Inflatable product prototype?

Anyone have any recommendations for companies able to produce a reasonably complex inflatable prototype?
The complexity would be similar to that of one of those inflatable life vests you see (or hopefully don’t see) on airplanes.

I have a few contacts in China that can produce this but am interested in anyone in the U.S. or someone that comes with a good recommendation.

Also interested in any “DIY” info or experiences…


Are you looking for something that self inflates like the life jacket does?

For DIY stuff, check out They make many bicycle related CO2 inflation systems. I’m sure if you experimented with the volume of your product vs. size of cartridge you might be able to use a system like that.

In terms of inflatables, there is a company in Nebraska (Omaha, or Lincoln) that makes those giant inflatable “costumes” that you can wear. I think those are inflated by fans though. You might be able to pick their brains about inflatables.

Hi Nurb,

I probably should have picked a different example than the self-inflating life preserver. -The product I am developing doesn’t need to self-inflate. The life-jacket is just a good reference for size and complexity.

These inflatable backpacks would also be a fairly good comparison in terms of complexity.

So far this company seems to be one of the better options in North America - they also make those inflatable costumes you mentioned.

Another option I am looking into is manufacturers and repairs of inflatable boats - I am looking at a bit more of an industrial application so the tougher vinyl might be better suited.

Thanks for the help!

A rotary heat-sealer and some PE film will make any shape inflatable prototype. McMaster will have both. I’d start with that and when you get the design down, invest in the more expensive vinyl or laminated film for higher strength.

Rotary heat-sealer,

We could probably make you something out of a material called tango. It is similar to rubber. If you made the part thin enough and went with a low durometer, maybe 25, I think you would be in good hands. The technology for tango btw is called objet.

I’d be concerned going with a tango. They’re really good for simulating overmolds or other static elastomeric applications, but their tear strength is terrible. We had a small bellows made out of it, and while it worked for our purposes, it was definitely prone to tearing along the edges.

I’ve seen airtight vinyl fabric that might be able to suit your needs, but as iab said, it’s expensive (needs to be ultrasonically welded).

I wanted to raise this thread again as it’s relevant to a project I’m working on now. I am working on a similar inflatable backpack sized product but interested in customizable complex shapes.

I’m trying to learn about the design process for inflatables and would be interested if people could share stories of how you built up the resolution of prototype from sketch to final product. I am also interested in analyzing the strength and performance of the design to minimize the number of prototype iterations when making variations of shape.

I wanted to DIY the prototype but I’ve been advised to outsource the production to make faster progress. I’m currently looking at companies (USA) but they seem to range from medical grade bellows to advertising products where I imagine the engineering reliability is less of a concern. I guess I want something in between and will contact both suppliers.

As for the suggestion of using a rotary heat sealer and PE film, how would you advise I specify the PE film for my application?


I’d like to add to this thread: A couple of months ago, I consulted the advice provided above, and as a result have had some prototyping success. Thanks everyone who contributed above!

I bought the McMaster rotary sealer (warning: they have shockingly, almost amusingly terrible customer service!) to prototype forms designed for RF welding production. The McMaster sealer comes with a rubbery pad to protect the desktop you’re working on, and feels like a pizza cutter. You have to roll the heated wheel at a steady pace to get an even seal, so it’s not an exact science. However, it’s still a vast improvement over using the edge of a domestic iron.

I tried using a cheap vinyl material, but the sealer melted right through it. TPU-coated or laminated nylons work best because the nylon maintains its integrity while the PU layer melts to the other PU layer next to it. TPU-coated or laminated polyesters are bit more tricky: the polyester melts faster than the PU so the sealer burns through the top layer of substrate before it gets a chance to heat the PU below. I was not able to seal a form with both sides in a TPU-laminated poly. Sealing a TPU/nylon layer to a TPU/polyester layer works if you have the polyester face down on the rubber mat and roll along the nylon layer face.

I have been able to use the side of the sealer wheel to surface-seal a flange to a TPU coated nylon, and have been able to create an air-holding form that has urethane tubing sealed into the seam. ( I got this latter idea from seeing an RF-welded medical inflatable that used this method in production.)

I hope this helps anyone out there trying to prototype an inflatable!


Hi Sarah,

Thanks for sharing your experience.
I am looking to develop a small series of inflatable products too and am interested in any literature or experience people have on the topic of how to get from 2D to 3D complex shapes. Tubular shapes are quite straightforward, but what if we want to develop, say, a large inflatable horse?