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United States Hardware

An 8,000 Ton Giant Made the Jet Age Possible 307

Hugh Pickens writes "Tim Heffernan writes that when 'The Fifty,' as it's known in company circles, broke down three years ago, there was talk of retiring it for good. Instead, Alcoa decided to overhaul their 50,000-ton, 6-story high forging press, now scheduled to resume service early this year. 'What sets the Fifty apart is its extraordinary scale,' writes Heffernan. '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.' The Fifty could bench-press the battleship Iowa, with 860 tons to spare, but it's the Fifty's amazing precision — its tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch—that gives it such far-reaching utility. Every manned US military aircraft now flying uses parts forged by the Fifty, as does every commercial aircraft made by Airbus and Boeing making the Jet Age possible. 'On a plane, a pound of weight saved is a pound of thrust gained—or a pound of lift, or a pound of cargo,' writes Heffernan. 'Without the ultra-strong, ultra-light components that only forging can produce, they'd all be pushing much smaller envelopes.' The now-forgotten Heavy Press Program (PDF), inaugurated in 1950 and completed in 1957, resulted in four presses (including the Fifty) and six extruders — giant toothpaste tubes squeezing out long, complex metal structures such as wing ribs and missile bodies. 'Today, America lacks the ability to make anything like the Heavy Press Program machines,' concludes Heffernan, adding that 'The Fifty' will be supplying bulkheads through 2034 for the Joint Strike Fighter. 'Big machines are the product of big visions, and they make big visions real. How about a Heavy Fusion Program?'"
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An 8,000 Ton Giant Made the Jet Age Possible

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  • by EasyTarget ( 43516 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @05:33AM (#40003257) Journal

    Modern planes, and other transport/engineering structures, are moving to composites. Which are layered, printed, sometimes pressure baked and squeezed into form. But no longer forged on this scale.

    While these machines are awesome, I've wandered along a car body stamping line and watched plates go from a flat sheet to a car door in 100meters, they are becoming less necessary to us. They will still be needed, of course, for some jobs where only such a monster can help, but I think the US should look on these as potential future museum pieces, with nostalgia for a bygone age of megaengineering, rather than a source of future industrial dominance.

  • Re:now technology (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JustOK ( 667959 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @06:23AM (#40003385) Journal

    It IS the blender.

  • by guises ( 2423402 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @06:46AM (#40003445)
    I know very little about metal working, but it seems to me that when you have the capability to do something unique it would be foolish to give up that ability. Even if a new process comes along that is faster and cheaper for most purposes.
  • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @06:51AM (#40003473) Journal

    This is another score for the government and a blow to the idea that provate industry always does everything best.

    Some things are simply too expensivre and farsighted for private industry to invest. That's why a decent sized government is needed, to invest massive sums of money in things like this giant press. It has paid back massively.

  • by icebrain ( 944107 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @06:58AM (#40003493)

    Composites aren't going to replace everything. Landing gear and landing gear mounts, engine mounts, critical bulkheads, etc. will still be made of forged metal for a long, long time. Even with additive manufacturing techniques, forging will still be necessary because the forging process itself is what puts the strength in the parts.

  • by sl4shd0rk ( 755837 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @07:09AM (#40003569)

    "The Fifty will soon be supplying bulkheads for the Joint Strike Fighter"

    I'm not a big fan of dumping more money into the military when our science budgets are so thin.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @07:14AM (#40003593)

    Well, yes, this is something that government clearly does best. Big, chunky investments whose returns are nebulous and decades after the initial outlay.

    I don't mind that much that private enterprise then builds on government work afterwards, but what pisses me right off is when private companies then decide they owe nothing to the society that hosts them, avoid taxes, and campaign for reductions in the ones they do pay.

    This, of course, has the advantage for established private enterprise of kicking away the ladder of government R&D and infrastructure investment so no pesky competitors can get the same leg up.

