're really just now trying to figure out how we can use this CT scanner to benefit us," said Richardson. "The goal is to keep that cracking down and defeat that second or third shot."

An earlier version misstated the cost of the scanner. The Sun regrets the error.

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