Thanks to the support of CMURC's Right Choice program and a cutting-edge technology known as thermal cycling, Mt. Pleasant-based I.C.E. Metals is dramatically reducing equipment costs for everything from farm machinery and excavators to lawnmowers and brake assemblies.
Humans have long used heat and flame to manipulate useful materials. Before the pyramids were built, enterprising metallurgists were heating copper and tin to high temperatures and producing bronze, a much stronger alloy that could be used in everything from jewelry to weaponry.
These early scientists would be shocked to learn what Gary Moeggenberg, founder and president of Mt. Pleasant-based I.C.E. Metals, is doing. Using a cutting-edge process called thermal cycling, Moeggenberg can dramatically increase the strength, density and uniformity of virtually any metal implement that's brought into his shop.
So how does this technology work?
Inside a sealed cryogenic vessel, "cycled" items are repeatedly exposed to temperatures as low as -300 Fahrenheit--not quite absolute zero, but close--over the course of several hours or days. The goal is to close or shrink the microscopic cracks, fissures, and pockets that reduce the strength and durability of cast or forged metal parts. These defects often aren't serious enough to raise quality control flags during the initial manufacturing process, but they eventually contribute to vibration- or stress-related parts failures.
While cycled parts aren't indestructible, they may last three times as long as untreated items. I.C.E.'s thermal cycling process doesn't simply close off metal fissures by causing the material to contract. Instead, it fundamentally rejiggers metal "grains" at the molecular level. This simple yet powerful process has attracted the attention of local farmers (whose tractor parts don't come cheap), drilling companies (when it comes to drill bits, stronger is always better), and tree care providers (cycled blades don't dull as quickly as untreated blades). Other metal implements are welcome too: I.C.E.'s website claims that cycling can extend the life of brake shoes and pads by a factor of three or four.
Moeggenberg and I.C.E. would be nowhere without Central Michigan University Research Corporation, a business incubator that "mine[s] technology from universities and private enterprise, assist[s] companies and entrepreneurs in building business structures around the technology...and help[s] companies secure necessary start up financing," according to its website.
Moeggenberg is actually the first successful graduate of CMURC's intense Right Choice program, a three-step workshop that connects startups with in-depth market research, business and revenue models, tailor-made investor pitches and full-spectrum product support.
"[CMURC] basically took me by the hand and said, 'This is where you need to go, this is what you need to do,'" says Moeggenberg in a recent promotional video. "and...it's worked."
I.C.E.'s owner likes to talk about the time he found himself scrambling to keep a client. "[The client] had a tractor disc...made out of boron, a material that can't be processed cryogenically," he says. "I needed information about...where I could find a piece of metal that would run properly. I called CMURC from the client's office...and seven minutes later, I had my answer." With CMURC, Moeggenberg says, he has access to resources, information and economies of scale that would normally be out of reach for startup owners.
For I.C.E., resource number one is a 200-cubic-foot cryogenic vessel that's among the world's largest. The space can hold up to 20,000 pounds of metal, meaning Moeggenberg can cycle dense equipment, like drill bits, and bulky items, like turbine blades.
Moeggenberg has certainly been busy with his vessel. He's in the shop six days a week, refining his technique and welcoming new clients into the fold. Until now, he's been generating buzz through word-of-mouth and local referrals, but a crush of new clients suggests this is changing. "My [new] clients are saying, 'I need this, and I need it now,'" he says. "Building my business is my first priority."
Moeggenberg's early success isn't confined to Mid-Michigan. He recently traveled to the Dubuque, Iowa area to meet with manufacturers and logistics firms intrigued by I.C.E.'s capabilities. Despite its deep industrial base and proud history of high-tech innovation--"It's amazing what they're doing out there," says Moeggenberg--that particular region lacks native thermal cycling experts who can compete with I.C.E.'s process.
In fact, the relatively new technology continues to fly under the radar, in spite of its obvious promise. If Moeggenberg can successfully expand his business into underserved industrial markets across the Midwest and beyond, it would be a huge boon for Mid-Michigan's technology industry--and a major win for CMURC.