Enhancing Safety and Security in CNC Machining: Trace Detection of Narcotics and Explosives

If you haven’t run across discussions of trace detectors for narcotics and explosives, you will soon.  As we look back on the last decade, it’s truly remarkable to witness our growth trajectory in the field of trace detection for security and defence. We’ve seen our sales in this sector more than triple, reflecting an average annual growth rate of just over 21%. This robust expansion in our business mirrors the wider market trend. The niche market for trace detectors for narcotics and explosives, in which Macfab has been instrumental since the early days, is also burgeoning, with an average growth rate close to 9%. By 2030, it’s projected that the annual budgets for explosive and narcotics trace detectors will reach a staggering $3 Billion.

Narcotics and Explosives -Not an Odd Couple

The two may seem like strange bedfellows, but there are ample reasons for narcotics and explosives to be associated.  Law enforcement is keenly interested in both, while bad actors use similar methods to move them around.  That leaves law enforcement tracking similar quantities which are often treated in similar ways by the people moving them -they’re secreted in hidden spaces and strong-smelling substances like ground coffee are often used to mask their presence.

Drug-sniffing dogs are of limited value in many circumstances.  Chemical-based detectors can be quicker, less invasive, and notably more accurate.   Ideally, such detectors could be built into border crossings, for example, to scan every vehicle passing through without anyone having to exit the vehicle or run manual scans.  Another significant advantage is the potential to change or add specific chemical markers as the substances used by both drug and narcotics traffickers change.

CNC Machining Safety

Macfab has spoken previously here about our early involvement in this field.  Our unique commitment to not just precision machining with difficult materials, but also our focus on cleanliness and cleanroom procedures puts us in a unique position to advance this market.

This really is leading-edge technology.  The probes have to get close enough to the areas where target chemicals might be hidden.  They detect at levels of only a few parts per billion, but the further you are from the source, the faster that concentration drops off to undetectable levels.

Explosive and Narcotic Trace Detection Going Forward

It’s unclear how monitors like this might look in the future.  If the goal is to build them into portals like walk-through metal detectors or border gates, they may rely on air jets to bring enough of the chemicals to the sensors.  Drive-through sensors may have to be combined with handheld probes to cover the internal areas of vehicles.

High energy detector streams by means of radioactive or laser sources can be monitored by artificial intelligence to determine in real-time if tell-tale chemicals are present.  In many ways, this will be a natural outgrowth of other technologies that have been evolving rapidly.

Tomorrow’s detectors will deal with vastly larger samples and perform more comprehensive testing on the environment.  It’s reminiscent of Moore’s Law that states the number of components in a CPU of a given size will double every two years or so as technology advances.  For half a century now, engineers have heralded every new success as the beginning of the end of Moore’s Law.  Each advancement is more difficult than the one before, and they see no way to push the technology that much further.  But someone else finds another way and our capabilities continue to grow despite ever-smaller devices.

The accuracy, precision, and complexity afforded by CNC machining work exactly the same way.   As we learn, our machines continue to give us improved accuracy and speed, better tooling, control, and metrology.  Any idea that we’ve either

  1. Pushed the technology as far as possible, or
  2. Reached a point in precision we’ll never need to pass,

Is nothing but conceit.  Macfab knows this.

Precision is the name of the game.  We can’t skip steps or assume someone else will do them right.  Macfab is often called in to establish protocols and procedures for CNC machine shops that don’t even realize when they’re missing points.  We develop detailed procedures that yield consistent results.  Those details make all the difference in advancements at this level of sensitivity.

When you need to take the physical application beyond where it’s ever gone before, you exhaust everything you know and then look for something untried.  That’s where Macfab excels.

Quick Response Manufacturing In The Machining Industry

Hurricanes, pandemics, political upheaval -in a world as interconnected as ours, major events -even isolated to a relatively small area- can throw production for a loop.  We now understand better how fragile supply chains really are.  CNC machining on demand, like any other complex manufacturing process, has to rely on quick-response manufacturing principles.

The Supply Chain as We Knew It

In the past, economies of scale fostered concentrations of similar activities.  US automotive production moved to the South, chip manufacturing to Taiwan, and clothing to Vietnam.  This type of ad hoc organization resulted in population centers with similar skills and training.  It made hiring easier because there were more people in the area that were familiar with the type of manufacturing common in that area.

