Manufacturing Partnership is Key to Launching New Intermodal Cargo Container
U.S. Navy takes delivery of an innovative cargo container that detects breaches on all six sides
Ensuring the integrity of intermodal freight--cargo that's moving by any combination of truck, train, ship, or aircraft on a single journey--has never been easy for manufacturers, particularly in the years following 9/11. Since then, private companies and government agencies have poured billions into efforts to boost the security of intermodal freight. Now, after several years of research and collaborative development, Tamper Proof Global Systems Corporation (TPGS) and Granite State Manufacturing (GSM) say they have the answer--a "tamper-proof" intermodal cargo container that can detect security breaches on all six sides of the container, rather than just through the floor, walls, doors, or ceiling. The U.S. Navy accepted delivery of the new container earlier this summer, in what is reported to be the Navy's first acquisition of an intermodal cargo container capable of providing "absolute cargo security for high value freight."
As an intermodal product, the TPGS/GSM intermodal cargo container is designed and built to withstand the rigorous thermal, vibrational, and torsional environments of land, sea, and air transportation. "The intermodal nature of it is that you can put it on a truck, and then a boat, and you can fly it in a helicopter if necessary," said GSM President Glenn Lawton in an interview. It can be retrofit into existing container fleets and is said to detect breaches in the container down to 2mm in size. It also provides real-time data monitoring and alarm capabilities that can integrate with virtually any communications network.
"Our 17 patents have allowed us to solve a problem that has vexed the shipping industry and governments for decades," said TPGS Chairman Dr. Gilbert D. Beinhocker, in a statement announcing the delivery of the new product. "We are looking forward to applying our technology to secure our nation from the present threats posed by lax container security."
Granite State Manufacturing employs a proprietary manufacturing process that lines all six surfaces of the container with an advanced electronic textile sensor system and makes it easy to convert an existing intermodal cargo container into a tamper-proof system. "The TPGS/GSM technology encapsulates the volumetric space of the cargo container with a sensor-filled network that provides 100 percent awareness of the security of the contents of the container," Beinhocker said. The heart of the system is a robust fabric sensor, positioned to detect entry from any side. That's an important differentiator from other detection systems, according to Lawton, who said that most other systems are aimed merely at determining whether the doors to the container have been opened or not.
"We feel that's a very inferior way of determining whether the container has been tampered with," Lawton said. "Our system is six-sided, so it determines whether there's been a breach in any of the sides, including the doors. That, in itself, is a superior performance attribute, and a much more robust determinant of whether somebody's broken in than whether they just came through the door."
The unitary technology underlying the patents is a binary (pass/fail) three-dimensional fuse, which signals an alarm in the absence of a live, continuous signal. Although Lawton calls it "just a simple fuse," he also says it's an innovation that arose from trying to find a simpler detection method than trying to use a complex set of RF signals to scan the inside of containers. "The main innovative leap was to rely on a simpler, more elegant solution," he said. "Instead of trying to master the complex and difficult comparison of active RF signals, our system just measures simple continuity to determine tampering."
Lawton explained that other six-sided detection systems rely on multiple RFID tags that are placed inside the container to determine whether a tampering event has occurred. As the RFID tags "talk to each other," transmitting signals back and forth, a change in RF signal strength may indicate that the container has been tampered with. But the complexity of those systems has its disadvantages, he said, explaining that RFID based systems are more likely to produce false positive alerts when the walls of the containers flex in response to the high-vibration environments that are common in intermodal transportation. "That seems awfully complicated to us," he said. By contrast, the TPGS/GSM system covers the entire inside surface of the container and it doesn't rely on RFID tags talking to each other. If somebody drives a hole in the panel or attempts to get in, they break continuity on a wire, and the system will alert. "Our solution is simple; if you break a wire, it alerts," he summarized.
The system's alert communication capability can be integrated into any existing or new global container tracking networks, according to Lawton. It can also alert via a standalone Iridium phone dialer or a local Wi-Fi network. Because of this flexibility in communication, TPGS and GSM are envisioning its use by anyone currently utilizing any degree of global container tracking, whether military or commercial, as well as by anyone protecting valuable cargo that does not have access to an existing network.
