VERONA — Their affinities are for classic cars.
Gary Elmer prefers to collect Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen Beetles. Tom Griffith leans more toward DeSotos, Packards and Chryslers.
But it’s what they did to a pair of bicycle frames that is changing their lives, creating a new business and generating interest from a diverse set of manufacturers from around the world.
The inquiries have come from a medical device company in California, a dental implant firm in Europe, injection molding companies in the Midwest, a bicycle company in Switzerland and an appliance manufacturer with a global market.
Over the past year, Elmer and Griffith, founders of Argent Brothers Custom Industrial Plating, used carbon fiber bicycle frames as test objects and have found a way to replace the expensive and caustic method of traditional chromium acidic electroplating with an environmentally friendly process using distilled water and silver that can be applied via spray to virtually any surface to create the look of chrome.
The micro-thin application dries in seconds and for non-medical devices is then covered with a waterborne clear-coat that is cured using ultraviolet light, which protects the silver coating from scratching and tarnishing.
The traditional spray chrome process has been around for decades but is meant for small objects such as emblems, knobs, tools, trim pieces and toy models but not for larger objects or those with holes.
Elmer and Griffith have modified the process with a silver ion antimicrobial surface treatment. The process, created by modifying a traditional spray chrome kit, was created through a series of adjustments and tweaks that has created the ability to silver plate an object of any size including something as large as a car, boat or airplane. Bicycle frames, with their many holes, nooks and crannies, turned out to be ideal candidates on which to perfect the process.
Among the keys was extending the amount of time between when a coating of preparation solution and the coating of silver that is mixed with distilled water can be applied, how the silver spray covers an object and the faster drying time of the clear coat, which will allow for mass production runs.
“It’s a game changer. It’s something no one has ever done before at this scale and to objects that are a certain size or larger,” Griffith said. “We didn’t know what we had initially but we’ve now been told enough times by people of note that ‘yeah, you guys have done something that many different industries have been trying to do for decades and no one’s ever been able to do it.’ And we did it in a farm shed.”
Much of the electroplating industry is in China or Mexico where environmental laws are lax. But the green process developed by Elmer and Griffith could provide a less expensive, domestic outlet for manufacturers and create jobs here in the Midwest.
The duo has applied for a patent and is now trying to decide if they should cash out and sell their technology or recruit investors and move forward with their own manufacturing facility with the hopes of capturing 2% of the $18 billion electroplating industry.
The shed where Argent Brothers was founded is located on Elmer’s town of Rutland property east of Oregon and adjacent to the Hook Lake Wildlife Area. The former horse barn had been converted to an air-conditioned car restoration shop by Elmer, who grew up on the family farm across the road and happens to be an expert in paint chemistry. Elmer has spent the majority of his 57 years working on cars, the latest a Porsche that is getting a complete redo and is owned by a well-known Madison doctor.
The spray booth, adjacent to the workshop, is where Elmer and Griffith spent nights and weekends and more than $100,000 failing but making incremental progress before finally finding the right combinations of equipment, technique and chemicals.
The ordeal began after Elmer, owner of E Enterprises 1701 (yes, he’s a Star Trek fan), began searching for a way to chrome the rings around headlights of a car while Griffith had time after losing his job with a printing company.
The duo, who met through their car connections, made eight modifications to a traditional chrome spray kit before trying something “stupid” in October that actually worked. They won’t say what it is but have since made another seven modifications to further improve the process, something bike manufacturers and other industries have been trying to do for years.
“I problem-solve all the time,” Elmer said. “It’s ‘what are the problems and how do you overcome those problems?’ You examine what the problem is and what is that you need to change about it. Because the directions that come with these spray kits are all the same.”
Elmer and Griffith are already working with a consortium of world-renowned spinal and orthopedic surgeons who prepaid $30,000 to have 1,000 titanium vertebrae implants coated in silver, which is known for fending off infections. The devices are being tested on sheep, and if they get approval from the federal Food & Drug Administration it would mean a second order to Argent Brothers of 10,000 pieces, Griffith said.
Argent Brothers is also working with the engineering team of an appliance company to coat the metal rings around the windows of front-loading washers and dryers. The work is currently being done in foreign countries but a test order of 10,000 pieces has been placed with Argent. If the appliance company likes the results it could mean an annual order of 400,000 pieces.
Argent has an order from an Illinois injection mold company to cover plastic parts in silver and is in discussions with one of Wisconsin’s largest injection molding companies to do the same. It’s also working with a European bike maker to negotiate the rights for the first carbon chrome bicycle for sale to the public after it debuts in the Tour de France.
But it wasn’t until January that Griffith and Elmer began to truly grasp what they had accomplished. That’s when a friend sent a photo of the “chromed” bike frame to Cycling Weekly in England, one of the premier bike publications in the world. The story went viral, resulting in inquiries from around the world. It also has Griffith and Elmer facing major decisions in the weeks and months to come after more than 20 failures at $400 each.
“We kept making changes every time and getting a little bit better,” said Elmer. “It was worth it because we knew we were going in the right direction.”
Griffith, 60, grew up in Racine and, after graduating from UW-Oshkosh, spent seven years in medical device and equipment sales. He spent the next 18 years in printing sales at Badger Graphic Systems, which provided him ties to the biking industry.
For nearly 20 years Griffith lived in a Victorian home in downtown Verona filled with antiques and his own paintings. The property also had garages filled with car lifts and his collectible vehicles. He sold the house and some of his cars to help finance his portion of Argent Brothers, that thus far has amassed about $200,000 in startup and research and development costs.
The company has just moved into a 3,000-square-foot space off Paoli Street in Verona where they have built a spray booth and could begin manufacturing at a small scale. The front lobby is filled with Griffith’s antiques and paintings but also a chrome bike and colorful samples of other silver-coating work. Because the coating is just 4/10,000ths of an inch thick, the color behind the coating can been seen through the silver.
“We are not worried in the least about someone else beating us to that patent or figuring it out in their own garage or farm shed because what we did to get the results that we got you will never figure out,” Griffith said. “I don’t care if you live to be 1,000 years old. It’s just so weird. And that’s how come we know they’re never going to figure it out either.”