Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Co-founder Mike Dean predicts steady growth for the pioneering laser manufacturer as it develops increasingly versatile machines.
After meeting at Georgia Tech University, Steve Garnier and John Doran put their electrical engineering educations and respective backgrounds in motion controls and lasers to good use.
The duo worked on a prototype etching laser in Doran's basement for three years before officially launching the company, pairing an XY gantry system, the same concept as an inkjet printer, with a laser.
"That's still the heart of the laser system," says Dean, VP of sales and marketing, who joined as Epilog moved out of the basement. (Garnier is now the company's CEO and Doran VP of engineering.) "There were three technologies that came together. The laser technology is sort of like the motor in your car -- it's big, expensive, and complicated."
The second technology in question was the computer, and the third was desktop publishing. "We use a computer to drive the laser and desktop publishing to print," he says. "But instead of printing on paper, it takes a high-intensity beam of light that can vaporize things."
"We built the first 20 machines in Steve's garage in '91," says Dean. "It really took off." Growth has reliably eclipsed 10 percent in recent years; revenue is undisclosed. "We keep expanding our production line to offer more machines to more markets."
Epilog's initial market was awards and engraving companies, but it diversified into industrial marking in the late 1990s. Today, Epilog sells through a worldwide network of 100 distributors and industrial customers represent about 65 percent of sales, Dean says. "That's the biggest driver of our growth."
Industrial clients use the machines to mark parts with serial numbers and bar codes. Guitar giant Fender uses Epilog's lasers to customize pickguards. Oakley marks its sunglasses with the company's machines.
"They're extremely versatile machines," says Dean. "Companies like Boeing have our machines throughout their facilities. My understanding is they mark their tools with it. You don't want to leave a tool in a jet engine."
While etching remains front and center, the machines have improved and gotten less expensive over the company's 25 years. Epilog's lasers now etch "easier, faster, and at higher quality," says Dean. "Our innovations have been to improve the marking process, speed it up."
Released in early 2017, the latest and greatest Epilog product is the G2 Galvo Laser for high-speed industrial marking. The mirror-based motion-control system "eliminates moving parts," says Dean. "We're always working on new laser technology."
The company has also created markets with innovative ideas. In 2009, Epilog provided every PetSmart store in the U.S. with self-serve laser kiosks to etch pet tags.
The original model was $20,000 in 1991; the entry point is now about $8,000, with the top end at $65,000. A good deal of that savings is a result of the company bringing manufacturing in-house, with a prime example of Epilog making its own laser tubes since 2005. "We needed smaller laser tubes and higher-performing laser tubes," says Dean.
About 50 employees work in production, and the company does all of its engineering in-house. Some sheet metal work and machining is still outsourced to local contract manufacturers. "We're big on sourcing locally," says Dean, noting that 95 percent of components are domestic. "We're also very big on loyalty." To wit, Epilog has worked with Majestic Metals and Steen Machining since day one.
Dean sees the pieces in place for sustained growth. "We've got a good workforce, we're a privately-held company, and we fund everything internally," he says. "It allows us to grow organically."
Challenges: "There's a lot of competition coming out of Asia," says Dean. "They're lower-cost than Epilog. Luckily, their performance is below our performance, too."
Opportunities: Exports. Dean says about a third of Epilog's sales go to markets outside the U.S., but he sees room to grow that to about half. To this end, the company opened an office in the Netherlands in 2016.
Needs: Space. "We currently occupy three different buildings at the Coors Technology Center," says Dean, noting that the company's 75,000 square feet feel increasingly cramped. "We want to consolidate under one roof and we also need more space."
The solution might be a new 100,000-square-foot build on the west side of metro Denver, he adds, "but there's not much land around here."