Over the course of 2020, the US Postal Inspection Service reported over 8700 mail threat incidents and forensically analyzed over 125,000 suspicious mail packages. That’s more than double their average rate of reporting, which is about 10 incidents per day. So it’s clear that mail-borne threats are becoming increasingly popular.
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A quintessential piece of equipment for any mail screening system is an X-ray scanner, made by companies like VOTI Detection. They let you peek inside seemingly-opaque packages for any nasty surprises. But they come in all different shapes and sizes, and are made with various technological features and functions. It can be difficult to pick out what’s best for your organization unless you have a starting point for deciding what you want.
We’ll help you out by breaking down what you should look for in an X-ray mail screener, as well as introducing some of the top mailroom X-ray scanners on the market.
What is covered in this article
- 5 most common mailroom threats to scan for
- Types of mailroom X-ray scanners
- How to choose the right mail X-ray scanner for your needs
- Top 5 conveyor mailroom X-ray scanners
- Top 4 cabinet mailroom scanners
- Top 3 handheld mailroom scanners
- Other types of mailroom security equipment
- Great resources to increase your mailroom security
Let’s start by covering the main reason(s) you should want an X-ray scanner in your mailroom in the first place: the most common types of threats that are sent through the mail.
5 most common mailroom threats to scan for
Threats in mailrooms come in a number of different forms. Here are a few general categories of potentially dangerous mail, along with some quick summaries:
- Contraband: drugs, weapons, alcohol, certain foods, or other illegal/controlled items
- Explosives: plastics/liquids/crystals/powders that are detonated by timers, remote signals, or manual switches
- Chemicals: solids/liquids/vapors/aerosols meant to cause nerve damage, blood poisoning, choking, skin damage, etc. to recipients
- Biohazards: dangerous biomaterials used to spread contagious diseases or cause more small-scale, but immediate, harm
- Radiation: radioactive materials, often dispersed via explosives, to cause radiation poisoning and other ailments
See our post on types of mailroom threats for more complete explanations of the dangers these categories of mail present, as well as how to identify and properly handle them.
Also note that not all mailroom X-ray machines are equipped to detect all of these kinds of threats. Some substances need only tiny quantities to cause harm, which can make them so inconspicuous that they can’t be picked up by X-ray scanners (or human senses, for that matter). Your mailroom may need some special equipment to properly analyze packages for the presence of certain types of hazards. We’ll cover those other classes of mailroom technology later in this piece.
Types of mailroom X-ray scanners
Generally speaking, commercial X-ray machines used for security purposes (such as a package X-ray scanner) come in one of three forms.
Often seen at airports, this type uses a conveyor belt to feed objects through an X-ray machine to screen them. A conveyor X-ray package scanner is typically better at handling higher volumes of objects (due to the conveyor mechanism) as well as bulkier objects (due to its larger average size). However, it usually takes up more space and is not as precise as a cabinet-style scanner.
This type of parcel X-ray scanner is vertically-oriented as opposed to the horizontal orientation of conveyor scanners. It contains a closed chamber where an object is scanned, and in many cases – as a safety feature – the X-ray scan cannot begin until the door to the chamber is shut. These things make a cabinet scanner take up less space and operate more safely, respectively.
Cabinet screeners are also sometimes used in medical laboratories to scan tissue samples, so they’re quite accurate as well. Their main downside is that they are not very efficient at scanning large quantities of objects in succession. Objects must be put in the scanning chamber one at a time, and the chamber door closed, before a scan can begin.
Recent advances in X-ray technology have led to the development of portable, handheld parcel X-ray machines. These often make use of “backscatter” technology, which creates images based on measurements of radiation reflected back from surfaces struck by X-rays. In contrast, traditional X-ray machines typically use “transmission” technology. This pushes X-rays through an object and onto a sensor that measures the density of the materials the X-rays passed through.
There are several advantages to handheld parcel scanner machines, not the least of which are that they take up less space and can be moved around easily. By extension, they are valuable for screening parcels that are awkwardly-shaped, in tight spaces, or deemed too dangerous to handle. And backscatter imaging is good at detecting the organic materials that are often used for explosive, chemical, or biological threats and that traditional X-ray machines might miss. However, it’s not as good at picking up contraband and radioactive objects made of metal, or as thorough overall, as other types of X-ray imaging.
