Monday, October 31, 2016

'Making the Very Best Balloons,' by guest blogger Larry Moss

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.



The tour begins.

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.



Bare forms used to make 260Q balloons.


Bare forms used to make 11" round balloons.
Over time, the forms that have become scuffed and damaged are repaired and polished.


A worn form can be seen next to one just recently polished. It's critically important to have a smooth form. Forms are regularly inspected for imperfections.


Racks of forms of different sizes and shapes are ready to be used to produce more balloons.






A long term employee, skilled in color, adds pigments to the latex to make the rainbow of colors we're used to seeing.


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.


260Q balloons on freshly dipped forms.





260Q balloons before their necks are rolled and the balloons are stripped from their forms.


A sheet of rubber that will get ground up and used in the inks that are applied to printed balloons.


This fun splatter of colored latex on the side of one of the dipping tanks gave us an idea of what colors have passed been used in the past.


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.




Boxes of balloons are sifted through by hand.


Individual balloons are spread out for inspection.


Random samples from every batch of balloons are pulled out using a statistically valid method, inflated, and twisted to ensure they behave as expected.


The checklist for every box of balloons is quite extensive. If any flaws are found, that checklist is used to locate the problem on the line.


Balloons from every box are randomly drawn for inspection.


Many of those balloons are folded and twisted.

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 up- coming 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.


Various tests are done in the lab, measuring the sizes of balloons carefully to make sure they match the standards that have been set.

The thickness of balloons is also examined to determine if they are within acceptable tolerances.

We noticed these mirrors scattered throughout the plant as a reminder to all employees that they play an important role in the quality of product shipped.

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. 


About Larry Moss

LARRY MOSS began his career in 1985 as a NYC street performer, but has gone on to display his amazing air-filled art in over a dozen countries on four continents. His achievements have been recognized by The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, CNN Headline, PBS, Smithsonian Magazine, American Profile and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Moss has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, NBC’s “Today” and at the White House, and has set two Guinness World Records. Larry is the author of many published ballooning books and founder of BalloonHQ.com, a resource that services the balloon industry and communicates with over a half-million visitors annually. Larry also has a degree in applied math and computer science, as well as a master’s in elementary education from the University of Rochester.  Building community through his large-scale art creations is of particular interest to Larry, and was the focus of his 2009 TEDx talk in Rochester, NY.

A big thank you to Larry for sharing his experience on his recent tour of the Qualatex balloon production plant in Hamilton, Ontario, Canda. 

Happy Ballooning!

Sue





Monday, October 24, 2016

Tips and Tricks of the Trade - Part 2


Learning how to do things easily or in a better way can take many years of trial and error. I know this well as I have been learning for the past 26 years! "Tips and Tricks of the Trade" is a series of posts that will help you with a variety of different techniques that will make life easier and your work look better.

In Part 1 of this series, Chris Adamo, CBA, of Balloons Online, in Sydney, NSW, Australia, shared some fabulous techniques for filling latex balloons with confetti and also how to easily apply vinyl to foil and Bubble Balloons. To view this post, click HERE

One of my favourite tricks is to cover a base board* using the same Microfoil® balloon that I am featuring in a design.


How to cover a base board.

Here are two designs I made that use a covered base as part of the design. The covered base helps to create visual balance, good proportion, and perfect unity.







Here is another example of a design using the same technique. This time, I used two different techniques to create this double-layered base board.























* I like to use various sized cake boards as a base board. There are two types: flat and drum boards. The drum board is thicker, which can look more substantial than the flat board.






There are two different techniques for covering a base board.

Foil covered base board
For this technique, you will need:

  • A Microfoil balloon that complements the design you are making.
  • A cake board that is smaller than the overall size of the foil balloon. 
  • Double sided tape. 
  • Scissors.

You must remember that the foil balloon is merely stretched over the board. Therefore if you try and secure anything to the covered board, you may find that it is not stable. If you want to ensure stability, you will need to cut away the foil underneath the item that you are trying to secure using a sharp crafting knife and then glue the element directly to the board.




Latex covered base board
For this technique you will need:

  • A latex balloon that complements the design you are making.
  • A cake board that is smaller than the inflated size of the balloon that you are using to cover it. A 9" cake board works will an 11" balloon; if your board is larger, you will need to use a 16" balloon.
  • Tape.
  • Balloon Pump.
  • Scissors.
This technique has its limitations. Because the balloon is latex, you cannot pierce through the balloon to secure any of the elements to the board. I simply use this technique to place my design onto, which gives my design unity and a complete look.



