Making the very best balloons
A bunch of years ago, my friends' son, then still probably 6 or 7 years old, ran up to me one day to ask, "Where do they make balloons?" The question was inspired by a song with that very name by They Might be Giants. While the song never answers the question that it poses, he didn't let that bother him at all. He knew I'd know the answer. And he was right. I immediately told him, "Hamilton, Ontario." I could have easily given him a few different answers, but that was the one that mattered to me. The Hamilton plant is where most of the Qualatex balloons that I use come from. After years of using the product, I was really excited when Kelly and I were invited to the plant for a tour. We've often found ourselves in conversations with Pioneer employees (makers of the Qualatex brand) about the abuse we put their balloons through, and also other artists about what they expect from the balloons they use. This tour would be a chance for us to get our questions answered about the product itself, while being able to share our experience and our knowledge of balloon artist needs with the people actually making our balloons. When their tour ended, we took them on our tour of what we do with their product. We had Pioneer employees, from the people making the balloons, to the people testing their strength, to the sales team, and even the COO, all twisting balloons and trying new things that they didn't know their balloons were used for. The goal of all of this is to make an even better balloon by devising an even more rigorous quality control regimen than they already employ.
How are latex balloons made?
We can break this down into a few general stages:
Rubber trees, specifically the Hevea brasiliensis variety, are scored, allowing the latex to flow and collect in buckets. This is somewhat analogous to tapping a maple tree for syrup. And, like in the collection of maple, no harm is done to the tree.
The collected latex is shipped to the plant where it's tested and adjusted to make sure it's consistent with the latex product used for all balloons the factory produces. Being a natural product, some variation is expected over time, like with any fruits or vegetables. Quite a bit of effort goes into ensuring consistency from batch to batch.
Pigments are added to the latex to create the huge range of colors used for balloons.
Forms are dipped into vats of colored latex and then run through large ovens to cure the rubber.
Balloons are packaged and shipped out for use. Well over a million balloons can be produced in just this one plant each day.
A video of the process can be seen here.
How are balloons tested?
We were impressed when we saw the number of quality checks balloons go through before they ever reach us. With somewhere on the order of 100,000 balloons being used by our studio each year, and the millions I've used so far over the course of my career, I think I have a pretty good handle on what constitutes a good quality balloon. But I had no idea what things the quality control and quality assurance staff watch out for in order to flag bad balloons. That's because, for the most part, we never see them. Sure, the occasional balloon gets through that we wish didn't make it into our bag, but the rate at which they find their way to us is tiny. This is an item made from a natural ingredient that changes with every batch. When you watch the process and see the volume, it's unbelievable just how many good balloons are produced.
I know. As users of any product, we all want perfection. That's why it was great to see they do too. It was an eye opener to see just how much work they put into catching anything that goes wrong.
Random samples are pulled by hand from every box of balloons that comes off a line. They measure the thickness of the balloons in different places to check consistency through the balloon. They measure lengths and widths down to millimeters to make sure that they're within reasonable tolerances. They inflate balloons and visually inspect them under bright lights for flaws. In the case of twisty balloons, they fold and twist them to stress them trying to make the bad balloons break. They even leave inflated and twisted balloons for a bit to see if they lose air after they're inflated, carefully keeping track of which box these balloons came from. If any tests result in failures, more balloons are pulled and tests are repeated. So concerned about bad balloons getting through, that even a small number of bad balloons found in a large box results in hand sorting the batch. And too many bad balloons in a hand sort results in quite a bit of product being pulled before it can be passed on to consumers. A number of bad balloons even results in stopping the line completely, locating the cause of the problem, and pulling anything that may have been affected by the problem.
When we asked for more specifics on what problems they look for, we were shown a training manual with photos of almost every conceivable mistake that can come off the line. Most of what we saw in the book was stuff we've never seen reach us in the bags we've bought. We were even shown sample bags of flawed balloons that they save for training. They gave us a chance to see what flaws we could recognize just passing these samples through our hands.
How well does this testing work?
