Bringing a 50,000-ton forging press back to Life

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Alcoa's 50,000-Ton forging press in Cleveland is "one of the great machines of American industry." Built in 1955, the "Fifty" broke down three years ago, and Alcoa considered scrapping it. But it's back in operation. Tim Heffernan has the story in The Atlantic.

A forging press is -- begging the forgiveness of the engineering gods -- essentially a waffle iron for metal. An ingot, usually heated to increase its malleability, is placed on the lower of a pair of dies. The upper die is then gradually forced down against the ingot, and the metal flows to fill both dies and form the intended shape. In this way, extremely complex structures can be created quickly and with minimal waste.

What sets the Fifty apart is its extraordinary scale. Its 14 major structural components, cast in ductile iron, weigh as much as 250 tons each; those yard-thick steel bolts are also 78 feet long; all told, the machine weighs 16 million pounds, and when activated its eight main hydraulic cylinders deliver up to 50,000 tons of compressive force. If the logistics could somehow be worked out, the Fifty could bench-press the battleship Iowa, with 860 tons to spare.

It is this power, combined with amazing precision—its tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch—that gives the Fifty its far-reaching utility. It has made essential parts for industrial gas turbines, helicopters, and spacecraft. Every manned U.S. military aircraft now flying uses parts forged by the Fifty. So does every commercial aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing.

Iron Giant: One of America’s great machines comes back to life.

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  1. Sounds like something useful for building stuff.  Not too sure what use it is in America.  Maybe China wants it.

  2. There are lots of details about the press in this document (below) … It’s interesting to think about how much industrial infrastructure, big machines and facilities, we need to make our civilization work. We need really big machines to build the big machines that build our little machines so that we can type comments on blogs on the internet …

    http://files.asme.org/asmeorg/communities/history/landmarks/5488.pdf

    From the document, “The press, which stands eight stories tall and weighs 8,000 tons, responds instantly and precisely to the lone operator’s hand on a lever just three inches long. His slightest touch governs 2100 tons of moving weight and can apply 50,000 tons of forging force”.

    1.  >His slightest touch governs 2100 tons of moving weight and can apply 50,000 tons of forging force”.

      that guy’s nickname around the shop is Hephaestus.

      also:  AMERICA!  FUCK YEAH!

    2. Do we really need big machines?

      Good alloys are tough. Not hard, but tough. This means they can yield a bit, but not fail. They do not split like diamonds. They do not crack at grain boundaries like some ceramics. They do not yield plastically or creep. The traditional way of making strong materials was to slam them together as hard and as fast as possible, so you had a microstructure that pinned dislocations, and did not have any large planes such as grain boundaries with different properties. The better we can do this, the nearer we can come to the theoretical strength limits set by the atomic forces. Which is why we have behemoths like the Fifty.

      However, suppose you make a mesh of buckytubes, and get an Al-Mg alloy that wets carbon to soak into it. This would give you a designed microstructure where the elements are where they wanted to be, and not just there because we slammed them next to each other. Some people are trying to do just that these days, and if it works it will make aircraft and car parts without any big machines.

      In case you are thinking I have no soul whatever, I like looking at it too. Daaaaamn!

      1. Until the tech you mention works on an industrial scale and is an appropriate substitution in most applications, I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes”. 

    1. Maybe the most prolific, but much industrial machinery was perfected a century ago, and old ones are still in profitable use. I was at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry recently where they have a working steam engine was used for hoisting ships up for repair. It was built in the 1860s and was used by the ship yard until the 1980s when they finally replaced it and donated it to the museum.

      Or one of Watt’s steam engines still pumps water for a canal.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crofton_Pumping_Station

    1. I saw a much smaller press, stamping cold steel sheets into car fenders and body panels, when I was in elementary school in the early ’80s. Every short while it would open up, spit out a shaped sheet of steel, accept a new one and, “whump”, squish it into shape.  I thought it was awe inspiring then and the memory has stuck with me … sheesh, one of my strongest childhood memories is of industrial equipment in a stamping plant.

  3. What a magnificent thing.

    I drive by the steel mills in Indiana all the time (on Lake Michigan, instead of Lake Erie).  The scale is gargantuan there, too.  And water is still an economical way to transport major metal work.

  4. Wow. I wonder – what DO they make with it?

    ETA – They make airplanes with it. Awesome. I bet it would be a great tool for making mech.

  5. Alcoa needs the giant press to make parts for the military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Christopher said. The 50,000-ton unit can stamp the plane’s metal skeleton — the bulkhead — as a single piece. Using smaller presses would mean making the bulkhead in several pieces then welding them together. Single-piece stamping saves metal, time and
    weight.

    http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2009/11/alcoa.html

  6. I wonder when the stock of industrial machinery in the USA surpassed the average age of that in the GDR when it collapsed.

  7. It’s interesting in that, as the article states, the Fifty was being used to produce aircraft parts currently produced by both Boeing and Airbus. Yet, it also states that Alcoa considered scrapping the thing when it broke-down three years ago.

    I have to wonder…What was Alcoa’s plan for continued production of the parts the Fifty produced? Would the smaller forges do the same work?

  8. They’re starting it up again to make the chassis for giant robot-type walking suits of armor.

    I hope.

  9. Please tell me there is a myth related to this monster that would give the folks at Mythbusters a reason to visit it…

  10. Note that the monster machine in the picture on BoingBoing does not appear to be the monster in question.  According to the picture on the Atlantic article and the PDF brochure posted above, the 50K ton press is vertical, not horizontal in its major dimension.

    Which raises the question; what is in that picture? It looks a little bit like some of the extruding machines I saw at an AlCoa plant in Middletown, OH back in the 70’s, but I have no idea what this is or where the image came from.

    1. Good eye, Vnend. The mistake is mine — I sent Mark the wrong file. The machine above is a 12,000-ton extrusion press built by Lombard and installed at Harvey Aluminum in Torrance, CA, in 1957. It was cut up and sold for scrap in the 1990s, but at least four others of its general size, built by the Heavy Press Program, are still working in the U.S..

  11. Heavy industry in the US has been doomed ever since major corporations began letting the Harvard MBA’s run things to yield better stock margins.  Scrapping equipment, closing plants, dumping skilled workers by the hundreds of thousands, and outsourcing to what were formerly “third world” countries.  No longer do we in America revere industry, hard work and commitment to the future.  It is now all about the bottom line for the stockholders or speculators and the future be damned.

  12. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find any videos of/about this thing on Youtube.  Kinda wanted to see it in motion.

  13. I see this thing and think of Stephen King’s “The Mangler”.  Guess this would actually be The Squisher.

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