The most sophisticated weather satellite ever made was stuck on the ground.
NASA created the $1 billion Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite to provide continuous imagery and atmospheric measurements, including total lightning data, in order to better understand extreme weather.
But during pre-launch testing, the satellite repeatedly malfunctioned. A minuscule yet vital gold-plated component inside the machinery kept failing.
So NASA turned to a Franklin-based expert to make its satellite fly.
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Electro-Spec has emerged as an international leader in creating the integral metal-plated parts for everything from pacemakers to automotive safety systems to aerospace satellites. For its work, the company has been honored by at least one industry publication as the top company in its field.
Thirteen years after a fire nearly burned the plant to the ground, Electro-Spec has rebuilt itself inside and out, reaching the pinnacle of plating companies worldwide.
“The last thing we want is for a satellite to fail or a missile to fail or a defibrillator to fail,” president Jeff Smith said. “Most of what we do is ‘high reliability.’ These applications go into space, go into the human body, go into safety-critical components in automobiles. It has to perform.”
Electro-Spec specializes in coating parts in gold, silver, nickel, copper and alloys. The process helps prevent important pieces of machinery from corroding, wearing down or working improperly, Smith said.
The companies that Electro-Spec works with require that the parts function as reliably as possible.
“Any degradation in the metal can lead to failure,” Smith said. “We share with the employees that everything you do is really, really critical. We try to impress upon everybody how critical everything we do is.”
Electro-Spec has worked on parts for life-saving equipment such as a defibrillators, muscular-skeletal devices that provide relief for patients with Parkinson’s disease and insulin pumps for people with diabetes.
The company has provided key components for Lockheed Martin to create the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile, a foremost defense system for the military against enemy fire.
With Electro-Spec’s help, NASA will able to launch its weather satellite in late 2016.
The work its employees do is amplified when thinking about the sensitive ways these parts are used.
“Anything we get from our customers that we can share, we do,” said Mary Gordon, plant manager. “Some of the videos from (medical device manufacturer) Medtronic, we’ve had employees cry. Because it’s really great to know you’ve been part of something like that.”
None of that work seemed possible March 18, 2003, after fire reduced the thriving machinery plant on Earlywood Drive in Franklin to ruin. Faulty electrical equipment started the blaze, which destroyed Electro-Spec’s building.
Though no one was hurt, the plant had to temporarily shut down production. Twenty of the business’ 48 employees were laid off.
At the time, Smith called it the worst week of his life. But he vowed to rebuild, and the disaster provided a window of opportunity for the company to take advantage of technological advances revolutionizing the plating industry.
“The type of company that we were then is completely different than how we are today. The customer base as well as the process control, the automation, the systems we have in place,” Smith said. “We desperately needed to make some changes. Granted, a fire is no way to make those changes, but it allowed us to recreate ourselves to be a better resource for companies we do business with.”
Primarily, Electro-Spec was able to replace its old machinery with all automated equipment that could precisely create even the smallest parts. Some of its parts are so tiny, you could hold 100,000 of them in the palm of your hand.
“In order to be able to provide both predictability to what we do and reliability, you’ve got to have that process control,” Smith said. “No matter how well we train people, there’s going to be variability.”
Software and quality systems helped capture data to refine the work they were doing.
The company was also able to update its tools and chemical properties to ensure the manufacturing process is as predictable as can be, while still offering technicians the flexibility to work on a wide range of parts for differing industries.
“The parts can come in to us with contamination, so the chemistry has to be perfect in terms of temperature and pH and metal concentrations. So there’s huge variability to what we do,” Jeff Smith said. “The more we’re able to refine that to something we can control, the better we’re going to be.”
Six months after the fire, Electro-Spec moved into a new building, twice as large as its former home. The company expanded three times as its business grew, before officials started looking for a new site for the plant.
Support from the Johnson County Development Corp. and the City of Franklin in the form of tax abatements and grants helped get Electro-Spec to its current location on Commerce Parkway. The building has 60,000 square feet of space, plus 12 acres for future expansions.
“There’s no way we’d be where we are without their help,” Smith said. “They were very instrumental in helping us get into this building, and they’ve been a fantastic asset and partner ever since the fire.”
Business has continued to grow. The company’s workforce has grown from 28 people right after the fire to 80 employees, and the company is looking to hire, Gordon said.
At the same time, its reputation has also expanded throughout the plating world.
Electro-Spec was named a top-50 company by Products Finishing, a magazine devoted to the coating and plating industries, in 2015. This year, they bested their performance to finish tops among plating companies.
“Now we have a goal for next year,” Gordon said.
Who: President Jeff Smith
What: A leading specialty plating facility, focusing on gold, silver, nickel and tri-alloy electroplating for parts in aerospace, medical, telecommunications and other industries.
1959: Electro-Spec founded.
1997: Jeff Smith becomes owner of Electro-Spec after purchasing majority share of the company.
March 18, 2003: The Electro-Spec factory on Earlywood Drive in Franklin is reduced to rubble after machinery sparks a fire. Ten days later, the company is forced to lay off 20 of its 48 employees due to the fire.
June 2003: Remaining employees work on data and inventory recovery, as well as working with customers and vendors in the hope the factory could start manufacturing again.
November 2003: Electro-Spec reopens in a new plant on RJ Parkway in Franklin. Using equipment purchased from an entire plating division of a company in Vermont, as well as European-made, fully automated plating equipment, Smith hoped to rebuild Electro-Spec with advanced technology.
February 2008: About five years after the fire, Electro-Spec employs 45 people and signs a multimillion-dollar contract with Energizer to do plating for batteries. It was the second big contract in a year after contracting in 2007 with an automotive provider to produce 28 million brake components.
October 2011: Franklin Redevelopment Commission provides a $438,000 grant to Electro-Spec to help it purchase a Kansas City, Kan., plating company and relocate to Commerce Parkway.
Late 2011: The company moves into its current building, a 60,000-square-feet facility on 12 acres of land, suitable for expansion in the future.
March 2013: As it recognizes the 10th anniversary of the fire that destroyed the plant, Electro-Spec expands to 82 employees, working three shifts, five days per week.
June 2015: Electro-Spec is named one of 50 “Top Shop” by Products Finishing magazine, recognizing the best electroplating companies in the U.S.
March 2016: Electro-Spec is again named a “Top Shop.” The company now has 80 employees, and has helped create vital parts for NASA satellites and Medtronic medical devices.