NIJ tests body armor for performance, durability
A National Institute of Justice (NIJ) program is providing critical oversight to give confidence that recently manufactured ballistic-resistant body armor will perform similarly to armor samples previously tested and deemed compliant with Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor, NIJ Standard 0101.06.
Now in its second year, the Follow-Up Inspection and Testing (FIT) Program continues to provide this essential service by successively comparing the construction of newly made armor with samples previously tested under the Compliance Testing Program (CTP). Both programs are administered by NIJ’s National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC)-National.
“The FIT Program has accomplished what we wanted it to from the inception — it provides that additional set of eyes and ears into the manufacturing process to ensure that what is coming off the assembly line is manufactured the same, and more importantly performs the same, as what was originally tested and found to comply with NIJ standards,” says Lance Miller, NLECTC-National director. “We want to ensure that the men and women who wear these vests on a daily basis have as much confidence in these products as we can possibly give them.
“We’ve already had a couple of scenarios, or instances, come up in the FIT Program that have called out performance issues with certain models of armor,” he adds. “Program staff at NLECTC and NIJ have worked actively with the affected manufacturers to identify the root cause of that problem, and in cases where it was a significant issue, manufacturers voluntarily take immediate action to recall and replace units or take some sort of corrective action out in the field.
The follow-up program is the latest improvement in the progression of the CTP, under which the designs of armor models are thoroughly documented before being put through a series of tests to verify that they comply with the standard. Models that comply and enter into the FIT Program are added to the compliant products list (CPL) posted online on the NLECTC website. Manufacturer compliance with NIJ standards is voluntary.
The FIT Program applies to armor models found by the NIJ CTP to be compliant with the latest version of the standard, published in 2008. Under FIT, periodic surprise inspections are conducted, during which independent inspectors pull production armor samples and send them for testing and inspection.
Follow-up inspection and testing has two aspects: performance testing and construction inspection. Each month, the CTP prepares a list of armor and locations for follow-up inspection, based on the number of models a manufacturer location currently has on the CPL that have not been inspected within the past 10 months.
Labs send the follow-up ballistic test results and the tested armor samples to the CTP for inspection. The testing and CTP inspection are used to ensure the vest is built the same way as samples submitted for initial compliance testing. The multiple inspections, both before and after production begins, results in greater confidence that production armor fielded to practitioners meets the requirements of NIJ Standard 0101.06.
Some models of ballistic body armor are initially manufactured for a single contract and not produced again for a significant amount of time. Unfortunately, this resulted in the CTP not analyzing production samples for comparison with samples initially tested for compliance. To address this issue, the FIT Program includes initial product inspection, which requires that follow-up inspection occur as soon as a model is listed on the compliant products list and production begins.
The first follow-up inspection was conducted in September 2010, and inspections continue today. Through December 2011, inspectors had completed 75 inspections of manufacturing locations and pulled 191 models of ballistic-resistant armor, according to Jamie Phillips, NLECTC conformity assessment coordinator. Of those models, three sustained multiple perforations during laboratory testing, resulting in a manufacturers’ total recall and replacement of more than 1,750 fielded armors to ensure that practitioners had effective ballistic body armor compliant with NIJ Standard 0101.06.
During the same period, inspection discovered seven major construction variations that could impact ballistic performance. Major construction variations include, for example, a difference in the number of layers in a vest between the follow-up testing samples and the original samples, or leaking covers that allow water to penetrate to the ballistic panel. Inspection also identified 32 minor construction variations, which means the deviation does not affect ballistic performance. In response to documented variations, manufacturers worked with the CTP to implement quality control improvements at several manufacturing locations to prevent additional variations.
Inherent to the FIT Program is additional communication and interaction between body armor manufacturers and the CTP.
“It has given us an opportunity to work more closely with manufacturers to ensure that the armor that is fielded is more likely to comply with requirements,” Phillips says. “I believe manufacturers initially had concerns that the FIT Program would be a significant burden to them in labor, materials and ultimately financially. However, keeping in mind that additional production costs (such as follow-up inspection and testing) would likely be transmitted to practitioners, we attempted to strike a balanced approach, one that would provide additional value (in confidence), while not being cost prohibitive. Over the past year, I think those fears have been alleviated significantly. We’re not working in isolation. This allows manufacturers to express their concerns, and we in turn are able to explain the reasons behind our decisions and how those decisions support the law enforcement community as a whole.”
Body armor has been credited with saving the lives of more than 3,000 law enforcement officers since the mid-1970s, when NIJ began testing body armor and developing performance standards.
Major changes are not anticipated for the near future, but staff will work on fine-tuning the FIT Program as it evolves.
“I think we view it in the same light as the entire Compliance Testing Program,” Miller says. “We view the standard itself as a living, breathing document that is flexible and can adapt to changing trends in industry and new testing methods, and I don’t see the FIT Program as any different. We obviously have learned much. As we continue this dialogue with manufacturers, we continue to learn more about the body armor manufacturing processes and how quality management in that industry works, and as we learn more, we are going to adapt the program.”
Standard revision. NIJ has laid the groundwork for the process to revise the 0101.06 ballistic-resistant standard,and a Special Technical Committee is scheduled to begin work on the revision in July 2012.
“It’s good we are staying on the three-to-five-year revision cycle with the body armor standard and applying the things we’ve learned from the 0101.06 standard and the FIT Program,” says Alex Sundstrom, NLECTC-National testing coordinator. “We’ll roll that into the revision, and as the revision process goes along, we become much smarter on how to operate the program.”
BA 9000. This is a body armor quality management standard that is an extension of ISO 9001, a standard for quality management from the International Organization for Standardization. If a manufacturer’s location is certified to BA 9000, it provides greater confidence that the armor is being produced consistently. Compliance with BA 9000 will be inspected by accredited certification bodies. The NIJ ballistic body armor CTP is working with ANAB (ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board) to develop the applicable accreditation rule in order to accredit interested certification bodies.