The next time you’re filtering through airport security, consider that the equipment scanning you and your luggage was likely produced right here in Maryland.
Smiths Detection, with its U.S. headquarters in Edgewood, is the world’s leading supplier of an array of tools used to detect weapons, explosives and chemical threats.
“Talk to any of our employees, we take great pride in keeping people safe,” said Mike Castek, site head of the Edgewood plant. Smiths Detection employs roughly 230 Marylanders, about 10 percent of the global division’s workforce, operating within United Kingdom-based Smiths Group.
While the majority of Americans will interact with a Smiths Detection scanner or x-ray machine at an airport, products also cater to elite security groups like the United Nations’ Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Weapons inspectors used Smith Detection products during their most recent investigation of chemical warfare in Syria. The group’s mission helped secure them the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
The focus on chemical weapons detection is part of the rationale behind its Edgewood location. Aberdeen Proving Ground, just a stone’s throw from the plant, houses the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, which uses several Smiths Detection products. Military and first responders to chemical threats have utilized the company’s unique Chemical Biological Protective Shelters.
“It’s crucial to be close to our customers and to be able to get the products to the right place as quickly as possible,” said Brian Boso, chief scientist at the plant.
Leadership at the Maryland location also take advantage of their proximity to Washington, D.C.
“We talk to the CIA, TSA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and the Department of Defense on a constant basis, trying to work with them to figure out what the future threats are and to develop new techniques,” Boso said.
“Unfortunate events” have contributed to Smiths Detection’s rapid growth in recent years, company leadership said.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, threat detection equipment represented a very small portion of Smiths Group’s global operation. Through acquisition of another company, it then produced 100-150 desktop explosive detectors per year. Three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, the Transportation Security Administration placed an order for 6,000 desktop explosive detectors to be issued at airports across the nation.
“It’s a very event-driven industry. As the terrorists change their mode of operation, we have to adapt,” Boso said.
Increased demand for security equipment caused Smiths Group to name Smiths Detection a separate division in 2003. In recent years, the Edgewood plant’s footprint and workforce has doubled.
Smiths Detection was at the forefront of developing on-site detection tools for “white powder incidents,” often suspected of involving anthrax, he said. More recently, the company has developed a scanner for liquid, which will enable TSA to restrict only threatening liquids carried on by passengers, clearing harmless ones.
The Edgewood plant’s workforce reflects the changing face of new-age manufacturing, where the laboratory is as important as the factory floor.
A large number of employees are electronic test technicians, who typically have a two-year associates degree with an electrical engineering focus. Members of the research and development staff tend to have advanced degrees.
“It can be a challenge sometimes to find highly technical scientists, but we’ve been able to take advantage of Maryland’s educated workforce and also attract people here,” Castek said.
As opposed to historic perceptions of a dangerous factory, Smiths Detection’s next-generation manufacturing methods focus on protecting the employee.
“The workplace is designed around the people as much as it’s designed around the equipment, which was not the case years ago,” Boso said. “We pride ourselves that our products help keep people safe, so we certainly don’t want anyone getting hurt building our products.”
Smiths Detection is poised for growth in Maryland. Already, its technology is used at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, BWI Fire & Rescue Department and fire departments in Harford County, Cecil County, Prince George’s County and Baltimore City. Multiple courthouses and federal buildings in Maryland also use Smiths Detection weapons scanners.
Boso said the company is well integrated with governmental and public safety institutions across the country, but there are new opportunities emerging in commercial and critical infrastructure markets.
Corporate headquarters, schools, mass transit stations and prisons are becoming customers for threat detection equipment, including x-ray machines, metal detectors, scanners used to secure checkpoints.
“We see a fair amount of expansion in those areas, for sure. Smiths is optimistic about the future market,” Boso said.