flanging 3

On the Monday afternoon, 3 pm, of my fifth week of employment at Brighton, I was on my own.  Sort of.  The second shift foreman, Jim D., kept a close watch on me.  But he had never operated a flanging machine, he had been a press operator (more about them later).  There were other flanging operators on second shift.  Roy H. had told me to go to them if I got in trouble.  Some were helpful.  Such as Leotis W. and Ron H.  Some were indifferent, or harmful.  Charlie D., in particular.

One day the foreman told Charlie to help me flange an aluminum head, since I had never worked with aluminum before.  Aluminum is very soft.  Some grades of it you can scratch with your fingernail.  After I set up my machine for the job, loaded the first piece and was ready to begin, Charlie told me not to squeeze it.  Then he walked away.  I squeezed it.  It was scrap.  Leotis couldn’t believe Charlie didn’t help me more, this being my first time with aluminum.  When Leotis confronted him, Charlie shrugged and merely walked away.  That was the last time the foreman ever asked Charlie to help me.  And it was a while before I was allowed to work with aluminum again.

Another time Charlie switched the direction of the shaft rotation on my machine without me knowing it.  I was used to it spinning in a clockwise direction, and suddenly it was spinning counter-clockwise.  I didn’t have a clue.  So I asked the foreman about it.  He slipped a finger under his toupee and  scratched his head, then went and got Leotis.  Who realized what Charlie had done, and switched the direction of the shaft back to clockwise.  Leotis said I was lucky I didn’t get a finger(s) smashed between the icr (inside corner radius) roll on the end of the shaft and the metal head I was forming, since I wasn’t expecting it to be spinning that direction.  When he confronted Charlie about it, Charlie smiled and walked away.  He could be mean.  But he was going through a difficult time.  While he had served in Viet Nam his wife had left him.  So he was kind of moody.  He quit not long after.  I heard later he had a nervous breakdown.

Leotis was much more helpful.  His nickname was Bad-Eye.  His father had shot him in the face when he was young.  I don’t think it was intentional.  One side of his face was kind of twisted, which caused one eye to look weird.  He could see out of it, he said.  But he was always willing to help me out.  Ron H. was willing to help, also, but he was less accessible.  Leotis had the bad luck of being closer.

So it went like this.  I would do something dumb.  Try to fix it myself.  I would inevitably make it worse.  The foreman would come by and ask me if I knew what I was doing.  Of course I’d say I did.  After he walked away I’d go to Leotis.  He’d come look at what I’d done.  “How in the Hell?”  I’d shrug and say something stupid.  Then he’d say he couldn’t fix it on my machine.  So I’d bring it down to his machine, which was more modern, and he’d fix it.  This became a common routine.  It got so he’d run away when he saw me coming.  Ron took up for me, saying, “You never learn how to fix anything unless you mess it up to start with.”  To which Leotis replied that I’d soon be an expert.

flanging 2

Brighton Corporation has always trained their own flanger operators.  The reason being flanging machines are rare.  Unlike welders, machinists, pipe fitters, whatever, no trade school turns out flanger operators.  So Brighton must give them on-the-job training.  This is very time-consuming.  And costly.  When I was hired, no production times were kept on my work for 6 months.  They knew it would take at least that long for me to get up to speed.  And they knew I was going to scrap a bit of metal learning how to operate the machine.

This situation is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it is such a lengthy costly process that once I am trained, once I am turning out quality work at an acceptable pace,  they do not want to lose me.  They have invested a lot of money and effort in me, so they want me to stick around.  A good situation for me, since a lot will be tolerated and excused to keep me happy.  On the other hand, if I get pissed off and desire to quit, my options are quite limited.  Whereas a welder or machinist can work anywhere in the country, there is very little demand for flanger operators.  I heard there is a plant in St. Louis, but I never checked it out.  So once trained, we are stuck with each other.  Hence 42 years of employment for the same company, a rare event nowadays.

When I was hired way back when, at the age of 21, I received four weeks training.  The first two weeks I stood behind Roy H. and watched.  I was also sent on numerous errands to find this, fetch that.  Of course, inevitably I was sent to the basement (no such place) to get a bolt stretcher (no such tool).  More about harassing newbies in another post.  But there was a practical side to these errands.  I was learning the layout of the plant, and where things were (or were supposed to be).  But mostly, for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 2 weeks, a total of 10 days, for 80 hours, I watched.

Then the next 2 weeks I ran the machine, while Roy watched.  I realize now how nerve-wracking that can be, since I have trained numerous operators myself.  That’s another post.  But Roy wanted me to learn the controls, without screwing up the material or the machine.  He smoked a lot of cigarettes those two weeks.  I hate to consider it, but I might have contributed to his drinking, which soon got him fired.