I could go on writing about how great Qualatex balloons are without identifying flaws, but you'll soon accuse me of being a shill for Qualatex. So let's step back and see what things look like in the real world. To a decorator transforming a room, every bad balloon costs time when the job has to be completed before the guests arrive. To a balloon twister at a festival, a popped balloon can be devastating to a child in line and can change the mood of the rest of the crowd. To an entertainer on stage, a single popped balloon can throw off the timing of a routine. So any bad balloon is a bad thing, and we all know some of those balloons reach us. It's inevitable. The testing is on samples of balloons. It simply isn't possible to test every balloon without raising the cost by at least an order of magnitude. And the testing they do is largely based on tests that were devised years ago when twisty balloons were used to make dogs. So, to make things better, you need to sample more balloons and devise newer twisting tests that stress the balloons in the ways we use them today. They've already implemented the former, and we made suggestions on the latter that we think will make a difference.
The amazing thing to us was hearing that they are aware that problems are getting through - at a higher rate than they like, and the individuals working the lines were really looking to do something about this. It never felt like the attempts to fix things were due only to corporate policy. Obviously a business needs to produce the best product it can to be successful. But these were individuals asking for help in improving their product. They could have easily, and justifiably, told us that after decades of doing this work, they know their product and are doing the best they can. They didn't. They were intentionally asking outsiders for different ways of looking at this product that they know intimately. I'm an artist. I produce one item at a time. I had this image in my head of factory workers churning out mass quantities of balloons and never noticing or caring about individual pieces. That old image has now been replaced.
What affects the behavior and quality of balloons?
Let's say balloons leave the factory as perfect as possible and a problem still arises. How often are those problems due to a bad balloon being missed before packaging, and how often does a problem turn up further down the line? Think about all of those times you've carefully selected fruit in the grocery store, only to get home and find you have a bruised apple, or your disappointment when you see the banana that turned brown before you got to eat it. It turns out, balloons aren't all that different. They too can break down -- it depends, just like fruit, on how they are handled and stored.
We asked about things that can go wrong, what we should watch for, and what we should do to improve our success with the balloons. The three biggest factors we discussed were:
Temperature - Balloons are very sensitive to temperatures, first during manufacture, but then in our hands as well. When it comes to storing the balloons, whether for use on an upcoming job, or being tucked away because you'll want them down the road, try to keep them in a cool, consistent temperature.
Exposure to light - Nothing breaks down balloons faster than bright sunlight. Leave that bag of balloons on your porch or the dashboard of your car and it won't take long before they're useless. Keep them in a dark closet, and they'll probably serve you well for a while.
The stability of the balloons - They're a natural product. They don't last forever. Still, they can last years if stored correctly. We make a point of rotating our stock when possible so the older balloons are used first, but we have a few older balloons in colors that are no longer produced. Most of those have still performed reliably when needed.
Considering those factors when storing your balloons can help a lot. But there are some things we have no control over. Even the time spent in a delivery truck, something that's completely out of our control, may have an impact on our balloons.
What came out of this visit?
Overall, the visit was very educational for all of us. Kelly and I learned a lot more about the production of the balloons, what we can expect from a bag of balloons, why and when things go wrong, and just how much effort goes into quality-checking our balloons. The plant employees learned more about our needs, how we use Qualatex balloons today, and even learned how to make a few things themselves.
I've taught a lot of balloon twisting classes over the years. I've taught artists that were learning to a use a new medium. I've taught people with no previous art training that could see a balloon as a toy that they ultimately were able to create with. Teaching this group was a unique experience. They already knew how to twist the balloons, but not how to create with them. They didn't have the fear of balloon popping that so many other people have when they get started. They were genuinely interested in applying their knowledge of balloons to making things with them. And, like our suggestions making a difference in the way they test balloons, they were able to point out why some balloons broke in the middle of the class we were teaching. At one point, several balloons in a row broke and one of the QA people grabbed the bag the balloons came from and quickly jotted down the lot number so she could look into what may have gone wrong. The experience really made me feel good about using a product made by people that care about their end users' experience.