I realize that the word genius is frequently overused in today’s highly inventive world, but in this case it is entirely apropos. And honestly, if you ever met Jim Widmann, you’d quickly ascertain he is a very humble guy who would probably blush to hear himself described this way. But the WASP machine he invented is assuredly ingenious, to say the least, and truth be told, he essentially single-handedly solved an extraordinarily time-consuming problem that plagued shell-making pyrotechnicians for decades. Surprisingly enough, it has been more than 21 years since he invented the first WASP machine, and since then, his company—Connecticut Pyrotechnic Manufacturing (www.ctpyro.com)—has sold well over 400 of the machines to companies and individuals in 27 different countries worldwide.
For those of you who don’t know, “WASP” is an acronym for “Widmann’s Automatic Shell Pasting,” and those four simple letters describe the function of the machine quite precisely. The WASP machine automates the most arduous task involved in shell making—pasting the outside of the shells. Widmann’s machine saves literally dozens of hours of hard work (especially when creating larger shells) and even makes the shells more aerodynamically sound since they are more uniformly pasted.
The WASP accomplishes this feat using a computer to control its stepper motors, guide wheels and a gummed tape delivery system. “It takes 200 separate commands from the computer for the stepper motors to make just one revolution,” Jim says. “What I realized when I first designed the machine was that a continuous roll of gum tape needed to be applied in a uniform fashion to make this work properly.”
Much has changed as his WASP machines have evolved over time (especially the software, which he has made much more user-friendly). His original WASPs were made out of wood and weighed over 250lbs. Gradually, he whittled that monster down to its essential elements, created a lighter—yet much stronger—aluminum frame, and increased the maximum shell size the machines could paste. As an example, recently, Jim flew to Dubai to help Phil Grucci in his attempt to set a new world record on New Year’s Eve. His part in all of this (using his very own WASP machines he brought along with him) was to build fourteen 24” shells, an integral part of the show. Remember, for smaller shells the WASP makes the process about 7X faster; for larger shells–like the 24” shells Jim made for Grucci, the process was 100X faster! Needless to say, the shells were phenomenal, and a new Guinness World Record for the world’s “Largest Fireworks Display” was set that night.
Besides the machinery and aluminum frame, the true key to the WASP resides is the amazing software that’s included. Ironically, that is also what keeps his remarkable invention from being easily copied or reproduced. Complex proprietary algorithms are used to control the stepper motors properly, and even though the machine is made of parts that can be mimicked or mechanically copied, it is the software that provides the important precision and finesse. You have to understand (and if you’ve ever hand-pasted a shell, you do) a 12” shell can take upwards of 3 hours to paste by hand. With a WASP machine, it takes about 9 minutes. Smaller shells—like the more common 5” or 6” shells—can take as little as 55 seconds! Obviously, this amazing invention has made an incredible difference in the number of shells produced at PGI events. Actually, it has made an amazing difference in the number of shells created in the US, period.
The current model (the last one I personally had my hands on was the WASP5) is now called the WASP Superstinger. Just like its predecessor, it can easily and effortlessly paste 2” through 12” shells while connected to a simple laptop or desktop PC. And forget the technical aspects for a minute, the WASP is actually a lot fun just to watch! In just a few minutes time the machine applies the continuous strip of gummed paper to the spherical shells. It not only pastes them perfectly, but it burnishes them as well. Here are the basic advantages of the WASP as noted on The WASP’s homepage:
Advantages of using a WASP machine:
- Paste shells all day long without fatigue
- 7 times faster than traditional hand techniques
- Exactly the same paste job, every time
- Completely automatic, stops by itself when program is done
- Burnish mode provides a smooth, finished appearance
- Easily adjusts to all your shell pasting needs
- Requires only AC power and your computer
Not one to rest on his laurels, there are a couple of new and exciting developments on the horizon for Connecticut Pyrotechnic. First and foremost, is the release of the new WASP Hornet. The Hornet is a slightly smaller/lighter entry-level machine designed to paste 2” through 8” shells. Retailing for just $1,050 (976 Euros), this new model runs $700 less than the Supertinger (which retails for $1,750/1627 Euros) and should be a real hit with both amateurs and professionals alike. In addition, this machine (just like the Superstinger) can be outfitted to handle either 110 or 220 volts.
Also in the works—and this represents a complete diversification for Jim’s company—is his recent importation and sale of a relatively unknown chemical in the U.S. called “phenolic resin.” This is another amazing timesaving idea from the man who brought you the mother of all amazing timesaving ideas. Technically, phenolic resin is a heat-cured, thermosetting, high-strength, synthetic resin. It has a wide variety of uses, and sometimes it is even used as a pyrotechnic fuel as well as a chemical binder. (As I did research for this article, I found that phenolic resin was once used as a chemical binder for the fuel they put into the Space Shuttle). Complex chemistry aside, from Jim’s perspective, the most important quality of phenolic resin has to do with its drying capability. What does this mean? Well, the little balls used to create 8” comets generally take about a month to completely dry. Using phenolic resin, they can dry overnight! Yes, overnight! This substance essentially replaces air milled Red Gum (you know, that Australian ant excretion we’re currently running out of) used as binder and fuel in many fireworks formulas. Even though many Americans haven’t heard of this chemical yet, the Chinese are already using it extensively. And Jim’s company has already ordered 2½ metric tons of the stuff! This fall, Jim will be presenting a paper at the ISF (International Symposium on Fireworks) in Bordeaux, France (www.isfireworks.com) about mixing hexadene and phenolic resin as a binder for large comets. If you’re interested in purchasing this chemical from Connecticut Pyrotechnic, he is currently selling the substance for $5.00 per pound plus shipping. It generally makes up about 5-6% of the chemicals you add to any composite, so you just have to figure it will take about 6 lbs. of phenolic resin for every 100lbs comet material you make (email Jim for specifics: email@example.com). This is certainly a game-changer for U.S. pyrotechnics, and will make it possible–for the very first time–to make large shells onsite instead of having to transport them.
“What America used to bring to the table,” Jim said reflectively toward the end of our interview, “was the ability to look forward and always make the next greatest thing. I’m trying to get us to the forefront again, at least in the shell making business.” With that in mind, Jim introduced his new WASP machines into China’s huge fireworks market; he even has his name listed—as an American—on a Chinese patent. In conclusion, I think 2015 is going to be a big year for Connecticut Pyrotechnic. And with Jim’s superior WASP computer technology, his Superstinger and new Hornet inventions, and his incredible phenolic resin idea, I think it we’ll be hearing a great deal about Jim Widmann throughout 2015.