The demand for inflatables used for shelters, rescue and training is strong and growing, as new applications for a well-known but developing technology attract more attention worldwide.
Air is a powerful force.
Properly harnessed, it can be completely transformed, becoming an integral player in products that serve all manner of purposes, from strictly fun to deadly serious and all points in between. Inflatable products may be likely to conjure up visions of bounce houses or water toys, but they’re performing now in ways that address increasingly vital public demands. In the process, some manufacturers—specifically those offering products in the shelter, rescue, and training/education arenas—see significant growth and market expansion ahead.
To the rescue
Located in Lake Worth, Fla., Patten Co. Inc. started off in 1947 making inflatable life rafts for the military, and remains a source of these products for the U.S. Navy and Air Force, says Steven Patten, COO and co-owner. At one point, however, the company’s efforts shifted away from life rafts. “From 2001 to 2006 the focus was heavily on creating inflatable shelters for emergency use and so on,” Patten says. “But the market became so saturated that it just stopped being profitable, so in 2007 we switched back to life rafts and went on a design-and-development campaign that has lasted to the present.”
Patten’s inflatable rafts come in various sizes and configurations (11 different types) and range in size from single-person designs to those holding up to 50 people. All are designed to go onboard military aircraft. About 90 percent of them inflate with C02 gas; the rest inflate with compressed air or nitrogen. The rafts, made from a lightweight, polyurethane-coated nylon, are designed to military specs, says Patten.
There have been numerous advancements over the years. Up until the late 1970s, most life rafts were made from neoprene. But when heat-sealing—one of the major technological developments, says Patten—became more common, it lead to the development and use of polyurethanes. The polyurethanes have also moved through various formats, the latest incarnation of which is Aliphatic urethane, considered “greener” because it’s water-based. Some of his company’s products incorporate this new material, says Patten, who envisions putting it into more of their offerings.
The biggest issue currently facing the company and other life raft suppliers to the military are Department of Defense budget cutbacks. These have constrained the market and product production overall, forcing the company to reduce its workforce, says Patten. Even so, currently it has an engineering contract with the Air Force for a new life raft, a 20-person inflatable raft that would go onboard the C-130 Hercules and the AWACS aircraft. Prototypes are currently in production.
Training and education
Patten is also courting the commercial market with the Realistic Aircraft Tactical Trainer (RATT), a fully inflatable replica of a 737 designed for fire training, constructed from heat-sealed polyurethane. Housed on and inflated from a truck, the replica is totally mobile once deflated. The RATT has smoke generators located throughout the “plane” that can realistically replicate different fire situations.
“It has taken almost three years to develop this. We’re currently going through the final FAA approval process,” says Patten, mentioning they’re also going to target the military with this product.
Along with its inflatable marketing and advertising products, Inflatable Images, located in Brunswick, Ohio, provides a number of military decoys to the government, such as inflatable tanks used for training and other purposes, says Edward Fink, vice president of sales and marketing. Built to military specs, the decoys can have radar reflectivity as well as heat signature.
Inflatable Images also offers educational inflatables like the Fire Safety House. Around 2006, the company developed this interactive inflatable after a request from the local fire department, seeking an alternative to the classroom trailers they’d been using—one that would make learning fun as well.
“In many areas, before children can attend kindergarten they must go through fire safety education,” Fink explains. “A lot of fire departments use big trailers they tow to the various locations to use as classrooms. But these are expensive to tow, maintain and store.”
Since that initial request, the company has created four versions of the Fire Safety House. All are constructed with an outer fabric of PVC vinyl, supported internally by a proprietary weave-like fabric and inflated via a cold-air blower that runs constantly. Some can be outfitted with a fog machine to simulate smoke. The mass-produced houses—assembled by more than 40 sewers—can be customized with graphics, sponsor logos and inside messages that can reflect the language of choice.
