David Epner is excited, and at 78 years old and more than seven decades in the finishing business, there’s not too much that gets this guy pumped up anymore.
“I wish I could tell you all about it,” Epner says of his new plating project. “But I can’t, ya know? It’s just that these clients of mine will go all crazy on me, ya know? You understand, right?”
With that, the owner of 100-year-old Epner Technology Inc. in Brooklyn, NY leans in and starts describing in almost a whisper the latest project using his proprietary ‘Laser Gold’ process, a job that includes plating the inside of a 13-foot high vat that is six feet wide and uses just over two pounds of gold plating material on the inside.
“This is the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” says Epner, whose company is one of the leading suppliers of electroplated, infrared reflective, optical coating for the aerospace, medical, computer and defense industries.
MISSILES, ROCKETS AND COPTERS
Among the past projects are his work with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Mars Global Surveyor’s telescope mirror; coating three secondary IR mirrors for Hawaii’s Keck Observatory; radiation shields on the AXAF telescope; mirrors on NASA’s Vegetation Canopy Lidar; and more than 700,000 parts for missiles, rockets and helicopters for the military.
He also made his fortune (and lost it once) developing gold plating applications for Xerox, Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed, as well as for thousands of other clients who trek to the New York City boroughs to find the man with the “golden touch.”
“We are proud that a little company in Brooklyn made such a vital contribution to the success of our first orbital mission to the planet Mercury,” says NASA’s Arlen Bartel, Project Mgr., Mercury Laser Altimeter Messenger Spacecraft at the Goddard Space Flight Center. “Not only was the Laser Gold plating and masking on this critical component flawless, but it was delivered on time against an impossible schedule.”
His Laser Gold application -- with 99.4% reflectivity and a hardness of 200 on the Knoop scale -- has saved countless projects and several careers for clients who couldn’t get it done otherwise. And it has kept Epner smiling as he relishes his problem solving personae in the industry.
THE MISSION STATEMENT
“You know what our mission statement is?” Epner asks, knowing he’s about to tell. “ ‘To make you look smarter than we both know you really are.’ It’s not ISO-approved, but it’s on our website anyway, and it really resonates with young engineers.”
ETI’s list of customers are highly-visible and extremely demanding as the firm deals with companies and organizations in the aerospace, electronics, optical and computer industries.
“I’m usually the last headache they have to go through to complete the job,” he says. “That’s why I want to go out of my way to get it done right for them.”
SOLE NIST STANDARD
Epner’s Laser Gold plating is a pure, hard, electrochemically deposited gold coating that combines the theoretical reflectivity and emissivity of gold, with a surface that can actually be physically cleaned. The company says Laser Gold has been the sole and single NIST standard (#2011) in gold reflectance.
Those who vouch to ETI’s expertise are endless.
“The plating job was head and shoulders above what has been done for aircraft instruments here in the past,” says Dr. Thomas Reyerson with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin. “The performance of the vessels gave us nearly double the sensitivity, due in part to the extremely high reflectivity.”
Says Frank Groark, Northrup Grumman: “The quality of the Laser Gold coating was incomparable, but that is what we have come to expect from Epner Technology over the years.”
The Laser Gold plating process usually begins by polishing the aluminum reflector to an RMS 4 finish, or when the highest reflectivity (or the lowest emissivity) is required. A standard aluminum plating prep follows using the zincate process and, since aluminum normally is not plated directly with gold, an electroless nickel plate usually between .0005” and .001” precedes the gold deposit.
If the final product is an imaging mirror as contrasted to a reflecting surface, then a much heavier electroless nickel, usually about .004”, is applied. This nickel, which must be pinhole and pit free, is then either optically lapped or single point diamond turned. When the final optical figure is achieved by the customer, the mirror is returned to ETI for the application of Laser Gold. Depending on the service life of the product the gold layer is between 4 and 100 micro inches thick and comes out of the Laser Gold bath requiring no further protection or overcoat.
In an unusual consumer product application, Laser Gold was chosen for the infrared light pipe in the tympanic or ear thermometer. Some 15 million were produced for Braun, the German division of Gillette.
Epner is one of the rare breed of platers who isn’t secretive about how he does his magic.
“We are not paranoid about our processes since the real secret in this business is in the controlling of those processes,” he says. “Our strength comes from a lot of years of breaking the back of some really off-beat plating challenges.”
Most of that know-how came from the late Stephen Candiloro Sr., vice president of research and development., who sadly passed away in 2009. His son, Stephen Candiloro Jr., now runs production at Epner, while Paul Brancato is general manager and in engineering sales. Both are co-owners of the company.
