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Finally, a clean ice machine, says Tarpon Springs inventor

TARPON SPRINGS

Serial inventor Robert Almblad is talking slime.

It's the oldy, moldy, rank slime that inevitably builds up in the commercial ice machines used in fast-food restaurants, chain motels and bagged ice factories.

It's the kind of slime made infamous in a 2006 science project of Jasmine Roberts, a Tampa seventh grader at the time, who found (with testing help by the Moffitt Cancer Center) that the ice produced at area fast-food restaurants contained more bacteria than the same restaurants' own toilet water.

"The ice machine industry is well aware of this problem," Almblad says. So he decided to invent a new way to make ice and keep it clean for consumption.

That effort started back in 2006. In obscure warehouse space five minutes north of the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks and just south of the Pasco County line, Almblad shows off some bizarre contraptions — first efforts that failed at building cleaner ice machines. "I nearly cried," the inventor said. Then he got back to work.

It's taken years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to hit on the right idea.

The result is Almblad's new ice machine. It's branded with "Safe Ice Inside" — a phrase Almblad hopes will catch on with consumers just like the "Intel Inside" brand adds confidence to the quality of computers.

The lifelong inventor designed a sealed system that keeps the water and cubes inside away from people's hands and contaminants in the air. The key is that his design uses a fan to force air through a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, creating positive air pressure inside the ice machine. It's the same concept used by high-tech manufacturing clean rooms that maintain higher air pressure inside and thus "push" away any exterior contaminants seeking entry. It's also the same technology employed by companies that bottle water.

You could say Almblad has invented a way to freeze bottled water.

Executives of major ice machine companies already have visited Almblad's warehouse to see the new machines. They signed confidentiality agreements to keep the concept secret until Almblad was ready to go public with his new product.

That time is now. His new machine debuted Thursday at the giant North American Food Equipment Manufacturers show in Orlando. His machines are part of his company called Origin Tech. If they catch on, Almblad will sell the licensing rights to his technology to big ice machine makers or food equipment businesses.

On Friday, by phone from the Orlando show, Almblad said he had hoped for good industry feedback to his machine. The show's response topped expectations, with most major ice machine company executives asking him about licensing rights.

And both the U.S. Army and Air Force stopped by Almblad's exhibit asking him to develop his ice machine to military specifications as soon as possible. It seems, Almblad said, that ice machines in military situations are often outdoors and in sandy environments that torment regular ice machines.

"This is exceeding my expectations," the inventor said from Orlando. "My booth has been five and six people deep."

Most of today's basic ice machines expose their internal workings to the elements. That means the water used to make ice cubes continues to be recycled and slowly collects air flotsam, bacteria from human hands, bug parts and far more unmentionable debris. With humidity and time, it all becomes slime and the ice cubes become contaminated.

No, Almblad no longer orders drinks with ice at restaurants. He's seen too much.

Today's ice machine makers provide detailed instructions, nearly 24 steps and lots of manual scrubbing, to try to clean ice machines on a regular basis. Then it's up to the user.

Cleaning rarely happens, Almblad says. It's messy, time consuming and labor intensive. Besides, who's to know if clear ice cubes are clean or just plain gross?

More than 100 patents already exist devoted to cleaning ice machines. Most, he says, are ineffective.

While the industry keeps trying to figure out ways to clean contaminated ice machines, Almblad chose a different route: Never let the machine get dirty in the first place.

At 63, Almblad has a long history of inventing. In Illinois, he hit it big in the 1990s by devising a more efficient and accurate way to duplicate keys. Rather than mechanically "copy" an existing key, Almblad's machine takes a digital picture of a customer's key and compares that digital image with those of original keys stored in the machine's memory. It then reproduces an original key without any human involvement.

Almblad licensed that technology, which is now in use in systems used by Walmart, Home Depot and other major chains.

After keys, Almblad turned to food service equipment to find new inventions to improve delivery and safety.

If you've conjured some image of Almblad in his warehouse workshop as a curious tinkerer, you'd be wrong. His small staff includes an engineer and product designer.

What, I ask him, does he do when he's not at the warehouse pondering inventions? Not much, he says, because he's always here.

Almblad is careful to describe a disciplined approach to invention.

He spends three hours a day reading the patents of other inventors. He says he knows every ice-related invention going back to the 1870s.

He spent lots of time outside New Port Richey at Manitowoc Food Service Cos. to learn about current technology and the key problems in the food equipment industry.

He's also very specific about his invention goals.

Almblad wants to be clear he does not do "product improvements." He pursues what he calls "step change," which means his inventions are of a magnitude to bring about significant change in the size or value of a product. Hence his digital key invention and, now, a clean ice machine.

Most of the oversight of ice quality is handled by a nongovernment industry organization based in Michigan called the National Sanitation Foundation. Almblad was scheduled Friday to meet with NSF officials to discuss raising the industry standards on ice machines.

"This is not my best idea," he admits.

"But it is one of the most important."

In five years, the inventor predicts that most ice machines in the United States will be operating using his design. He says it in a matter-of-fact way.

If true, score another step change invention to make things better and, in this case, healthier, for consumers.

Will people be really willing to pay for ice deemed "safe" and cleaner than what we consume today?

Did anyone think at first the world would spend billions to buy plain water in bottles?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Finally, a clean ice machine, says Tarpon Springs inventor 02/11/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 9:20pm]

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