China Makes America’s Fireworks by Hand. This Inventor Has a Faster Way

Photograph by Lane Coder/Gallery Stock

The U.S. spent close to $1 billion on fireworks in 2012, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. The trade group’s executive director, Julie Heckman, expects sales to climb “a little bit” in 2013, continuing the market’s steady upward trajectory. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of what explodes in America’s skies and crackles in backyards is imported from China, though a few display companies that put on shows do make a bit of their own stuff.

Less well known: Most fireworks are still made by hand to avoid accidental explosions in factories. “The materials are friction-sensitive,” Heckman explains. “Until I did my first trip to China about 20 years ago, I would’ve never really appreciated ‘made by hand.’ The number of man hours [for] 20 minutes of enjoyment is just astronomical.”

Fireworks veteran Jim Widmann of Sandy Hook, Conn., wants to speed up the manufacturing process. After learning the trade from fabled display giant Fireworks by Grucci and running his own outfit, he invented a machine that automates the most laborious step of making an aerial shell. It pastes the paper that contains the gunpowder “about eight or 10 times faster” than it would take by hand, says Widmann, 55. He notes none of the roughly 450 machines he’s sold through Connecticut Pyrotechnic Manufacturing, his six-year-old business, have caused accidents. And they’re “pretty intuitive” to use, he says. “I’ve sold plenty of machines to people I haven’t been able to speak one word with, using video, pictures, and the manual.”

Here, his daughter Sarah demonstrates how the machine works:

Widmann’s timing is good, says Phil Grucci, president and chief executive officer of his family’s storied “multimillion-dollar” fireworks business, which dates back to 1850. Grucci says in China “the labor that was available to manufacture fireworks is migrating to manufacture” more lucrative products, such as electronics and pharmaceuticals. Widmann’s “technology and that technique for pasting a shell is now widely revolutionizing the labor reduction in some of the manufacturers in Asia,” he says. It’s “given China the ability to maintain their productivity.”

The labor shortage “has left a lot of people asking, what’s the future of fireworks manufacturing in China going to be? Part of the solution to that is increased automation,” says Jesse Veverka, who just returned to the U.S. after shooting in Asia for Passfire, his forthcoming documentary about fireworks culture.

Widmann doesn’t expect to earn much from China. Even though Chinese factories are using his technology, few are buying his machines, which cost about $2,500. After traveling in China’s fireworks district multiple times and getting a Chinese patent, Widmann says, “it finally occurred to me that the Chinese are not going to buy my product.” When they “decide to use something like this, they just knock it off, one way or another.” Grucci, who bought Widmann’s machines for his family’s 165-employee manufacturing plant in Radford, Va., says he’s seen “facsimiles of his equipment around many of the factories around China,” as has Veverka.

Widmann, who has sold his machines in 30 countries, says a lot of business comes from hobbyists in the U.S., which Veverka estimates “on the order of 50,000 people.” They build their own for backyard fun in states with permissive fireworks laws. “I can pretty confidently say that every remaining [display fireworks] manufacturer” in the U.S. uses the machine, says Widmann.

He’s hopeful about reshoring. “I’m a big proponent of American fireworks manufacturing, for obvious reasons: I sell a machine that does it,” Widmann says. “But there are reasons to think it might come back,” he says, noting cargo ships don’t “give a damn about the fireworks market” because it’s a miniscule fraction of their business and they aren’t eager to jeopardize the rest of their cargo with an explosion. “An industry that’s predicated on importing in such a tenuous situation is vulnerable.”

He adds that he’s been talking with the owners of one of the big display companies in the U.S. about its investment in domestic facilities to bring back some manufacturing, even if just for specialty items or to safeguard against shippers ending the transporting of fireworks. “We’re not dead yet,” Widmann says. “There’s a chance there might be a resurrection.”

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