As you probably know, about half a year ago we opened the new iStill Factory, here in the Netherlands. Why? Producing in Poland, like we did before, was a great and affordable way to start my company, but – over the years – more and more I felt that our Polish production facility couldn’t keep up with the build quality and innovation strategy I envisioned for iStill’s future.
So late 2015 I made the decision: time to centralize production in the Netherlands in order to take the necessary next steps. More concretely, the goals I wanted to achieve were:
- To build equipment with a longevity of 30 years at 24/7 production;
- To achieve total process integration of mashing, fermenting, and distilling.
Now, looking back 8 months, the question arises: did we achieve what we wanted? And what exactly did we do and achieve in terms of build quality and innovation strategy? This post will dive in deeper and update you on the huge progress we have made in realizing my goals to take iStill to the next level. Let’s dive in point by point. All of them? Well, let’s start out with 10 important ones. I don’t want you to spend the rest of the day reading!
1. More sturdy build
Our new production facility here in the Netherlands allowed us to work with thicker sheet metal. Instead of 2 mm, we now work with 3 mm and 4 mm (and on the bigger units even 5 mm). So, per unit we use 50 to 100% more material. It makes the units heavier and much stronger. And that’s just the beginning. Welding is now through & through and flanges, packings, etc. are build to survive WWIII.
Agitator flange & lantern: good examples of a more sturdy build strategy …
2. Boiler and column integrity
Our NextGen design comes with a unique feature: any appendages – like computers, valves, screens, for example – are attached to belts instead of to the boiler or column. Together with the flush square design and oversized legs, this creates optimal boiler and column integrity. If you drive your forklift into one of the appendages, the boiler or column will not be hurt. That way the most important parts of your distillery stay safe, pretty much whatever happens.
Screen is attached to belt is attached to oversized legs …
3. Upgraded insulation
Building stills in the Netherlands allowed us to work with Armaflex Insulation. The real deal. The advantages? Better insulation capacity and heat resistant to 110 degrees Celsius, so no more bubbles on your still’s insulation. It works better and it looks better!
Armaflex is the real deal in insulation …
4. Netherlands build solenoids
Small part, big thing! And since we easily use four or five solenoids on each iStill, they better be good. I remember the discussions I had on costs and quality in the past, where former factory management wanted us to use Chinese solenoids. “EUR 17,-, so very cheap!” No, actually, they were very expensive, because how much damage happens, when one does not function? Lots. I now have my solenoids purposely build pretty much next doors. EUR 74,- a piece, but boy, the difference in build quality!
Solenoids to last …
5. REF Heaters
A long time wish I had. These are the best heating elements in the world. And they are now hand build by the “Rotterdamse Elementen Fabriek” for us at a location just 20 miles from our factory. The quality and longevity of REF heaters is unmatched! That’s why they are used on ships that sail the world. Can’t have one breaking down, while halfway across the pond from Europe to America, right? Functionally, they offer (ultra) low wattage density in combination with a thermometer probe that registers potential overheating or dry-cooking.
REF heaters, because only the best is good enough …
6. The waffle that baffles!
Copper removes sulfurs that may have formed during fermentation. As such, copper can polish your drink up quite a bit. The original catalyst and copper packing added 30 centimeters to the column, though. And it needed a complex Easy Lifting System.
Our newest units come with a pad holder in the column base that sits on top of the boiler. The pads you can use are our new and revolutionary copper waffles. Made in cooperation with a Japanese and Dutch company, they combine ultra-high surface area with ease of use. Instead of 30 centimeter of catalytic functionality, we now only need three centimeters!
A new and innovative approach to sulfur control …
7. Easiest Lifting System
Even though my brother designed it for us, and I am thankful that he did, I always felt the Easy Lifting System a bit complex. So, first we designed a better version. Sturdier, easier to operate, but then another option came along: together with a Japanese and Dutch firm we started developing and producing copper waffles. Very thin, but with a huge surface area. It could, with a height of just 3 centimeters, replace the old catalyst at enormous advantages.
No longer do you need to turn knobs and make sure you do it in such a way that the column stays upright! Because of the new catalyst (see point 6), we can now bring you the easiest lifting system: use a tackle to lift the column a few inches and take the copper waffle out. No more manual labor. Let electricity do the job.
The simplest solution to a problem is usually the best …
8. New Helicon Column Packing
Yes, we had SPP and oversized SPP that were both market leaders in terms of low HETP (Height Equivalent of Theoretical Pates). Our oversized SPP could do one distillation for every 2.8 centimeters of column packing, the ceramics would do around 3.5 centimeters, while the smaller SPP version (for our smaller units) would do a redistillation every 2.2 centimeters under optimal conditions. So … why improve? Because we can and because the benefits are huge, that’s why! I’ll explain.