One more consideration is that backscatter imaging poses less risk of radiation damage to both operators and package contents. This is because it uses X-rays at frequencies that merely reflect off of objects, rather than piercing through them. Therefore, handheld scanners that use this technology are generally safer than other types of X-ray screeners. Still, care should always be exercised when using them.
How to choose the right mail X-ray scanner for your needs
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing the right equipment for securing your mailroom. Here are some points to mull over when you’re trying to figure out which mail x-ray scanner will be right for your company (or at least a specific facility).
What threats do you commonly face?
Depending on the industries you or your clients are in, some mailroom threats may be more common than others. For example, if you work with agricultural firms, you may see more biological and nuclear threats. Or, if your business is plastics and polymers, you may see more chemical or explosive hazards. Choose from a line of mail X-ray machines that are able to detect the kinds of threats you’re most likely to encounter.
How big are the objects you typically process?
Think about the largest size, on average, of parcels you deal with on a daily basis. Make sure the series you’re looking at can accommodate scanning packages of these dimensions (Hint: if you receive a package of unusual size or shape that you can’t fit in the scanner, it may be a sign that you’re dealing with something suspicious).
How much space in your facility can you afford to give up?
In some cases, it can be good to err on the side of caution and get a X-ray mail scanner that’s a little larger than what you expect you’ll need. But keep in mind that you’ve got your own space to consider, not just the dimensions of packages you want to scan. Make sure the series you choose will fit within the space you’ve dedicated for it in your mailroom or loading dock.
How much mail do you expect to process on any given day?
Time is another factor you’ll need to consider. Some series of package X-ray machines are good at efficiently scanning large loads of mail over short periods of time. Others offer more thorough scans, but have trouble keeping up with higher mail volumes. You’ll need to weigh the average amount of mail you scan every day against the sensitivity of the materials you’re handling and the likelihood of a threat.
Will a single-view or dual-view scanner serve your needs better?
A part of the time and efficiency calculation is whether you want to use a single-view or dual-view mail X-ray. Single-view scanners screen packages from one angle at a time, while dual-view scanners screen from two at a time. This means single-view screeners are less efficient (since you’ll have to scan the same item more than once to get different views) but usually less expensive. Dual-view screeners are more efficient but also more expensive.
Again, it usually comes down to your average daily mail throughput versus content sensitivity and threat likelihood. If you don’t handle much mail every day, and the types of mail you handle don’t put you at a high risk of handling something dangerous, you may be able to get away with just a single-view scanner. Be aware, however, that dual-view scanners may be mandatory in some places. So make sure you’re complying with any applicable regulations.
How to choose the right model
- Size – Again, keep in mind not only the sizes and shapes of packages you typically screen, but also the space you have available in your mailroom or loading dock.
- Technology options – You may have to choose between things like single-view or dual-view technology, or transmission vs. backscatter imaging. Your choice will depend on factors such as cost, the average size and volume of mail you process, and what types of threats you expect to encounter.
- Feature options – Units can come with all sorts of bonus abilities, like color-coding and zooming in on images, automatically detecting (and alerting operators to) specific objects or threats, requiring ID cards or other authentication systems to access, and even sending scans of identified or potential threats to appropriate staff members through email or push notifications. Choose a model with the features you feel will be most beneficial to your organization, based on what you do and how you operate.
- Ease of use – Remember that you’ll have to train employees on how to use the machine, so look for one that’s simple to operate. A model that has intuitive touch screen controls is best.
Top 5 conveyor mailroom X-ray scanners
These are some of the best conveyor-type mail screening devices on the market. Their larger sizes and adjustable-speed conveyor belts make them great for bigger mailrooms that process a lot of mail, or a lot of bulky packages.
Best for: parcels, bags, envelopes
Top features: “3D Perspective” technology automatically stitches together multiple images to provide the equivalent of dual-view detection while only costing as much as a single-view machine. Pseudo density layering allows for highlighting materials within certain density ranges, and quickly toggling between ranges. Multilingual capabilities allow for quick switching between multiple interface languages.
