The ice van cometh

Dry ice manufacturer blasts through supply chain woes.
0822 Editorialcontent On The Job
Debra Mickelson and CEO Neal Gruber of A+ Heler’s Dry Ice & CO2. (Photograph by Shawn Harper)

After a successful 40-plus year career in engineering, Neal Gruber retired in 2015 and was enjoying a life of leisure and volunteering until the suggestion of a dry ice project reeled him back in.

He discovered a problem in need of a solution: Only one dry ice manufacturer existed in Wisconsin, which meant dry-ice customers, if not purchasing from that source, were ordering from large, out-of-state industrial gas producers who trucked the ice in. There had to be a better way.

“Many customers, like frozen food shippers or pharmas, would not be able to function without dry ice,” he says.

Gruber knew he needed a better plan, one that was relevant, looked different, and produced a better quality product, so he assembled a team of seven local businesspeople, including two with previous carbon dioxide (CO2) business experience, who agreed to invest in his start-from-scratch idea. The result was A+ Heler’s Dry Ice & CO2 LLC (APH), a bulk manufacturer of dry ice, and a CO2 cylinder refiller.

The investors, including Debra Mickelson, Gruber’s wife and now APH’s office manager, pooled their money, formed the legal structure, and became an S corp. They found a warehouse that would be suitable, signed a lease, and ordered the first piece of equipment. Plans were moving forward in early 2020 when COVID hit.

Pandemic paradigm

The pandemic fundamentally changed the structure of supply chain management for small and large businesses across America, Gruber explains. Business-as-usual supply practices, such as long-term contracts with lower rate, single-source vendors, were reassessed as supply chain interruptions threatened “just-in-time” deliveries.

Dry ice customers, such as laboratories, printers, pharmas, and food processors, were similarly impacted. Pharmaceutical companies are a primary focus for APH. Pfizer’s COVID vaccines, for example, required ultra-cold storage as dry ice became critically in demand. “That’s when the paradigm changed,” he states.

A window of opportunity opened for many small businesses able to satisfy the needs of large company procurement managers caught in supply chain headaches. While they couldn’t match the volume or pricing of major supply vendors, they could provide localized customer service on a regular (rather than emergency-only) basis.

At APH, calls began trickling in from businesses looking for dry ice, and the company signed supply contracts as a third party for alternative suppliers.

Gruber credits his investors for being able to survive the first year, but between May 2020 and June 2021, business surged due to the company’s ability to adapt to the volatile conditions.

APH also earned an FDA-approved Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification for food safety operating and quality control procedures, and gained some locally based customers — Promega, Exact Sciences, Catalent, and UW–Madison among them — that require CO2 and dry ice in their business and shipping operations.

Ice cycling

The process of manufacturing dry ice begins with liquid carbon dioxide stored in a tank outside the APH warehouse.

The liquid is piped into a pelletizer machine inside that churns and drops shards of cylindrical dry ice into totes below. The most common thicknesses requested are 3 mm (rice size), 6 mm (pellets), and 16 mm (nuggets). A cloud swirls above the ice.

“The vapor you see hovering over the tote is normal,” Gruber explains. “Dry ice is very sensitive to environmental factors like humidity. It’s very cold.”

At minus 109 degrees, dry ice must be handled with extreme care, as contact with human skin for more than three seconds can result in severe burns.

The fresher and denser the ice, the longer it will last, hence the importance of quicker deliveries. APH produces dry ice that is roughly 55 pounds per cubic foot in density, requiring about 125 pounds of liquid CO2. It takes roughly 40 minutes to fill one tote with 500 pounds of dry ice. The ice is covered with an insulated pillow, the lid is closed, and the bin is rolled to the dock for delivery.

The company keeps about 160 totes in inventory. A few are used for backups, but for the most part they cycle in and out of the warehouse frequently.

APH fulfills and delivers dry ice orders (minimum 500 pounds) to south-central Wisconsin customers, usually within 24 hours. When the totes are returned, each gets cleaned with an acceptable food-based cleaner and sanitized by hand with isopropyl alcohol. If necessary, they are fitted with a poly bag liner and moved to the back of the line for refilling.

A tote filled with dry ice can last two weeks without opening, ensuring that food or other products will arrive frozen, even if shipped overseas. Whereas a standard home freezer may freeze food at between zero to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the ultra-cold nature of dry ice can freeze food at minus 40 degrees.

The ice manufacturer’s retail area keeps bagged, dry ice on hand for walk-in or call-ahead sales, with a minimum required purchase of 25 pounds.

CO2 blasting, which Gruber describes as sand blasting without the sand, makes up about a third of the company’s business. “CO2 blasting is a highly efficient process for cleaning surfaces,” he explains. That’s because dry ice sublimates, meaning it changes to vapor (bypassing the liquid stage), so blasting is often used for cleaning machinery, extrusion work, mold remediation, or to clean commercial kitchens because there are no chemicals, no grit or residues, and no liquids normally associated with melting.

End goal: Slabs

Gruber says the company is turning a profit and investors should be able to recoup their money over the next two years. It recently added a second pelletizing machine that will double its output capacity from its current 1,500 pounds of dry ice an hour to 3,000 pounds per hour later this year.

The end goal is to be able to manufacture dry ice slabs ranging from one-and-a-half inches to three inches thick that can be cut to size to fit shipping boxes. It will require a significant investment including a conveyor system, Gruber explains.

“We need to grow in ways that support our customers. That’s when the big companies become interested.”

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