“Over the years the demand has grown tremendously with fire departments throughout the U.S. and all over the world,” says Fink. “Fire departments are finding a lot of value in this type of education and product.”
Shelter and service
Headquartered in Hatboro, Pa., Zumro Inc. manufactures inflatable shelters, expanding its product offerings in 1987. Initially imported from England, the first shelters were small and primarily designed for showering, providing privacy and other basic on-site sheltering needs for fire departments and HazMat teams, says Win VanBasten, president.
They were first constructed with an external airframe made from a low-cost vinyl-urethane blend. Now, the U.S.-made shelters—grown much larger, sturdier and more diverse in design over time—utilize a lightweight, air-retaining and durable neoprene material for the airframes; a lightweight high-tenacity urethane-coated nylon material for the canopies; and the vinyl-urethane blend for the removable flooring.
The airframes are designed to remain upright even in the face of low air pressure—essential for emergency services, says VanBasten. “It means they can keep the product operational even if something were to happen to the airframe, such as a leak caused by damage during operations, by simply applying some tape.”
In this arena, significant events have a profound impact on product demand and development. After 9/11 there was a demand for portable, easily deployed decontamination shelters. Health scares, such as bird flu, Ebola, smallpox and other infectious diseases, prompted the need for shelters offering negative-pressure isolation with air-lock entry. Disasters like Hurricane Katrina turned the focus to field hospital-type use. In fact, says VanBasten, Zumro developed new shelters for this market, including a 900-square-foot, 16-room, five-minute deployable hospital shelter and a 450-square-foot hub shelter to link multiple shelters together. These hubs allow for the linking of other types of shelters, such as for decontamination or isolation, onto the field hospital, he explains.
Currently, Zumro, which operates out of two main facilities, has more than 6,000 shelters sold and in-use, mainly within the United States, and primarily for the first responders market, says VanBasten.
Dynamic Air Shelters, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, also provides inflatable emergency disaster/rapid response shelters deployed to areas struck by a natural disaster. They serve as emergency field hospitals, give people a place to live or work out of, or can be used as non-emergency remote hospitals, says Aaron Knape, president. The company, which also offers commercial–industrial, first-response blast-resistant air shelters, as well as promotional products, entered the rapid-response arena about 10 years ago.
“This was one of our first markets and one of the first products offered,” says Knape. “And pretty immediately, these shelters were being deployed worldwide.”
The exterior fabric is a standard PVC-coated polyester; the system is a proprietary multi-fabric system. If necessary, the shelters can run off of solar or battery power. In some cases, the supporting air beams can remain inflated for a year without a power source, says Knape, citing this capability as one of the big technological advancements in the market.
As for market demand, “unfortunately, there is always a humanitarian and emergency need for these products,” says Knape.
Technology has also played an important role in the development of the company’s blast-resistant shelters, available in various sizes and configurations. Key markets are refining and chemical plants. “These operate safely, but explosions can occur and can be fairly catastrophic,” says Knape. The structures enable people to be near their work and remain protected (they typically house meeting rooms, work areas and so on) and are designed to mitigate much of the impact of a blast.
Dynamic Air Shelters uses a range of materials; from a Kevlar®-type material to neoprene to standard polyesters. But the real innovation is in the structure supporting this fabric, which allows it to be blast-resistant, he says, noting that the technology is proprietary to the company. The primary technological advancements have been in field testing, data analysis and computing horsepower, all of which have enabled them to run endless scenarios to show how the shelters will react under various blast conditions.
In the beginning, Dynamic focused on the North American market. Two years ago they began exporting internationally, currently focusing on the U.K., Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Knape described demand as “explosive” (no pun intended) as more companies around the globe focus on employee safety, and as attaining worldwide parity when it comes to worker safety has become more important.
Also expected to fuel demand is the recent publication by the American Petroleum Institute outlining the best practices and requirements for worker safety. “Consequently,” says Knape, “in what should be a down market because of dropping oil prices, we’ve been experiencing tremendous growth.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.