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.


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.


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.


This is the flow of work through the shop.  Metal comes in through shipping mostly by truck, although the largest pieces come by rail.  Most metal is shipped to us in one of three ways:  in pre-cut circles, in sheets (that we cut circles out of), or in segments (that we weld together to form a circle, on an automatic welder called a seamer).  Most of the flat circles of metal are then sent to the presses, where they are pounded into dish, or bowl, shapes.  Most of these pressed heads then have a center hole drilled, or burned if they are too large for the drill.  Most of the bowl-shaped heads (drilled and undrilled) go to the flangers, where they are spun to form an inside corner and a straight flange, and the edge is machined.  Stainless steel heads are then pickled (acid-cleaned); the rest are washed.  They are then marked-up and/or stamped with relevant information.  Then shipped out.

All of this metal is moved through the shop with forklifts.  From electric walk-behind pallet stackers

walk behind stackerto 50-ton diesels.

50-ton forklift

Although most of our forklifts are much smaller, and run on propane.


When I first started I wasn’t qualified to operate one.  A license is required.  Then one day help was needed in shipping.  My foreman at the time, Tom H., brought me into the break room and gave me a written test, and a booklet where I could find all the answers.  I quickly became qualified.

Driving a fork lift in our shop is tricky.  The aisles are narrow and sometimes, when we are crazy busy, crammed with material.  The machines are tightly situated, so you are loading a very large head into a small machine in a tight area.  You pick up this piece of metal that can weighs tons, maneuver it around stacks of metal scattered everywhere, while people dart in front of you, behind you, wait impatiently for you to finish so they can use the fork lift.  You load a flanging machine by lining up an inch and a half center hole (in a head with a diameter of 100 to 125 to 150 inches, or even bigger) onto a pin you cannot see.  Without wrecking the machine or the piece you are loading, or the fork lift for that matter.  Fun.

Actually, it is.  It’s a break from the routine.  Designated fork lift drivers have come and gone.  At times we’ve had them, other times we are expected to go get a fork lift and take care of things ourselves.  Felan R. was the best.  That old man  could drop a huge dished head onto a inch-and-a-half pin first try.  When he’d see me having trouble lining a center hole up with the pin, he’d joke, “Put a little hair around the hole, you’ll find it.”  Recently, laser pointers have been installed on the larger flanging machines.  It is directed onto the top of the center pin, so that when you load the head you merely line up the laser beam with the center hole.  But the machine I usually run never got one of those.

I’ve never done any damage with a fork lift.  Never wrecked any material, never crashed into a machine, never run anyone over.  Which has happened.  Stan C. was carrying a large head on his forks and didn’t see the golf cart in the aisle in front of him.  The golf cart was totaled (but the driver escaped injury).  Another time an operator left a fork lift running as he got off.  Which people do all the time.  Only this time he also left it in gear and the emergency brake off.  The forklift continued on driver-less down into a loading pit, about a 6-foot drop. And garage doors are a favorite target of people driving a fork lift, every single one has been damaged or crashed through, some numerous times.  Which will endear you to your co-workers if it’s the middle of winter and it’s your fault that a damaged garage door is hanging open while gale-force winds at sub-zero temperatures whip snow into the shop.

I have done things like spill a load, where a head or a stack of heads will slide off the forks.  Or lose control of a head as I’m loading my flanging machine, where a head will slide out of the machine onto the floor.  Usually hitting the floor with a bang, kind of startling to the guy working with his back to you at the next machine.  And I’ve gotten a fork lift stuck in the mud.  You can’t get off the pavement in the kind we have, they are too heavy.  Mike H., another very good forklift driver, laughed at me trying to get unstuck, unsuccessfully, for quite a while.  Then he showed me.  If you ever get a forklift stuck, merely run the forks down into the ground.  This forces the front wheels up enough that you can back out.  Some practical information for the next time you are driving a forklift.