I love both of these techniques and have used them for many of the designs that I have made. I believe that giving a centrepiece a unified base makes a design look more complete.

Tips and Tricks of the Trade - Part 3 coming soon!

Happy Ballooning!

Sue
www.suebowler.com






Monday, October 17, 2016

Tips and Tricks of the Trade - Part 1 with Chris Adamo, CBA, of Balloons Online.

We all have our own ways of doing things when it comes to working with balloons. We learn in different ways and often find our own technique along the way. Over the past 25 years, I have learned many great techniques and some fabulous tips and tricks that have made my life much easier and my balloon designs look even better. But as I always tell everyone, I am still learning and love it when I see something exciting and new!

Chris Adamo, CBA, of Balloons Online, in Sydney, NSW, Australia, has very kindly shared a few of his top tips.


Confetti-filled balloons are a hot trend worldwide, and finding an easier way to make these balloons was Chris's mission!






Confetti applicator:

"In our Sydney store, we sell confetti-filled 16" and 36" balloons every day. After trying many methods for over 12 months, I just knew there had to be a better way. The problem was that confetti was sticking to the Hi-Float® from the moment we placed it inside the balloon. The confetti clumped, the ink was running, the paper confetti was ripping as the latex stretched... we needed a way to add confetti once the balloon was inflated. Driving to work one day drinking a coffee, I came up with a method that was simple, cost effective, and that uses very accessible parts. I rushed home that night to build it!
The confetti applicator requires little to no training for my staff. It has halved the time required to fill and inflate the balloons, but most importantly, you can achieve a perfectly even distribution of confetti every time."
Confetti Balloons by Balloons Online.

This first video shows how to make the confetti applicator.





This second video shows how to use the confetti applicator.






Chris talks about the Clik-Clik™ Slide-n-Size system on his video clip. This is a great tool that enables you to size up to 2 balloons at one time. It can even size a 36" balloon. To find out more, visit www.clik-clik.com











Whilst we are on the topic of using Hi-Float, are you aware that Hi-Float makes a great spider's web inside a latex balloon? It's perfect for Halloween designs! Sean O'Kelly, CBA, of Balloon Decor in Mont Albert North, VIC, Australia, recommends adding a little food colouring or neon paint to the Hi-Float to make the webs stand out a little more!







This video with Keith Burchette of Hi-Float shows how to make a spider's web inside a latex balloon.




Vinyl transfer to flat foil balloons:

"We love our vinyl cutter. It has opened up a whole new product offering to our clients. The ability to turn around personalised balloons to both private and corporate markets is a game changer. We quickly developed a method to apply vinyl to un-inflated foil balloons. Why did we do it?
1. You can prepare the balloons days, weeks, or even months in advance.
2. You can measure and align the vinyl to be placed in the exact spot on the balloon while it's flat. We have even made cardboard templates that go over the balloon with measured points of reference for the application. 
3. You can post flat-packed, pre-printed foil balloons to your clients. 
4. You can have spare pre-printed balloons ready to go with you on-site."


About Chris Adamo. 



Chris is the founder of both Balloons.net.au and the online order relay business Balloons Online (www.balloons.com.au), with a network of more than 27 partner businesses around Australia.

He was introduced to the balloon industry more than 20 years ago, and proudly established his own business in 2004. Drawing from a background in IT, design, and construction, driven by a thirst to continually reinvent the wheel, Chris offers a diverse range of specialties and products to his business and clients.

Chris entered the 2015 ABC large sculpture competition, received 2nd place in the OzJam 2016 sculpture competition, and was featured in the American balloon industry eZine, “Elevated Events” in 2016. Chris teaches balloon décor, framing, and business systems for the Australian industry associations. He will represent Qualatex for Q-Tour in 2017.

Running a very successful business with 4 full-time staff and more than 5 casual staff, Chris and his team specialise in the Australian corporate market, and have long-lasting relationships with some of Sydney's largest event coordinators and stylists. Chris prides himself as being the trusted, reliable, and creative choice for balloon gift and décor, pushing the limits with balloon design.

His skills include: Large Sculptures - Framing - Vinyl Printing - Social Media - Google SEO - Online Marketing - Websites - Business Systems - Efficiency & Management - Balloon Drops - Corporate Relationships.

