"Our entire main plating area was destroyed," explained Jerry Paglia, manager for Aotco Metal Finishing Co., Billerica, Massachusetts. Mr. Paglia was referring to a fire in the early morning hours of August 3 and 4, 1991.
The story of the actual fire is typical for just about any finishing shop that has had a fire. The electroless nickel tank evaporated down too far. The plastic ignited. The fire accelerated from that point. Fortunately, the sprinkler system helped contain the fire within the main room, so the rest of the building was spared. However, the main room contained gold, silver, rhodium, electroless nickel and tin plating solutions, along with pollution control equipment. The loss was substantial.
As devastating as a fire may be, Aotco saw it as another challenge. The company thrives on challenge. "A truck left here Monday morning after the fire full of work and our plating crew. They went out to various platers in the area who offered to help us out during the rebuilding," noted Elliott Wilke, president and founder of Aotco. Mr. Wilke and his staff worked diligently and quickly to replace equipment and settle matters with the insurance company.
Aotco was able to keep the anodizing line running, since it was in another section of the 20,000 sq ft building. Also, it did not require a lot of wastewater pretreatment and did not use cyanides. The cyanide-based solutions were a big worry with the fire department and environmental agencies, which arrived quickly to help contain all the chemicals and assess damages. All the chemicals and plating solutions were contained. Clean Harbors of Massachusetts cleaned up the facility.
"We were plating out of the main plating room within six weeks of the fire. All stops were pulled out to get us running again," commented Mr. Paglia. The company purchased a lot of used equipment just so it could get it into the shop and back to work. Employees also pitched in. They spent time not only plating work at other shops, but they would return to Aotco to help cleanup when their shift was over. To look at the shop today, you could never tell there had been a fire. The room is bright, clean and orderly. The fire was a major challenge, but Aotco specializes in challenges.
All plating is done manually. No parts weigh more than 30 lbs. Most of the parts are wired or racked, with some small barrel plating work. Much of the company's work is in telecommunications, electronics and other industries with exacting specifications and small parts.
The company plates all traditional applications on both ferrous and non-ferrous materials. However, it also plates on materials such as titanium, Kovar, Invar, molybdenum, aluminum/beryllium metal, tungsten/copper, pure beryllium, beryllium oxide and aluminum silicon carbide. The company also meets or exceeds the current revision of Mil-I-Specification 45208 and Mil-Std-45662. It also plates to AMS and ASTM specifications.
Because of its ability to plate to specification and plate on exotic metals, Aotco does work for customers that produce high-tech instruments, such as Raytheon, Lockheed, TRW, Hughes Aircraft and Texas Instruments. It also accepts challenges from these companies, such as how to black anodize aluminum/beryllium metal.
How did Aotco earn its reputation as a fastidious plater? It started with the company founder, Elliott Wilke. Mr. Wilke worked for plating companies in New England for 30 years before he decided it was time to start his own company. A company dedicated to what he loved, a challenge.
Many of the finishes require specialized treatment before plating and high bakes after plating. The high bakes are needed because gold/tin or gold/germanium are used in subsequent operations as attachment mediums. Gold/germanium is attached at 356C, so the plating must withstand this temperature.
"Electroless nickel and gold are the biggest finishes. We can put gold on any one of the listed (on its website AOTC.com) substrates. Each part must be treated differently depending on the substrate, specification and desired finish. The plating is fairly standard. It is the pretreatment (cleaning, copper strike, nickel pre-plate) that is most important," stated Mr. Paglia.
"We keep updated on the newest materials that need to be plated. That is our specialty," declared Mr. Wilke. "We do the impossible, the unique, the things other people are not interested in doing. That is our forte. That is what keeps us on the front line," he continued.
Mr. Wilke never did like production work. "There is no challenge to it," he contended. Mr. Wilke thrives on special projects and intricate detail.
One such project involved a guidance system for submarines. Most submarine guidance systems are based on gyroscopes. This guidance system, a gradiometer, was approximately 36 inches in diameter. It was made from a variety of substances: titanium, beryllium, ceramic, plastics, stainless and aluminum. All needed plating.
The gradiometer measures and stabilizes a ship while it is traveling. It measures pulses from the earth and the direction to the North Pole. It then puts the two together and uses the result to keep the ship on course. Using a gyroscope, a ship could be off course 200 or 300 miles on an around-the-world trip, according to Mr. Wilke.
Aotco also worked on some of the first artificial hearts, although they were used in cows rather than humans. The company also worked on the first pacemaker ever generated. Other projects include parts for the space shuttle. The challenge was weight. The shuttle needed extremely strong parts that were lightweight. Many of the metals that were suitable were exotic and did not follow a typical plating sequence. Aotco developed a plating process for these types of metals. "It is quite a challenge and that is what we like about the business," stated Mr. Wilke.
Aotco's expertise at developing finishes for the "unfinishable" can also be attributed to the way it runs its shop. All work is inspected prior to finishing. This ensures that any machining or work done to the part prior to arriving at Aotco is up to spec. Aotco also does mechanical checks on parts because much of the plating is done to dimensional aspects.
Once a part is accepted, it goes into production. Meticulous notes are kept on each piece and the process. Thickness and time in tank are logged continuously, along with amperage on the baths. This allows Aotco to simply call up a special (or any) procedure when it gets a repeat job.
Many of the platings are duplex or triplex, meaning there are two or three different plates on the part. "EN is a base for a lot of parts. Then we may plate cadmium or gold. Or we may plate a part with copper first and then EN or gold," explained Bob Gillingham, vice president. And not only are two or three finishes plated on a part, all parts undergo a strenuous bake cycle. The baking helps Aotco weed out reject parts. The company's reject level is less than one half of one pct. Gold-plated aluminum is regularly baked to 300C. Some parts are baked as high as 450C. Baking allows for high-temperature soldering, brazing or post machining.
All rack and wire plated parts are 100 pct inspected. Aotco's equipment includes x-ray fluorescence, ovens, salt spray and climate cabinets. A sample is taken from each lot of barrel plated parts for testing.
Aotco Metal Finishing stands out in a field that demands strict adherence to customer requirements. Whether plating for avionics, optics, communications, countermeasures, controls or medical electronics, the company is ready for the challenge.