Testing. It’s all about testing.

Testing fireworksQuality control is important and regular tests are conducted by many of the factories. The larger ones seem to run batch tests from production lines almost every evening as soon as it is dark. Some tests can also be done in the day – it really depends on the type of firework and what it is that is being tested. This is what provides the background sounds in the hills around Liuyang.

Some companies have dedicated test sites. Others, well… just watch the video and learn for yourself…

I was really fortunate to speak to the head technician of Dancing Fireworks today who explained a bit about how people train in firework manufacturing. Firework testing is a key aspect of the training.

Through my interpreter, I learnt that chemistry students from nearby Changsha initially come to the factory on a three month placement. Once they graduate, they join the company as trainees and are mentored by a more senior technician.

Cake fusing machineThey start by working across the loading and production lines, to get a thorough understanding of each stage of manufacture. It’s all on-the-job training and, under supervision, the trainees are soon expected to build and test firework effects almost every day. There are industry-governed practical and written exams, especially for the more senior roles and you are expected to publish a thesis in order to become a head technician.

It takes around ten years to become fully qualified.

It is an immense industry and quite difficult to picture until I found out that there are currently 1236 firework factories in Liuyang alone.

Sounds of Liuyang city

This place is something else. Where else can you be woken at 7am by the sound of several thousand firecrackers going off or aerial shells being fired and nobody seems to turn a head?

I wanted to capture a few audio snippets and so here they are: Descriptions of the Liuyang soundscape.

Wandering around Liuyang, it soon becomes apparent that the common city sounds differ slightly from those in the UK. Apart from the obvious language differences, above the vehicle sounds, horns and general hustle-bustle of city life is the continuous sound of fireworks; sometimes in the distance and sometimes right in front of you.

Of particular note, is the experience at sunset in the surrounding hills, where most of the factories are. You might expect to hear the birds roosting and maybe spot a few bats? Not here. That’s when the serious batch testing gets underway at the larger firework factories. The thump-thump of shells going off every few seconds in adjacent valleys and beyond is rather unique.

The thing that has really struck me is the perceived normality of it all. Local residents appear to think nothing of a 100-shot noisy firework being let off on the pavement in the city centre next to a road. If you are lucky, then they stop to watch. Otherwise, people drive and cycle past; they continue with their normal everyday lives.

Factory visits

My tour of Liuyang is taking in several firework manufacturers and I’ve been whisked away to at least one factory each day already. It may surprise you that this actually is a first for me; I’ve been wanting to go to a firework factory for many years but have never been able to manage (nor afford!) a visit.

As suppliers to the UK market, the manufacturers are keen for industry members to see where and how their products are made, especially if their factory has a new bit of automated equipment or some new facilities.

Powder mills and star rolling lineAs you’d expect, most places ensure we see the showroom areas, award cabinets and certificates, but with a little bit of persuasion, two factories did allow us to visit what we call the powder lines. This is where the powders, the key ingredients such as black powder, are made.

We also saw some stars being rolled in a copper-like cement mixer. Why copper? Easy! It is non-ferrous and is not at risk of creating any sparks.

Sparks, in whatever shape or form, are generally bad news in a firework preparation area. Star rolling and powder milling are the higher-risk stages of manufacturing. As a result, these work areas are often tucked away in the hills, well away from the rest of assembly lines on the factory site.

Earthing ball close-upThe factories do have earthing spheres on poles at regular intervals around the site. The idea is that you touch the balls to remove any residual charge before entering a preparation or storage area.

Finally, you know you’ve spotted something brand new and cutting edge if the Chinese experts get excited when showing it. One such example was a new automatic cake fusing machine. Even our interpreter and agent for the tour had never seen this before. It essentially works like a giant sewing machine, punching holes in the bottom of tubes, threading through string fuse, stacking the tubes and then taping them together to form a cake.

And this is just scratching the surface of firework production. I’ve still yet to see shells being filled with stars and we haven’t been anywhere near a rocket yet…Matthew at the entrance to a firework factory

Hello from China!

Matthew with iPhone 5 firework This is a very exciting week as I am in Liuyang, the home to Chinese firework manufacturing for almost 1500 years! I am here as part of a trade visit – several firework companies are here to view and order brand new materials for the UK display and retail markets.

The visit combines tours of factories to see fireworks being made, followed by demonstrations – a combination of new customised product requests from us and new products that the Chinese are developing.

On day one, I had an opportunity to do a little bit of filming from the centre of Liuyang to give a brief flavour of what this place is like. And yes, several of you on Twitter have already said that I look like a child in a sweet shop!

It is an extraordinary place.


Something in the air

There’s definitely a chill in the air. I’ve felt it since the weekend. That sharp edge to the breeze, despite the sun beaming down and illuminating the changing tree canopies.

Autumn is here, accompanied by the annual grumbling of several of my family and friends about the nights drawing in and winter approaching. The familiar whirring of the central heating pump and doors closing to keep the heat in.
Autumn park trees
For me, however, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement. It is a feeling that I get every year. The sight of the leaves turning golden and falling to the floor, reflecting the autumn sun. The earlier setting of the sun and the cool air chilling my nostrils. It means one thing to me: Bonfire Night is approaching.

This dates back to the days when my father used to take me to see the annual bonfire and firework display at the Miners’ Welfare park in Bedworth. We’d trudge through the leaves amongst the volunteers shaking their charity buckets. Once inside, I’d be the annoying five year old trying to sit on his shoulders to see over the crowds, or insist that we work our way to the front by the safety barrier. He’d remind me that the fireworks would be going up into the air and that I’d be able to see wherever we stood, but this fell on deaf ears.

Come on!

Firework display rig in SouthportI didn’t want to know what was going on in the air. I wanted to know how they got in the air and who was letting them off. I wanted to be the first to arrive to give me plenty of time to look at the firing site. What did the rig look like and could I guess what was going to happen? Yes, I know, total child geekorama and I am not ashamed to admit it.

My curiosity was fed further by being allowed to walk onto the firing site shortly after firing to have a look at the smouldering remains of the fireworks. Everyone did it back then. The idea of a child doing that now fills me with horror, having witnessed hang-fires (the delayed firing of a smouldering firework) and ground units exploding.

Little did I know that, years later, I would be one of those people working to make a display happen. What’s more, I would never have dreamed that I would be called in at short notice to work on a competition-winning firework display.

I guess it goes to show that an early interest in a subject as a child, no matter how niche or mainstream, could pave the way for something much bigger later in life. That’s why I believe in stimulating curiosity in children’s minds and allowing them to explore ideas. Discovery and learning then follow, almost self-driven, and who knows where it will take them? I’m still on my journey and am enjoying the ride.

And so my shameless, childlike excitement continues to emerge annually, triggered by those changing colours of autumn. I sincerely hope that I never grow out of this.

A quick word of thanks and congratulations should go to Steve Martin and crew at SMArt Pyrotechnics. It was great working with you all!