Best for: parcels, bags, envelopes
Top features: Dual-view system allows for scanning an object from multiple angles at once. Can provide automatic alerts if detecting objects over a certain density. Touch interface with the ability to display the previous 5 scans at once. Comes with uninterruptible power supply and power conditioner.
Best for: mail, parcels, hand-held baggage, luggage
Top features: Materials inside containers can be identified by their atomic numbers. Images can be magnified up to 96x. Able to handle loads up to 180 kg.
Best for: letters, parcels, pouches, bags
Top features: Comes with a trolley cart, equipped with vibration absorbers, that allows for easy transportation without needing to recalibrate. Trolley also comes with a storage compartment. HiTrax 3 electronics/software platform consistently provides clear and easy-to-interpret images.
Best for: mail bags, parcels, luggage
Top features: Able to scan for materials of a specified density and alert the operator if found. Able to discriminate between organic, inorganic, and metallic materials, including enhanced powder detection capabilities. Monitor interface for images allows for color contrast, edge enhancement, 360-degree rotation, and up to 64x zoom. 250GB internal storage allows for recording scan information and then forwarding it to email or saving it on an external storage device.
Top 4 cabinet mailroom scanners
These are the types of mailroom scanners you should be looking for if space is at a premium in your mailroom, or you typically have relatively low volumes of mail to process. You’re going to want a machine that’s small, safe, and precise, which is what these scanners are.
Best for: mail trays, padded bags, parcels, archive boxes, briefcases, backpacks
Top features: The onboard ‘Scanview’ image enhancement software features filters that help improve detection of low-density materials, such as liquids or powders. Images can be stored on the scanner or exported as files; the latter can then be printed, put on external storage devices, or emailed over the Internet.
Best for: purses, electronics, letters, mailbags, parcels
Top features: Very high resolution imaging. Its compact size allows it to fit on a desk or counter. Easy and inexpensive to run and maintain.
Best for: any objects smaller than 1.44 cubic meters
Top features: 22-inch touch screen monitor with 1910 x 1080 pixels resolution allows for clear image viewing. Built-in WiFi capability allows for emailing or printing scans. Heightened ability to detect powdered substances.
Best for: detecting powders and bomb components (detonators, batteries)
Top features: One of the largest cabinet scanners available but has a small footprint (less than 0.3 m). 3-point density alert system to identify high, medium, and low-density materials, including enhanced powder detection capabilities. Easy-to-use touch interface that allows for quickly saving, printing, exporting, or emailing images.
Top 3 handheld mailroom scanners
If you tend to handle a lot of potentially-dangerous organic materials in your mailroom, or need to scan some awkward objects on-the-go without necessarily handling them, then maybe a handheld mail screening machine would suit your needs.
Best for: vehicles, walls, furniture, aircraft interiors, packages
Top features: Self-contained, ready-to-use unit with built-in WiFi and a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 4 hours. A dedicated tablet computer that shows imaging in real time. Able to create composite images through manual image stitching.
Best for: environments that contain a lot of dust, water, or things that are unsafe to touch
Top features: Military-grade durability. Contains two swappable batteries for continuous use. Remote operation range of up to 1 mile. One-touch image capturing and filtering capabilities. Detachable handle on the sensor panel that allows for portrait or landscape image orientation.
Best for: motor vehicles, ships, aircraft, steel drums, trash receptacles, mailboxes, backpacks, packages
Top features: Able to scan through materials up to the thickness equivalent of 3 mm of steel. Lightweight at 8.1 lbs. Scans up to a square foot (30 cm x 30 cm) per second. Comes with a built-in video camera and flashlight.
Other types of mailroom security equipment
Oftentimes, an X-ray parcel scanner won’t be the only screening device you’ll need in the mailroom. While it’s good for detecting solid objects with distinctive shapes, It won’t always pick up every type of threat that you may encounter. For example, it can be difficult to tell whether things like liquids or powders are dangerous just by looking at them. And vision is virtually useless for detecting extremely low-density threats like toxic gases, harmful microbes, or nuclear radiation.
You will usually need specialized equipment to detect chemical, biological, nuclear, or even some explosive threats in the mail. Here are some of the other types of mailroom screening equipment you may need, based on the classes of threats you expect to encounter (which may, in turn, be based on which industries you or your clients work in).