“We do what it takes to get the customer out of the hole,” says Candiloro, “Plating is one of the last operations on a project and the customer is usually late by the time the part is ready for finishing.”
The Epner company was founded in 1910 by David’s father, Louis, along with his brother-in-law, Emanuel Cohan, as a jewelry repair company. The plating part was incidental, but eventually became the focus of the business when they were asked to silver plate some of the earliest microwave radar systems for Columbia University’s radiation labs.
David’s brother, Gerald, joined the company in 1935 and was later followed by the younger David, who had been hanging around the shop since he was five. Gerald passed away in 2004.
SUCCESS AND FAILURE
In 1978 the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The product line was mostly commercial and consumer products. Xerox, Hughes Aircraft and a few other high-tech accounts were making money, but the commercial business was losing money. All of this was compounded by an old story: Betrayal by a trusted manager who was sabotaging quality while setting up a competitive plating company.
“A consultant woke us up,” says Epner. “He told us, ‘You have 45 people on the Xerox production line; half of them are making rejects for the other half to repair.’ He offered to design and build an automated machine for the Xerox production and, because the company was out of cash, offered to do it on a royalty only basis.
With his lawyer, Epner structured what was called, an ‘Assignment for Benefit of Creditors,’ which is a kind of bankruptcy but one that keeps the problem out of a bankruptcy court. The assignment required that the assets of the corporation be gathered and turned into cash. Receivables were collected, capital equipment auctioned off, and then the cash was distributed, pro rata, amongst the creditors. They all came out virtually whole.
He even had to auction off his company’s name, but instead he sent his wife to pay $1,000 for the rights to the name again. Epner himself went to the auction disguised in a wig and dark glasses to check out the sale.
“I just wanted to see what was going on,” he chuckles.
The consultant realized that the business should focus on their high-tech niche and he convinced Epner and his brother, Gerald, who were running the company at the time, that they should start over in a new smaller facility, with no distraction from their core technology. The new automatic machine knocking out the Xerox production with only six people took much of the risk out of this concept.
“Needless to say, this was the right idea,” Epner said.
Today, the 44-employee company works out of 15,000 sf building in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, less than 10 minutes from LaGuardia Airport. ETI’s sales and administration function occupy part of a company-owned 40,000 square-foot building nearby.
OTHER MEDALS AND SUBSTRATES
Besides gold, Epner also plates electroless nickel, electrolytic nickel, copper, silver, tin, tin-lead, rhodium and platinum, and, if the job is interesting enough and/or profitable enough, they will set up a dedicated bath to solve the customers problem. In addition to aluminum Laser Gold has been plated on substrates of beryllium, aluminum-beryllium alloy, molybdenum, and lately, much of the satellite and space instrument work has required coating titanium.
Engineering plastics such as Ultem, Ryton, Torlon and Teflon are routinely handled at Epner’s facility. Acquiring their NADCAP certification was spearheaded by an experienced quality manager who was once the owner of a small plating job shop, and supported by a process control laboratory headed up by a PhD Chemist, a recent shareholder in the firm. The company holds quality approvals from all of the aerospace and military customers that they service.
One of the company’s latest projects is partnering with DiMora Motorcar, using the Laser Gold system to reflect engine heat in the $2 million Natalia SLS 2 sport luxury sedan.
While most automobiles use of a metal firewall to insulate the passenger compartment from the heat generated by the engine, the Natalia firewall will be a lightweight composite fiber panel that will be covered with the Epner protective film that features a pure gold surface on the engine side to reflect infrared heat away from the passenger compartment.
“Laser Gold is the perfect solution to our heat isolation challenge,” says DiMora Motorcar Founder and CEO Alfred DiMora. “It allows us to use this incredibly strong yet very lightweight panel as our firewall. Since Natalia is the diamond of luxury automobiles, the 24-carat gold is a natural fit.”
With all his success, don’t expect Epner to looking at the retirement any day soon. His plans follow the pattern of his father and brother before him. Louis Epner, David’s father, died on the job at age 72. Gerald, his brother, was still working and productive at 88. The heirs apparent are the two younger partners, Candiloro and Brancato, both still in their 40s.
“I wouldn’t be here most evenings till 6:30 and later, if I weren’t having fun,” says Epner “It’s a good time to connect with our West Coast aerospace customers and when they say to me, ‘you’re working late’, I give them my canned response: ‘I’ve really never worked a day in my life.’”
For more information on Epner Technology, please call 800.823.7637 or visit epner.com.
To read a brief history and current explanation of the process, please visit pfonline.com/articles/gold-plating