ELGIN, Minn. – In 1949, an ice-rink owner in Los Angeles obtained a patent for a machine. Resurfacing ice had been a problem that stumped the rink industry. It took five men up to 90 minutes to resurface a sheet of ice.
But Frank Zamboni’s machine — which originally mashed together a hydraulic cylinder from a World War II bomber, a chassis from an oil derrick, an engine from a Jeep and a series of pulleys — changed the game. A long, arduous task turned into a 15-minute, one-man job.
Seventy years later, Zamboni’s invention — named after him — is still the standard-bearer. But two brothers from a Manitoba farming community who came to Minnesota as teens are trying to change that.
About a decade ago, Paul van Eijl — now a 44-year-old father of two who lives across the Mississippi River from Winona — was waiting until a Zamboni machine finished its work so his team could take the ice.
“And in that moment, I was like, ‘There’s gotta be a faster way to do this,’ ” van Eijl said. “I couldn’t shake that thought.”
He called one of his three brothers. Dave van Eijl was less sports-obsessed but had more of an engineering mind. The two sat at Acoustic Café in Winona and started sketching, trying to solve the biggest problem in ice-resurfacing: For 10 to 15 minutes every hour, an ice rink simply shuts down.
Time is the industry’s most valuable commodity. Ice time typically costs about $200 an hour in the Twin Cities. When rink operators are trying to get teams off the ice, coaches always shout, “One more drill! One more minute!” Even an improvement around the margins could make a difference.
The brothers’ first idea was an ice-resurfacer suspended on a track above a rink. That didn’t work. A later idea was to attach an ice resurfacer to the boards. But that would be expensive. They wondered about resurfacing faster by making the machine bigger, too. But how could you manufacture a 42-foot piece of equipment, much less get it into a rink?
Each idea brought them closer to a solution. As they got closer to their current iteration — Sottu6, after the Icelandic word for resurfacing — they fine-tuned the engineering, balancing out the machine’s weight, traction and torque to avoid spinning out on the ice. After eight years, $2.5 million in investment and thousands of test hours, they have a much smaller alternative to the Zamboni machine — 1,500 pounds instead of 10,000 — that operates autonomously, with anywhere between two and four of the machines whizzing around the ice simultaneously. “It’s basically resurfacing by committee,” Paul van Eijl said.
Four machines can resurface a rink in less than 90 seconds. Two can finish the task in less than three minutes.
“This is a game changer,” said Bob Montrose, manager at Rochester’s Graham Arena Complex. “It looks like the Jetsons taking place out there, with space-age robotics buzzing around the ice.”
There are plenty more innovations, too: Nozzles that dispense water based on wheel speed so that water doesn’t pool too high on the edges of the ice. A machine that’s fully electric. And a proprietary blade system seen as the product’s central innovation.
“Being able to shave the ice was what everyone told us we’d never be able to do,” Dave van Eijl said. “But we barbecued that pig.”
That pig isn’t quite ready for market. The van Eijls estimate it’ll take another two years and $2 million before the Sottu6 makes it to market.
“The cat’s out of the bag now,” Paul van Eijl said. “Whether it’s us or somebody else, this is coming. It’s inevitable.”