The phrase “launched by two people in their garage,” is synonymous with startup technology companies, conjuring images of people hunched over their laptops, furiously clacking away at keyboards. It’s not as often you hear a similar story for manufacturing. And for good reason.
Manufacturing often requires a significantly higher capital outlay compared to other business models. There are machines to purchase, buildings to rent, and employees to hire. However, despite these challenges, one West Michigan father and son duo are proving such operations are possible. And they’re doing it with a familiar product: ice.
Andrew Van Houten and his father Scott Van Houten own and operate Grand Rapids-based Grand Ice LLC, a manufacturer of quality, crystal clear ice used by upscale cocktail bars and high-end eateries across Greater Grand Rapids. What began as a part-time experiment for the Van Houten’s quickly transformed into a growing operation. After launching the company in July 2022, Grand Ice expanded to service ten customers, including several locations inside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
“We’re right at that point where we’re not a hobby anymore but we’re part-time and we can’t effectively hire anyone full time yet,” said Scott Van Houten.
Demand for the company’s ice is growing, however, both Andrew and Scott hold full-time positions outside the company, limiting their time, and in turn, production. Instead, Scott and Andrew rely on whatever spare time they can scrounge up and part-time contract labor to meet production.
To overcome these hurdles and expand their operation, the company is considering implementing advanced manufacturing technology with the help of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center - West (Center West). Steven Lopez, a business development specialist with the Center West, is currently working with the company to evaluate their operation and identify cost-effective areas to implement advanced manufacturing technology.
The Center West plans to evaluate the viability of installing conveyor systems to feed the ice and sensors on the bandsaw to manage the cutting; both would improve both safety and efficiency of operation.
“The logic is that we can automate the carving of the ice and the removal of the ice from the trays by modifying their current equipment,” Lopez said. “Using a co-bot, sensors, and conveyors to move the material, that’s advanced technology. If you can automate that movement, the two owner-operators are focusing solely on packaging and inspection.”
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to making ice crystal clear, as opposed to opaque and cloudy. Andrew Van Houten discovered many of those misconceptions when he first became interested in the process after watching a video online of an award-winning bartender carving cubes by hand. Armed with a six pack cooler and some sharp implement, Van Houten set to work trying to figure out the process on his own.
“Everything I looked at said you have to boil the water or use distilled water or filter it,” Van Houten said. “It has nothing to do with any of that. All it has to do with is air being trapped during freezing.”
Ice making remained a hobby for Van Houten until he visited a local cocktail bar and saw his drink had clear ice with razor straight edges. He asked the bartender how they made it so well and learned that the bar purchased the ice from a company in Kentucky.
“That’s insane that you’re going to ship ice halfway across the country,” he said. “There’s really only one other company in the state that does clear ice and they’re on the east side. We just started from there.”
With the seed of a business venture planted, the younger Van Houten brought the concept to his father, who was initially skeptical of the appeal.
“Andrew was asking me to fund the business and I’m like ‘I don’t know man,’” Scott Van Houten said. “But then I started making it and brought a bunch of it to a night where we had 20 guys playing Euchre. Everyone was asking for the clear ice. So I said let’s try it. We put together a business plan and what we would need.”
To begin, Andrew traded the six pack cooler for a handful of used equipment, including a food-grade bandsaw and freezer, and rented a 650-square-foot vacant space from a family friend. Grand Ice uses water purified through a series of reverse osmosis filters, which it pumps into a 100 gallon storage tank. From there, the company fills each side of a commercial freezer, nicknamed “Bruce”. When Bruce finishes its work, it will have produced two crystal clear blocks of ice, each measuring 40 inches by 20 inches by 12 inches and weighing 300 pounds.
Grand Ice lifts the blocks with a small hoist before cutting them into two-inch-thick slabs. The slabs are stored in a walk-in freezer. When it comes time to cut the cubes, the slabs are tempered then taken to final dimension on a band saw. Grand Ice currently makes two inch by two inch cubes and longer rectangles called “collins spears.” The company is also considering producing ice spheres. The products are packaged and stored in the company’s freezer before being delivered to customers in a transit van fitted with a customized freezer system.
In addition to considering the automation equipment proposed by the Center West, the Van Houten’s are also considering investing in a CNC machine, allowing them to make customized production runs of unique ice shapes or engrave various logos or other images into the ice.
With limited budgets of both time and finances, whatever technology Grand Ice lands on must improve production efficiency with an ROI that makes sense for the still very young company.
“The goal is to reduce the cost of goods sold, increase their revenue, and increase their ability to react to business as it comes through because they are working full time jobs on the side of this,” Lopez said. “The more we automate, the better it is for them.”