A Great New Way to Blast Machines Clean

Dry ice is changing Penang’s industrial landscape.

When Shivonne Lew decided to change careers after nearly a decade in the financial services sector, she took a leap of faith into a field she had absolutely no knowledge of: she went into the dry ice cleaning business.

Dry ice blasting, or CO2 cleaning, is an alternative industrial cleaning process that involves high-pressure blasting using dry ice as a cleaning agent, allowing the cleaning of machines onsite without time-consuming disassembly. The main difference between sandblasting and dry ice blasting is that the latter is non-abrasive, non-flammable and “environmentally responsible” as it contains no secondary contaminants such as solvents or grit.

“Dry ice cleaning has been around in the US for over 30 years but awareness of it in Malaysia only started growing 10 years ago,” explains Lew. “The Japanese have known about dry ice cleaning for over 18 years. Our clients are mainly in the moulding or heavy industry business.”

Taking the Plunge

“I started from zero,” says Lew. “I remember my father asking me whether I was sure this venture was what I wanted when I told him I wanted to switch careers. I didn’t have a clue about industrial production lines. I was an achiever in the banking sector and earned lots of money and rewards. When I was ready to move into a different field in 2013, I had a chat with Jasmond Chan, a classmate from Kulim Chio Min who had graduated as an engineer and was into buying and selling machine parts and trading, and another classmate. We made a trip to KL to attend a technology demo. After that, we communicated directly with the US company, Cold Jet.” Lew and Chan are now partners in their own firm, Averve.

“We started as a consultant for six months doing marketing and presentations while surveying the market, after which we came up with the capital, US$26,000, to purchase our first Cold Jet machine, the Aero40, which was the size of a shopping trolley. We used the Aero40 to do our demo at client factories. At the end of 2014, we set up our first production line with 12 operators and one service team comprising three people. Today, Averve has five contract cleaning projects with Penang SMEs.”

One of their clients is a multinational company that uses Averve’s Cold Jet machines to clean medical devices, such as heart pumps – some of which are very small and require precision cleaning. “Dry ice is basically CO2,” says Chan. “The original source of dry ice is liquid CO2 which goes through the machine and comes out as solid dry ice. Our nozzle technology shoots dry ice on surfaces and is effective in cleaning when the air cools down. Dry ice temperature is -78.5°C. Normally, injection moulding takes six to eight hours of cleaning time. The mould needs to cool down for two to three hours. With our technology, we can clean directly on the machine. If sandblasting is used to clean the mould, it could adversely affect the mould and in turn, production. Changing a mould can be costly, in the range of RM 100,000.”

“Fast-moving products such as electronics and IT items, such as mobile phones and computers, are a good market for us. The smallest product we clean is usually 3mm by 3mm while the biggest product is one foot by one foot. We do on-site cleaning of items, be they vehicles or oil tanks.”

Jasmond Chan and Shivonne Lew.

The reactions from potential customers are usually one of amazement and curiosity. “When we do our cold calls and introduce dry ice blasting as a cleaning solution, people ask, ‘What’s this?’ The first thing that comes to their mind is that dry ice is for keeping corpses intact!” laughs Lew.

Dry ice blasting or cleaning does not come without some occupational hazards. “During blasting, workers have to put on hand gloves, goggles, eye masks and PPE overalls. We cannot control 100% safety as it depends on the blasters’ skills,” says Chan. “If the air pressure is too high, it can injure the skin. Storage of the dry ice requires care, as it cannot be stored in a confined space. It has to be kept in a ventilated container box; you can black out if you are in a closed environment with a high concentration of CO2 gas.

Lew and Chan are realistic in their aspirations. “We need five years to grow. Our aim is to own a factory with 15 to 20 lines and have 40%-50% market share in the blast cleaning sector.” As for having their factory in Butterworth, “It’s good to be here. We have easy access to Perai industrial area, Kulim industrial park, Juru, Ipoh. Across the bridge are the island and Bayan Lepas.”

Dry ice is turning out to be a great lubricant for success for young, thirty-something entrepreneurs like Lew and Chan. “You could say that dry ice has changed my life,” says Lew.

Elizabeth Su is a Mason Fellow from Harvard. She believes that one of the best ways to learn is to ask the right questions.

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