Then Russia invades Ukraine and suddenly Northern Africa can’t get the wheat they need.  A hurricane hits Puerto Rico.  That would seem to be a very isolated event.  The effects stretched far beyond the island, though, when Hurricane Maria obliterated most of the US’s production capacity for IV bags, saline drips, a host of medicines, and medical implants.  And of course, a pandemic threw every conceivable supply chain into chaos.  At best manufacturing was disrupted for months; more often it was years before things returned to normal.

The Growing Pains of Quick Response Manufacturing

Through all of this (and more), manufacturers have struggled to meet their commitments and satisfy their customers’ needs.  Steel for an order may be stuck on a boat for months, so start looking elsewhere for a replacement.  Engineers in some cases had to substitute materials they could get for those they couldn’t.  While many aspects of business may grind to a halt following an event, the needs never stop.

When the pandemic hit and hospitals couldn’t find enough ventilators, Ottawa began a massive effort to manufacture new ventilators here.  Macfab was part of that effort.  We had to locate the required materials, and we did.  We helped produce those ventilators in record time.  That’s quick-response manufacturing.

When one of our customers suddenly receives a huge order, Macfab might have to turn on a dime to accommodate the new production.  That CNC machining on demand relies on software to schedule the machines, manpower, and resources the job requires.  Our purchasing team relies on decades of experience to find whatever materials are needed, and in the end we bring all of the components together and make sure our customer is taken care of.

That Which Does Not Kill Us

That’s one of the reasons we’ve been purchasing new 5-axis mills and 9-axis Swiss turning machines; they can turn around complex finished products faster and more accurately than anything else.  We’ve always focused on local suppliers as possible, but now we’ve made that a priority.  New measures from Ottawa have also given all Canadian manufacturers incentives to rely on local suppliers for materials and partner with local companies.  The aftermath of the pandemic and the actions in Eastern Europe have led our operation to become more resilient.  Companies like Macfab that fully embrace these quick responses to deliver CNC on demand will have an easier time rolling with whatever the next challenge happens to be.


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The Expanding Role for CNC Machining in Hybrid Manufacturing

It’s a time of tremendous change in manufacturing.  Composite materials like carbon nano-fibers and new polymer resins are replacing metals in some circumstances. Additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) is gaining new capabilities every day, with new materials becoming available and new applications coming to market. Meanwhile, CNC machining continues to expand with new axes of movement, robotic feeding, and AI monitoring and measurement.

Hybrid Manufacturing with Additive Manufacturing

Macfab is increasingly working with additive manufacturers who need levels of precision not available with those processes. They will print a part using whatever materials are required, then we will mill, tap, refine, and provide the necessary surface finishes.  That’s hybrid manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing has some inherent issues. It’s slower than CNC machining -especially on larger parts. And while both technologies run on the same CAD data files, the nature of 3D printing with its layered application produces files that are significantly different from CNC machining files for the same part. Policing the CAD data as the parts move from process to process calls for special software.

Another problem is the shrinkage inherent in printed metal parts once they’re sintered. Then of course the layered printing, while fine, is not artifact-free. CNC machining can address these issues. The fully treated component can be milled to final dimensions with the highest possible accuracy and surface finishes can be refined as needed. Other features such as screw holes can be tapped and features too fine to print can be milled on the part.

Hybrid Manufacturing with Composites

Composite materials have taken over many roles once reserved for metal, especially in the aerospace industry. Composites provide several benefits over metal. In the field of commercial and military aircraft, weight savings is a major consideration.   Resin-based honeycomb panels are a fraction of the weight of even aluminum while providing superior rigidity, sound, and thermal insulation. Composites are used extensively on the new Boeing 787, making up half of the plane’s weight.

Composites, too, rely on CNC machining. Composite panels can be formed to fit a specific application but may require CNC machining to refine edges or cut other features for a proper fit. It’s common for composite-based parts to require CNC machining to clean up joints where two subcomponents are fused together. Adhesive or sonically welded joints can require milling down to maintain design specifications.

Machining composites is often more difficult than metals. Composites often contain glass, carbon, or other abrasive fibers which can quickly dull end mills. They are often harder than metals as well, resulting in higher vibration rates during milling. We have to address those concerns with powerful CNC machines and short tool lengths, as well as adjusting spindle and feed rates.

The combination of these new technologies with CNC machining has served as something of a springboard. It has allowed the new materials and technologies to step past issues which would otherwise have had to be resolved before they could be put to mainstream use.


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