What was wrong with the old SPP? Nothing much. Only that it was produced in a semi-automated process without proper feedback on spring production size. As a consequence, during the run, tolerances would creep up, and the machine would have to be manually calibrated again and again. As a result of this “spring tolerance creep”, small SPP could be anything from 4.5 to 6.5 mm. Our oversized SPP already had better tolerances: from 9 to 11 mm. But still, that means a total variance of up to 20% when compared to the ideal shape. Not to say that small SPP easily folds and that ceramics often crush or break, creating column flooding or sub-optimal results.
I was so fed up with column performance being hampered by non-optimal column packing, that I reached out and found a company that had automated feedback. Any creep, as little as a 1% deficiency, would automatically be compensated on the next spring. How? By 3D-imaging. Every spring is photographed and compared to the original model! A 1% tolerance instead of 20 to 50% has a huge impact on column performance. As does the new design. It allows our new Helicon Column Packing (HCP) to have an HETP of just 2 centimeters. This means more performance, more purity, better control over cuts. And there is another interesting advantage: because of the low HETP, we can now use the 10×10 mm Helicon Column Packing in our smaller columns! A low HETP of 2 centimeters is now combined with more heat-retention. The new HCP is much heavier, so it can absorb more energy, translating in a more stable, faster run.
FMU Machined HCP …
9. Improved robotization
The old robot was limited in functionality. It always has to close prior to opening again. It also is limited to around 34 different opening settings in real life distilling circumstances. And big chunks of it were made out of plastic and rubber. Even though it did its job, I felt we should make it less fragile.
To further improve the efficiency and productivity of the iStills, we have upgraded to a new robot. The spindle is made by our new factory’s “Fine Mechanical department”, something we didn’t have in our previous production facility. The body and armor (all stainless steel now) is (again) sturdier and made here, in our factory near Amsterdam. The stepper motor actually comes from the USA!
The new robot is capable of taking as many as 1000 steps over a total opening space of 10 mm. Okay, it can open further, and it can actually do 10,000 steps. But the upgrade from 34 to 1000 felt like more than adequate. Thirty times more adequate, actually. One thousand different opening settings, to control reflux vs. product ratio’s as finely as possible, helps improve production rates as well as purity levels.
This is a picture of the old construction, that I felt needed to become less fragile …
10. Improved automation
The old computer on the former iStill range did its job. But because it was based on Commodore 64 technology, it had its limitations. Both functionally (limited memory) and longevity (private use orientation vs. industrial use orientation).
Because one of my most important design goals was for all new iStills to have a longevity of 30 years, that had to change. We therefore upgraded to PLC’s. Industrial rated computer systems used for operations under harsh conditions. Okay, it adds to the costs, but what about a 20 year warrantee? And how about 30 year spare parts delivery? We don’t want you to just buy a still, we want you to run it again, and again, and again …
Also, the new automation allows you to remotely oversee or manage your iStill. And we can patch you uploads with newer firmware remotely. Or we can help you dial in recipes, settings, etc. online.
A glimpse inside the iStill PLC Box …
11. Improved firmware
Now that we use a PLC structure, we can take advantage of the computer programs that are out there to manage industrial robots. Since our new iStill robot can be considered a full-swing industrial robot, that is important. The software needs to be paired to the hardware, to get the most out of both.
Based on my knowledge of how distilling works, one of my responsibilities is to design our computer programs. I feel lucky that we have a state-of-the-art control technology company that supports me by translating my ideas into the cleverest firmware. State-of-the-art control technology company? Yes, like in that they also work for Heinz, the Coca Cola Company, and the Dutch Navy.
Cruise missiles ready to fire …
12. Finishing level
When you can cover things up with insulation, it is easy to start taking shortcuts on your finishing levels. Nobody sees what’s underneath, right? Not with us. I feel “finishing level” and “attention to detail” matter to the highest degree. No shortcuts for us. The new Netherlands based factory has the capacity and capability to deliver to the industry’s highest finishing levels. For stills from 100 to 50,000 liters …
A picture of the inside of our boilers shows our finishing level …
(That little wet spot to the left is of someone peeping through the manhole and drewling)
Or … what’s “NextGen”? I hope this iStill Blog post taught you more about our attention to detail, about how we have taken the opportunity of building a new factory that allows us to push the quality of our stills to the highest industry standards, while – at the same time – increasing our rate of innovation in order to make distilling easier yet again. Oh, and I am sorry for sharing 12 instead of the 10 improvements I promised you first. I guess I got carried away a bit. Hope you don’t mind!
Sincerely yours, 24/7, for the next 30 years, and more.
Odin, CEO of iStill