How Balloons and Condoms are Made
"Despite the apparent simplicity of the balloons and the condoms, you may be greatly amazed, as much as I was, with the complexity and sophistication of the technologies that are currently being used to manufacture them."
Colorful balloons bring joy to both young and old people, and are often used for decorative purposes in social functions. These flexible bags have a long history, dating back to the Aztec people who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The 1994 book, "Great Balloons! The Complete Book of Balloon Sculpting", written by Jean Merlin, Kaufman and Greenberg, says: "The Aztecs were the very first people in history to make 'balloon animals' out of the bowels of cats to be presented to the gods as a sacrifice."
In 1824, Michael Faraday made the first rubber balloons for use in his experiments with gases. Rubber balloons were first mass-produced in the 1930s. Yet, despite the balloon's apparent simplicity, you may be greatly amazed, as much as I was, with the complexity and sophistication of the technologies that are currently being used to manufacture them.
How It's Made: Balloons
How Balloons are Made
The manufacturing of rubber balloons involves a 9-step process:
- Dyeing the latex: The process of making balloons begins by pouring dye into an open tank, filled with latex. Agitators at the bottom of the tank mix them thoroughly for 15-16 hours, both to distribute the color, as well as to prevent the latex from coagulating.
- Dipping balloon forms into coagulant: As the balloon-forms (moulds used to form the balloon) move along a system of rollers, a series of nozzles spray hot water to clean them, before they are dipped into a tank of coagulant comprising calcium nitrate solution. The purpose of the coagulant is to create a layer of electrochemical charge on the surface of the balloon-forms to attract the colored latex.
- Dipping balloon forms into colored latex: The balloon-forms then moved to the next station where they are coated with colored latex. Unlike the process of coagulant-coating where the balloon-forms are dipped into the tank, the coating of the colored latex is carried out by moving the tank upwards to coat the stationary balloon-forms.
- Making balloon lips: The latex dries quickly, as the conveyor moves the balloon-forms forward toward a set of revolving brushes. These brushes roll the balloon neck, creating a lip which enables people to grip the balloons, when inflating them.
- Leaching: The latex-coated balloon forms are then dipped into a hot water bath for up to 16 minutes. This process bleaches out all impurities, including proteins that cause latex allergies. The hot bath also triggers vulcanization, making the balloons more durable. (Vulcanization is a chemical process which causes cross-links between polymer chains to be formed.)
- Removing the balloons: The balloon forms are then dipped into a mix of talcum powder and water. This facilitates the removal of the balloons from the forms. As the balloon-forms pass through the next station, air jets inflate the balloons. Rollers above the balloon-forms then grab the inflated balloons, pulling them away and dropping them onto a conveyor belt.
- Final cleaning: The balloons are transferred into an industrial washing machine which keeps to a steamy 160ºF, while the balloons tumble. This process not only cleans the balloons, but also completes the vulcanization of the latex.
- Quality inspection: The cleaned balloons undergo its final stage, where it undergoes quality inspection to determine whether they can withstand inflation. A quality inspector then holds it against the light to check for imperfections, such as pimples and blisters.
- Packaging: Once the balloons pass quality inspection, they are then packed for delivery.
How Condoms are Made
As is expected, the process of making condoms and the process of making balloons are basically the same. However, the technology used for manufacturing condoms and the requirements are very much more exacting, for obvious reasons. The significant difference between the two processes are as follows:
- Higher quality requirements of latex: The latex used for making condoms must meet the highest quality requirements.
- 2-step dipping process: To ensure that the condoms have a uniform and adequate thickness, the condom-forms are dipped into the latex solution and dried in curing and drying ovens, twice, consecutively.
- Highly stringent quality inspection:Unlike the manufacturing of balloons where the quality inspection is relatively simple, condoms undergo very highly stringent quality inspections. These tests include:
- pin-hole tests to prevent leakage;
- stretch resistance test to prevent bursting during use; and
- health inspection to ensure that the condoms are microbiologically clean.
- Lubricated coating and aromatic flavor: Unlike balloons, each condom receives a lubricated coating and aromatic flavor.
- Individual sealing and packaging: Each condom is separately sealed air-tight into its own sealing foil, and then packed in printed wrappers, with instructions on correct use.