The month ended without me scrapping any metal or destroying the machine.  Roy happily went off to third shift (for a short while) and I was all on my own on second.

This is the kind of machine I trained on.  It’s a Blue Valley flanger.  Very primitive by today’s standards, but remember this was over 40 years ago.  Flanging machines have become much more powerful.  3-8-blue-valley-flanger-model-4-hydraulic-bottom-roll-adjustment_151719187478

This is how it operates.

flanging 1

I am a flanger operator.  Does anyone know what that means?  I operate a flanging machine.  Does anyone know what that is?  I didn’t, 42 years ago.  Ken, the human resource guy who hired me, explained it this way.  “Imagine making a steel tank (the storage kind, not the military kind).  You roll a flat sheet of steel into a cylinder and weld the ends together.  Easy.  So how do you make the ends?  Each tank requires two ends.  How do you fashion them?  You could cut a circle of steel for each end to fit, then weld the circles onto the cylinder.  But all that would be holding the tank together at the ends would be weld.  Not strong enough.  What would make it stronger?  If each end had a flange that would fit snugly down into the tank, and then welded to it.”

A flanging machine spins metal.  As the metal spins, a forming roll shapes it around an inside corner roll.  Once completed, the edge of the head is machined, or cut.  Sounds simple.  Ha.

flanging machine


There are no automatic controls.  No computer assist.  You are in control of the vertical, you are in control of the horizontal.  It sometimes feels like you are in the outer limits when you are operating the damn thing.  Every variable is up to your judgment.  There are a thousand and one ways to scrap material you are working on (and I bet I’ve only learned half of them yet).  So if you want to be a flanging operator you have to love a challenge.

Here are some of the specs you have to maintain while forming tank ends.  The diameter, inside and outside.  The circumference, inside and outside.  The overall height.  The thickness.  The size of the inside corner.  The straightness of the flange.  The length of the flange.  The radius of the dish.  The cosmetics.  The overall shape.  And then there are the machining details:  square cuts, bevels (inside or out), tapers (inside or out), bore-ups, and any combination of them.

But the posts won’t only be about the work.  Also about the workers.  Since I already mentioned Ken, the human resource guy who hired me so very long ago, let’s start with him.  He got fired not long after I started.  Not because he hired me.  Well, maybe, a little bit.  I started in July of 1973.  Back then people drank on the job.  Whiskey, mostly.  Roy H., the flanger operator who trained me, was a heavy drinker.  As were a lot of people on third shift.  The third shift foreman was one of the heaviest.  And they weren’t discrete about it at all.  The office people would arrive in the morning to find empty beer cans and whiskey bottles throughout the shop.

One day not long after I started (I worked second shift, from 3pm to 11pm, while Roy, after training me, went to third, from 11pm to 7am) I saw Charley F., the maintenance supervisor, trying to break into Roy’s locker.  Was he actually keeping liquor in his locker at work?  Charley must have thought so.  Knowing Roy, he probably was.  Anyway, I warned Roy what I had seen.  Of course I did.  The guy had trained me, was a union brother, and besides, he was so likeable.  I thought if he knew they were on to him, he’d be more cautious.  Not Roy’s style.

It all came to a head one night at lunch break.  Which on third shift is at 3am, hardly a time most people would choose to eat lunch.  The plant supervisor, the maintenance supervisor and the human resource director, Ken, made a surprise appearance about half-way through lunch.  They caught Roy and two others in a car drinking.  The trio was fired on the spot.  One guy I wasn’t going to miss, he was a rotten son of a bitch.  But the other guy was young, hired about the same time I was.  I heard he started crying.  I can’t blame him, his wife had a baby about two months prior to this.  And of course, I hated about Roy.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  Since two of the guys were such long-time employees our union, United Steelworkers, took the case to arbitration.  Of course it was a lost cause, they were caught drinking on company property during working hours, by irreproachable eyewitnesses.  But somehow during the proceedings Ken got tripped up in some lie.  I don’t know the details, but he was under oath.  So he lost his job, too.  Maybe if I hadn’t warned Roy, Ken might not have lied in court.  Who knows?  I liked Ken, he took a chance on hiring me.  He was just collateral damage.  The third shift foreman was also fired, of course, which was done much more easily, since he wasn’t in our union.  And the drinking stopped.  Or at least third shift became more discrete about it.

From the North Rim

This is the name of my old website, which I posted twenty years ago.  It was clunky, but fun.  I did it with Unix.  I posted Photoshop graphics and music files of my son playing guitar.  On this website I will post creative blogs and information about my writings.  Please leave any comments you have time for.  They will be read and appreciated and responded to.