A huge thank you to Chris for sharing these fantastic tips and tricks of the trade. I am sure that these will help many of our readers! Tips and Tricks of the Trade - Part 2 coming soon!

Happy Ballooning!

Sue



Sunday, October 2, 2016

Day of the Dead - Design Ideas for Halloween 2016

Day of the Dead House Decoration
Picture courtesy of fieldguide35.blogspot.com

I am loving the new Qualatex® Day of the Dead Skull Microfoil® balloon. It is very different from the usual Halloween designs of witches and ghosts. 
Not really knowing or understanding this theme, I was intrigued to find out the origin of this celebration.  Day of the Dead — Dia de Los Muertos— is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico (in particular, the Central and South regions) and by people of Mexican ancestry, especially the United States. It is acknowledged internationally in many other cultures, too. This multi-day holiday gathers together family and friends who pray for, remember, and support the spiritual journal of loved ones who have died. 

I really enjoyed working with this balloon. The skull design is full of colour and detail that can be used when creating a design. From all the pictures that I see, Dia de Los Muertos is a very colourful celebration that uses masses of flowers, lights, and decorated sugar skulls.





Design 1-  Sugar Skulls & Marigolds


Material List:

1 - 38" "Day of the Dead Skull" Microfoil.
8 - 5" Onyx Black balloons
4 - 11" "Sugar Skulls" balloons
5 - 6" Quick Link Balloons®
4 - 5" Goldenrod balloons
3 - 160Q Green balloons
2 - 260Q Goldenrod balloons
1 - 160Q Goldenrod balloons
1 - 260Q Purple Violet balloons

Balloon Weight 
Helium 

Method of Construction:

1. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 11" Sugar Skulls balloons inflated to approximately 8".
2. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 5" Onyx Black balloons inflated to approximately 4½". Secure the two clusters together and add the weight to the base.
3. Inflate the five 6" Quick Links to approximately 5" and tie together to create a chain.
4. Make Split Duplets Clusters* using the 5" Goldenrod balloons to fit in between each of the Quick Links. 
5. Connect the chain of Quick Links to the base clusters.
6. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 5" Onyx Black balloons inflated to approximately 4½".
Secure this cluster to the other end of the Quick Link chain.
7. Inflate the Day of the Dead Skull Microfoil balloon with helium. Add a scrap of a 260Q to the balloon to work as a connector. Now connect to the 4-balloon cluster.
8. Complete the design by making three 6- Petal Balloon Flowers using the 160Q and 260Q Goldenrod balloons. Use the Purple Violet 260Q to make the flower centres and the Green 160Qs to make the leaves. Secure these to the design.

*If, you are unfamiliar with how to make a Split Duplet Cluster, view the video clip below.





Design 2   Sugar Skulls & Flowers Elegant Column

Material List:


4 - 11” Sugar Skulls balloons 
8 - 5” Onyx Black balloons
1 - 646Q Onyx Black  balloon
4 - 11” Onyx Black balloons
1 - 38” "Day of the Dead Skull" Microfoil 
3 - 260Q Goldenrod balloons
1 - 160Q Goldenrod balloon
4 - 160Q Green balloons
2 - 260Q Purple Violet balloons


Method of Construction:

1. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 11" Sugar Skulls balloons inflated to approximately 8".
2. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 5" Onyx Black balloons inflated to approximately 4½". Secure the two clusters together and add the weight to the base.
3. Inflate the 646Q balloon to an approximate length of 30" and secure to the base clusters.
4. Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 5" Onyx Black balloons inflated to approximately 4½".
Make a 4-balloon cluster using the 11" Onyx Black balloons inflated to approximately 6". Secure these two clusters together and then connect to the end of the 646Q balloon.
5. Inflate the Day of the Dead Skull Microfoil balloon with helium. Add a scrap of a 260Q to the balloon to work as a connector. Connect this balloon to the top of the clusters that you just added to the 646Q balloon.
6. Complete the design by making four 6- Petal Balloon Flowers* using the 160Q and 260Q Goldenrod balloons. Use the Purple Violet 260Q to make the flower centres and the Green 160Qs to make the leaves. Secure these to the design.


Both of these designs are quick to make, appealing, and very sellable. These would be perfect additions to your Halloween portfolio of designs.


Happy Ballooning!

Sue
www.suebowler.com