Design Meets Manufacturing
The 20-foot-long container comprises 24 panels, analogous to 24 individually fused rooms in a house. Each 4- by 8-foot panel consists of a Sefar wire fabric sensor, sandwiched by protective coatings (TuffcoatA and TuffcoatP) on one side and 3M Reinforced Polyurethane Foam Board (20-9CWR), which Lawton describes as a type of "plastic plywood," on the other. A protective coating is also applied to the foam board, a strong, lightweight material consisting of high-density polyurethane foam reinforced with fiberglass and woven roving.
One of the priorities when designing the detector panel sandwich, Lawton said, was to use materials with similar coefficients of thermal expansion (CTE) to ensure that the panels would stand up to the temperature extremes to which intermodal containers are exposed. Because of their material composition, he added, the panels don't absorb water, nor do they bend or otherwise change shape with variations in temperature.
"The detector panel sandwich was designed so the materials have similar CTEs and don't fail when there is temperature change," he said. "The attachment of the panels, cabling, and electronics packaging were designed for the temperature, vibration, and flexing environment expected."
Tamper Proof Global Systems came to GSM for help in bringing the product to market after several years of development aimed at perfecting the fabric sensor, the protective materials, and the conceptual design. Granite State Manufacturing ended up designing the manufacturing processes for creating the sensor panel sandwich, attaching and cabling the sensor to the electronics, and attaching the panels to the container. After completing the manufacturing and testing, GSM presented the first container to the Navy in June.
Procedures and processes are in place to begin mass production at GSM's Manchester, N.H., facility, where the company employs more than 120 people at an 80,000-square foot plant that offers precision machining, metal fabrication, welding, soldering, and mechanical and electronic assembly, as well as painting, testing, and packaging. "We will be making all of these systems in the U.S.A.," Lawton said.
Granite State Manufacturing, a division of the Allard Nazarian Group Inc., has considerable experience in new product introduction (NPI), particularly in the manufacturing of complex electro-mechanical systems for the military, medical, semiconductor capital equipment, and green power generation markets. Explaining that GSM makes "other people's products," rather than products of its own design, Lawton describes the company's niche in manufacturing as "primarily program management of complex electro-mechanical programs on a contract basis."
"One of the things that we do is work together with people who have interesting products that we might be able to manufacture, to bring them to prototype or past prototype into first build stage, which is where we are with the container systems, and our relationship with TPGS," he said. "We try to partner with our customer's engineering department and we basically try to become our customer's manufacturing department. So we work together with their engineering team to value engineer--redesign for improved value, whether it's reliability or cost--and make sure we can ramp up and ramp down based upon different, changing market needs."
Much of the company's work involves the manufacturing of products for the military. "We make antenna systems for submarines--both towed arrays that go out the back of a submarine, as well as mast mount antennas," said Lawton. "We also make robots for bomb detection in Iraq and Afghanistan." But GSM also makes the frame system for an emergency room PET scanner (Positron Emission Tomography scanner). "We make all kinds of complex electro-mechanical devices that require a lot of management of subcontractors, as well as management of configuration when the design is changing," he said.
One of the company's customers, a manufacturer of electronic test equipment, recently decided to increase GSM's production of a complex assembly that had previously been manufactured and assembled in the Philippines. But on the whole, GSM is active in markets--military and commercial--that typically don't lend themselves to offshoring, for reasons ranging from national security to product complexity and quantity, and what Lawton calls "the liveliness of the design change environment." In these markets, the technical interaction of the manufacturer and the design house is much more important than it is for "people who suffer the time and distance penalty of going offshore," he said.
"In our commercial markets, the things that we make are usually at the beginning of the lifecycle of the product, so our customer's design engineers are actively redesigning," he explained. "The customers and markets we serve are generally in the stage where there is substantial interaction between the customer's design engineering and our manufacturing engineering, either because the product is at the beginning of its lifecycle, or it is inherently customizable for different markets, or it has some other aspect of change. And we're not really in the business of making things that are consumer based--in the quantities of millions. As a result, we are generally less susceptible to offshoring."
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