In December 2005, Jon Stillman saw the stars align.
When Clark Foam closed its doors, Stillman saw it as an opportunity. "I saw the article in December 2005 about Clark Foam quitting the foam business and it really spoke to me," says Stillman, president of Ice-Nine Foam Works. He called a group of friends and former co-workers from the aerospace and engineering industry who'd had success worldwide in plastics formulation. While they didn't mind selling their wares to aerospace 'suits', they felt it would be better to work in an industry where people were passionate about their product. As surfers, the surfboard industry was the obvious choice and the timing couldn't have been better.
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The day, known as Black Monday in the surf industry, is a story we all know. When Clark Foam stopped production, the surfboard industry was suddenly missing between 80 and 90 per cent of its surfboard blank supply and the industry was left scrambling to find new suppliers and technology.
Stillman and his team consulted with shapers and manufacturers such as Midget Smith and Brian Bulkley, as well as Brad Bashem, Chris Kaysen and Terry Martin from Hobie. Their insight into the marketplace was invaluable. To add to that, a bit of serendipity led Stillman and his partners to get the computers and data from Grubby Clark's factory, and in January 2006, Ice-Nine Foam Works was born.
"We studied Clark's operations and technology; all of his systems," says Stillman. "Operationally, Grubby Clark was extremely sophisticated. We were very lucky to be able to stand on the shoulder of a giant and see the landscape. We could see where to go."
That vision led them to a sweet discovery. A Mexico-based company called Glory Foam made sugar-based surfboard blanks. While Ice-Nine had a leg up with Clark's systems, they knew they had to upgrade the chemical engineering of the foam itself. That's where Glory Foam came in.
Stillman had first seen the Glory Foam blanks at Midget Smith's shaping room. "Midget is our lead shaper on plug development and on one of our visits, he showed us a blank which he liked," says Stillman. "We were impressed with the quality as well. Tom, from Glory Foam, had also seen samples of our blanks as he made his rounds selling his product. When Tom decided to sell his company, he contacted me first as he thought it was the most appropriate home for his technology, based on what he knew about our approach."
In May 2007, the deal was signed.
"We realized that Grubby's operational systems were close to flawless, but we needed to change the technology," says Stillman. "Glory Foam's Ensenada factory was dismantled and then reassembled in California in April. We were blowing blanks by May."
The insourcing move was one that's rarely seen these days, but Stillman says it's all about America. Even the name Ice-Nine is a tribute to great American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel, Cat's Cradle, ice nine is an allotrope of ice that, when put in contact with water, catalyzes the freezing of normal water at ambient temperatures.
By bringing Glory Foam to the U.S., Ice-Nine was able make a big shift in blank technology. Using Glory Foam's sugar blanks and shifting from the traditional TDI, or toluene di-isocyanate foam to MDI, or methylene di-phenyl di-isocyanate foam, Ice-Nine created a high performance blank from an organic source.
According to Ice-Nine, the new bio foam uses sugar-based polyols to create organic polyurethane, unlike the traditional environmentally hazardous blanks that caused the eventual demise of Clark Foam.
But they're not the only company to do so. Homeblown US creates bio foam blanks at their manufacturing plant in San Diego, but from different materials. Stillman believes the Homeblown blanks are made from soy, rather than sugar, but the actual plant base is unconfirmed.
"They're focused on the greenest applications for polyurethane and are really motivated in that arena," says Stillman. "But we provide a variety of different foams. I really feel that no one foam is right for all purposes, but there are a lot of advantages to bio foam."
Despite those advantages, and the word 'bio' attached to it, Stillman isn't convinced bio foam is greener. While he and the guys at Homeblown stand by using MDI technology over TDI because it's definitively better for the environment, making bio foam may still leave an agricultural footprint.
"It's definitely more organic, but it's not necessarily better for the environment," says Stillman. It hasn't been in use long enough to be able to measure its impact, but Stillman still feels really good about being able to offer a blank that's organic, performs well and is new to the market.
Outside of the foam technology itself, Ice-Nine is keeping custom rockers on blanks available, a Clark mainstay, but pushing it even further by creating unlimited pivot points. The glue-up of stringers is exact, with a size-on-size stringer lay-up process that eliminates wood to sand down after glue-up, and maintains the rocker that was custom ordered. Online ordering of blanks is streamlined and automated with an interface that's very similar to APS 3000 and other software that shapers are familiar with.
"This is what is going to keep manufacturing in the USA. In China, they want to make a million of six things. We want to make six of a million things," says Stillman.
Ice-Nine plans to have the production floor running by mid-June and stocked with all 51 unique molds by the end of the year. It seems the stars are still shining brightly over Stillman and his team.