Air sampling equipment should be installed at the loading dock as well as inside the mailroom. This will help to detect dangerous gases, vapors from toxic chemicals, and some biohazards. Ideally, your equipment should form a system that can be constantly monitored by security personnel while still being able to immediately alert employees (through an alarm, audio announcement, etc.) if there’s a problem.
SASS 2400 Low Volume Wet Air Sampler – This air sampling system’s claim to fame is its energy efficiency, letting it run unattended for extended time periods.
MAS 100 Eco – An affordable, small, and lightweight air sampling system that is commonly used in the food and beverage industry.
PCR screeners and negative pressure systems
The most effective way to check for biohazards is by using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) device. This uses dummy biomaterial, along with a heating and cooling cycle, to speed up DNA replication so that a small biological sample becomes large enough to properly identify.
Negative pressure workstations and/or room systems are also useful against many mail threats, especially biohazards. They work by continually forcing air out of an area, which lowers the air pressure and naturally draws air from higher-pressure areas into the area through a filter (or filters). This draws potentially contaminated air out of the area and replaces it with only clean air.
Purair SafeSEARCH Ductless Fume Hood – A negative pressure workstation used to filter possible contaminants (such as hazardous drugs, chemical vapors, and biomaterials) away from workers handling potentially-compromised packages.
Smiths Detection BioFlash MailGuard System – A biohazard detection system for mail that is easy to use, fast, and able to detect microbes almost as well as actual PCR tests.
Bio-Rad CFX384 Touch Real-Time PCR System – This is more of a laboratory-grade PCR device designed for rapid, high-throughput detection. Its touchscreen interface makes it also fairly easy to use.
Radiation pagers and scanning equipment
Your mailroom may also need nuclear radiation detection equipment, especially if you work in industries like medicine or agriculture that may regularly handle low-radioactivity materials. You need to be able to detect different types of radiation, as well as differentiate between safe and dangerous levels of radioactivity.
A constantly-monitored radiation detection system should be set up outside your facility and loading dock. In addition, employees should individually wear radiation pagers as an additional precaution.
Research International’s ASAP II – This is a customizable all-in-one suite of mail screening equipment designed to quickly and efficiently detect chemical, biological, nuclear, and explosive threats in the mail. It includes negative pressure rooms, uses minimal consumable materials, and requires little operator training or assistance.
STE Radiation Pager-S – An updated version of STE’s standard personal gamma radiation detector that is small, light, rugged, waterproof, easy to use, and affordable.
Great resources to increase your mailroom security
The Ultimate Guide to Mailroom Screening and Security — An all-in-one guide to why mail is screened, what threats to look out for, what equipment you might need for screening, and what your action plan for defending against and dealing with suspicious packages should look like.
Who Protects Your Mail? – A Guide to Mail Center Security — Mailroom security advice and resources straight from the USPIS.
Suspicious Mail: Characteristics of Potentially Dangerous Packages — Learn the common signs that a piece of mail may contain something dangerous. This will help you to act on potential mail threats as early as possible.
The Five Pillars of Mailroom Security — An overview of what types of organizations tend to receive the most mail threats, as well as how to properly manage your organization’s employees, standard procedures, training, technology, and emergency response plans to be as ready as possible for a suspicious mail incident.
Identifying and Dealing with Different Types of Mail Threats — Determining that a piece of mail is suspicious is just the start. Different classes of threats can require different responses, so it’s important to be able to make an educated guess as to what the nature of the danger might be.
Top 5 Myths in Mail Screening — In case you haven’t already been convinced to step up your mail-screening game, here are rebuttals against 5 common excuses for not improving mailroom security.
Mailroom Security: Best Practices and Screening Procedures — These are some security benchmarks that will help you keep your mailroom safe, no matter what kinds of threats you may encounter.
That concludes our guide to the best X-ray mail scanner machines available today. We hope this has given you a framework for deciding how best to address your organization’s mailroom security needs, and what kind of equipment you’ll need to do it. As a start, try browsing through VOTI Detection’s lines of X-ray screening machines to see if what they have to offer is a good fit!