ELGIN, Minn. — A pair of local brothers think they have a slick new solution for resurfacing ice rinks, an industry that has seen very little change in decades.
After eight years of work, $2.5 million of investment and six patents, David and Paul van Eijl have created the sixth version of their electric, autonomous ice resurfacer in their Elgin workshop. They call their working prototype, Sottu6.
The duo hope their novel approach will challenge the giant company that is synonymous with ice resurfacing – Zamboni. While they believe their creation will make better quality ice using a superior computer-controlled process, Sottu6's big selling point is that it could give ice rinks more of its most valuable commodity – time.
Waiting for the ice to be ready is one of the hardest parts of a practice or game for hockey teams or skaters.
It is also costly for rinks, which charge anywhere from $100 to $500 an hour for ice time. Rochester, which has six indoor rinks, charges $180 an hour at Graham Arena. Ice time can be much more expensive in cities with fewer rinks.
Cutting the resurfacing time from eight to 15 minutes between sessions to two to three minutes could result in more cold, hard cash for ice rinks.
"If that resurfacing time between sessions can be cut in half, ice rinks can book two to three more rentals. We started calculating what that could mean for a rink. The numbers were staggering," said Paul van Eijl. "The ROI (return on investment) really gets people's attention."
With thousands of indoor rinks worldwide and a $70 million a year market, the brothers think taking on the Goliath of ice resurfacing is worth the effort.
The duo took the fifth version for their device onto local ice rinks for testing and created video with commentary from local ice rink managers.
Bob Montrose, of Rochester's Graham Arena, described the device as "a game changer." Steve Howarth, of Dodge County Ice Arena in Kasson, said, "It's actually awesome."
Since the video was shot, they have put together the sixth iteration, which improves upon the earlier models.
Waiting for ice
This project started eight years ago when Paul van Eijl watched the ice being resurfaced in Winona as he waited to play in an Old Timer game.
"I thought there has to be a better way to do that," he said.
After a call to his brother, who consults with manufacturers and runs a local printing business called Texteijl, they were soon brainstorming ideas in a Winona coffee shop.
"The wheels started turning," said Paul van Eijl. "I really felt we were on to something."
After considering many concepts, they finally settled on a new approach to ice resurfacing.
One big change was the ability to cut the job into pieces with either two or four pre-programmed autonomous machines doing the job instead of one large vehicle with a driver. The result looks similar to when a team of snowplows clear a highway running side-by-side.
"It's doing the job by committee," Paul van Eijl said.
While a Sutto6 pair of machines would be automated, a bit like a robotic floor sweeper, the process still needs human help.
"This is not about getting rid of the operator. This won't mean less jobs," said David van Eijl. "A person will need to open the rink doors. They will need to move the nets."
Going from one heavy machine to two to four much lighter devices did create a challenge with the ice shaving blade part of the system.
"It was the one thing everyone said we wouldn't be able to make work," acknowledged David van Eijl.
After a lot of research and testing, he came up with a unique, proprietary approach that was eventually added to the most recent prototype.
The brothers are now hoping to take Sottu6 to the next level and get it to market.
"Our goal is to find a strategic partner to help us take it rest of the way," said Paul van Eijl.