The world of inflatables today extends far beyond the back yard jumping castle and offers solutions for industries beyond the use of entertainment and advertising.
When it comes to inflatable products, many people think of bouncy castles, parade floats or dancing tubes used for advertising. But the world of air-supported structures, or inflatables, extends far beyond the use of entertainment and advertising to industrial, military, architectural and aerospace applications.
Whether they're used as a portable shelter or a payload landing on Mars, air-supported structures offer numerous benefits over traditionally built alternatives. "Typically, inflatables are a more elegant engineering solution because they are simple by design," says Thad Fredrickson, manager of materials development for ILC Dover in Frederica, Del. "In addition, they require fewer mechanical parts, and they pack tightly and take up very little volume."
Inflatables provide some eco-friendly benefits as well. "In today's world when energy and its conservation are in the forefront of development, inflatables offer a low-energy production alternative to comparative products," says David Abramowitch, Managing Director of Giant Inflatables Industrial, a division of Giant International in Braeside, Victoria, Australia. "This advantage is growing by the use of recyclable fabrics, water-based coatings and low-energy fans and blowers."
Such advantages have prompted a host of manufacturers to explore possibilities in inflatable products. Abramowitch formed Giant Inflatables Industrial, which produces air-supported structures for industrial and safety markets, after winning an IFAI Achievement Award in 2007 for a custom project. The massive, transparent, inflatable PVC wall his company crafted for Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia, served as an alternative to a brick-and-mortar construction, which the overhead structure could not support. The geodesic-style wall was designed to protect visitors from winter weather at the outdoor entertainment complex.
Soon after that project, Abramowitch contracted with a large, multinational company looking for help with inspecting its furnace that burns corrosive materials for the production of steam. The process often damages the insulation, which then falls as refractory debris from the furnace walls. The client had in mind a bouncy castle-style product to catch the falling pieces. Giant Inflatables Industrial's solution was FallStop®, a sturdy inflatable platform fitting within the furnace that is remotely deployed from outside the danger zone. In addition, the product doubles as a variable height inspection platform.
"We developed a composite material hybrid that included a base fabric of stainless steel woven mesh that was then made into a hybrid laminate," says Abramowitch. The platform's composition also includes a rugged PVC-coated nylon surface layer. "It's a difficult skin to pierce," he says, "and it can fold up tight to get in and out of the small access door."
In addition to the safety platform, Giant Inflatables Industrial focuses on three other types of inflatable products. One type of product involves those that create and modify space, such as buildings, shelters and booths that are self-supporting with a lightweight footprint. Common uses include portable workshops, soda-blasting booths, and triage or emergency-response shelters. Another is comprised of duct, tunnel and shaft closure, and isolation devices. A third type of product encompasses industrial operations, including molds and plugs for fiberglass and refractory requirements, towers for antenna-placement testing, observation platforms and lighter-than-air platforms. The most popular materials that Giant Inflatables Industrial uses for envelope construction are PVC-coated nylons and polyesters; vinyl coatings offer weather protection, air retention, mildew resistance and easy cleaning.
WHAT TO CONSIDER
The fabrics, coatings and finishing of inflatable products all contribute to their successful operation. In terms of selecting materials, Giant Inflatables industrial lists these important characteristics:
- Tensile strength in both warp and weft of the fabric
- Tear and rip resistance to reduce accidental damage
- Coating adhesion to the fabric under all conditions of operation
- Weathering resistance and the ability to easily clean, including resistance to UV degradation, abrasion resistance and retention of physical properties after long periods of exposure
- Suitability of the material for joining techniques, which retain the full strength of the base material and integrity and properties of the coatings
- Pliability and flexibility to prevent damage during packing, storage and handling, as well as ability to shape conform to applied pressures and forces
- Fire-retardant properties and flame spread resistance to meet fire and safety codes
- Translucence or opacity, along with insulating properties as the application require
- Coatings, meanwhile, contribute to an inflatable's pliability, weather resistance, durability and color/opacity.
HOLDING IT TOGETHER
A crucial step in the production process and in ensuring a product's performance is the joint design. Most manufacturers use radio frequency (RF), applied–heat welding or cementing. Some products are also sewn, though Abramowitch believes that method will eventually fall out of favor.
Based in Fortville, Ind., Genesis Plastics Welding™ is a contract manufacturer that specializes in RF welding of thermoplastic products and components for companies in markets including medical, military, automotive, marine and consumer. The company employs its proprietary RF sealing technology, ecoGenesis, which allows welding of polyethylene, polypropylene and nearly any low-loss polymer in any combination of film, foam, woven fabric and nonwovens.
"The technology is ideal for the replacement of PVC and polyurethane with 'green' phthalate-free plastics, as it causes polymers with high dielectric loss factors to respond to RF welding just like PVC," explains Tom Ryder, vice president of sales and marketing. "ecoGenesis also aids in cost reduction, as it eliminates the need for expensive heat-seal additives and enables the substitution of lower-cost raw materials."
The technology's eco-friendly approach is in line with what many manufacturers and fabricators seek today. "By manufacturing with phthalate-free plastics, companies can decrease their carbon footprint and promote healthier manufacturing practices," Ryder notes. "This process also produces a consistently uniform, high-quality weld that facilitates cost reduction and enhances the long-term performance of our customers' products."
As technology continues to evolve in the world of inflatables, so will the markets and opportunities. "The need for reliable, lightweight and compact shelters that can be rapidly loaded and deployed will be ever growing," Abramowitch says. "Inflatable products are the only things that meet these requirements." Ryder agrees with this market prediction. "For support, pressure, cushioning and space filling, inflatables are a great solution. With a world that is always looking for ways to reduce cost, what materials are less expensive than an air-filled inflatable?"