  • by gtall ( 79522 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @08:51AM (#40004145)

    No, a large rich arrogant country with a lot of infrastructure built around its standards that would cost a fortune to change.

  • Even a rudimentary knowledge of material science would help you understand how you're wrong.

    According to Chemistry, a forged and a non-forged part are identical.

    -- a chem. eng.

  • by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @10:15AM (#40004987) Homepage Journal
    The "ability is lost" when the last plant capable of doing it shuts down. The knowledge isn't lost (we hope), but for various reasons (typically it was being done cheaper overseas) the actual facilities will close. If we had to, we could rebuild/reopen the plants here, but it would take a few years and the investors would want some sort of guarantee that the same economic forces that caused the previous plants to close won't apply to the new plant.

    We are seeing this today with the rare earth mining industry, where all of the US mines shut down because China was exporting government subsidized minerals for peanuts. Then, when they got a monopoly on the rare earth market, they suddenly shot the prices up and started raking in the cash. Now the US company is reopening their plant because the economic conditions are favorable and because worldwide demand is growing enough that it will be difficult for China to flood the market again. People were biting their nails over the US "losing the ability to make a strategic resource", but the ability wasn't lost, just on hold while they waited for the economics to turn around.
  • by mhajicek ( 1582795 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @10:50AM (#40005309)
    As a machinist and CNC programmer I do know a fair bit about metalworking, and I think you have a good point. Even if composites are better for aircraft, perhaps forgings will be needed for other purposes such as spacecraft. Available and affordable composites may not function desirably in the thermal extremes of space.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @11:48AM (#40006015)

    The knowledge isn't lost (we hope)

    There is TONS of knowledge in industrial processes that only people who work on it every day really know. I've done some work in software for Steel manufacturing, and I tell you first hand, that many of the "Recipes" are over 50 years old and scribbled in the notebooks of the people who run the mills. These "Recipes" vary for each press/line and if the specifications are not followed exactly, it's the difference between good steel and shit. The "theory" is well documented in texts on metallurgy etc, but, the actual practice, where the rubber meets the road, not so much. When these types of plants shutdown and the people who have been doing it for years retire without passing on that knowledge and experience, it is LOST. In order to get it going again will take many years for people who have learned the theory to actually work out all the kinks in practice.

  • by HighOrbit ( 631451 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @12:19PM (#40006379)

    Maybe... remember that Boeing only delievers between 300-500 craft per year with order lead times of several years. I suspect that Airbus is similiar. With that much lead time and low numbers, its possible they forged those specific parts ahead and Boeing/Airbus held them in inventory. In fact, that would make sense given the tooling and setup on a machine like this, because it would be cheaper to do a large production run of a certain quantity than to forge each item 'just in time' and have to re-tool for each peice or seperate run. So, its very possible, and I would think likely, that every one really does use parts produced on this machine.

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @02:16PM (#40007853) Journal
    Even if the locations are disaster proof, if you stop being able to ship stuff easily for whatever reason, you stop being able to make stuff. And the ability to ship stuff easily from country to country depends on a lot of things "working OK".

    Our civilization is actually very fragile and becoming more so. Lots of specialization and interdependence.

    I hope more people (including our leaders) realize this and don't do anything stupid.

    It's like the human body, you blow away both kidneys or a liver it ain't gonna work that well anymore.

    Whereas you could hack a branch off a tree and it usually doesn't matter that much to the tree's survival, you could even stick the branch in the ground and there's a chance it might become another tree (the chance increases if you do it right).

    And when you go to fungi or bacteria, it matters even less.
  • Re:Airbus? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Duhavid ( 677874 ) on Tuesday May 15, 2012 @03:58PM (#40009173)

    "It makes me sad that now there are some things that the US can no longer make."

    We can make anything we used to make, and many never before made.
    It's just that we are led by weenies ( politically and economically ).
    And that is what there is to be sad about.

I just asked myself... what would John DeLorean do? -- Raoul Duke