Brighton Corporation abides by the standards of the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code.  This document sets the specifications for the metal fabrication we engage in.  As this applies to flanging, we often go beyond what the code calls for.  Such as circumference.  I don’t even know what the code requires, but our standard is plus or minus an eighth of an inch.  No matter how large or small of a tank end.  Our straight flange (the straight edge of the tank end that extends above the curved corner) is plus or minus a quarter inch in length and two and a half degree of toe in or toe out from perfectly straight.  The inside corner radius we form can be slightly larger than called for, but not smaller.  The overall height can be one and a quarter per cent of the diameter of the head deep to five-eighths of a per cent of the diameter of the head shallow than what is called for.  Thin out allowed is fifteen per cent of the original thickness.  Out of round can be one per cent of the diameter.  Bevels (the edge cut to a certain angle, inside or outside) can be plus or minus two and a half degrees of what is called for.  Tapers (the edge cut to a certain thickness at a certain angle, inside or out, which can be longer than called for, but not shorter) can be plus one sixteenth of an inch and minus nothing.  Bore-ups (the edge cut perfectly straight to a certain thickness and a certain length, blended in with a taper at the bottom) need to be pretty much dead on, and like tapers can be longer but not shorter.  The radius, which is the depth the flat plate is pressed to by the press operators (which we have to maintain, even if it is a crappy press job to begin with) can be plus or minus a quarter inch of the template used to form it with.  These are most of the specs we must meet, although I’m sure I’ve missed some.

Except customers can request (and pay dearly for, I hope) specs more restrictive than code.  Such as ridiculously small thin out.  Or overall heights.  Or out of rounds.  Or perfectly straight flanges.  Or circumferences even closer than an eighth inch.  Or tapers to a thirty-second of an inch, or less.  Even weights have to be held to certain limits for some customers, which is illogical since the mills producing the plate cannot guarantee the metal won’t be a little heavy or light.  Some customers require a perfect radius.  Some customers request tighter tolerances on any combination of these things, or on everything.  Which gets ludicrous.  We are a metal fabrication shop, not a machine shop.  Machine shops can do extremely fine work on small pieces.  The tank ends we work on range from five inches to over three-hundred inches in diameter.  Huge pieces of metal to try to form to such exacting specs.

Normally, we are the last machine the tank ends pass through (unless they get polished, in which case they go to the polisher).  After us comes inspection.  Lately, we flanger operators have inspected our own work ourselves.  Things go much more smoothly this way.  But most of the time I’ve been at Brighton we’ve had an inspection department.  We’ve always had a quality control department, with or without inspectors.  Ray M. was the QC manager when I was hired.  He had the final say on whether a piece got sent back for rework or not.  No one overruled him.  No QC managers we’ve had since he retired have had such authority.  The inspector we had when I first started was another old guy, Don M.  When he found something he didn’t like he would call you over and show it to you.  You were expected to fix your own mistakes (unless you messed something up so badly you didn’t know how to fix it).

There are a lot of things that can go wrong.  The worst is if you squeeze a tank end below the minimum thickness.  There is no way to make a head thicker.  If a head is thinned out then it is scrap.  Most everything else can be fixed.  Just not necessarily by you.  If metal shavings get crushed into the piece by the icr roll while you are machining the edge, the shallow pits can be belted out on a polisher while the deep pits need to be welded up.  Or if you hump up the radius while forming the head, it would have to go back to the press to be smoothed out.  There are so many things that can go wrong.

When I first went to work on my own I was supposed to go to my foreman with any problems.  Only Jim D. knew nothing about flanging.  When a head I had done turned up being three-sixteenths inch deeper than acceptable, he signed for it, saying, “Who can see three-sixteenths of an inch?”  That was the last time he ever said that.  He got chewed out for that, once Ray saw the inspection sheet.  All inspection reports cross the QC manager’s desk.  Inspection was a humorless job.

But I still had some fun with them.  Bill R. was an inspector who’d lost most of a finger while operating a metal shear.  When he’d take his gloves off and lay them down, I’d sneak up and slip a piece of chalk into the finger of the glove that his bit of a finger went into.  Then I’d watch to see how long it took for the chalk to work its way down and reach his stub.  When he finally felt it he’d yank the glove off and pull the chalk out and glare all around to see who was messing with him.  Sometimes it would take an hour before he realized the chalk was in there.  Most of the inspectors were totally without humor.  I’m glad they’re gone.


I’ve been describing tank ends, and what all flanging operators do to them.  Better to show than tell.  I’ll start with an ASME flanged & dished head.

ASME flanged & dished

By being ASME code, certain requirements must be met.  The degree of the drop radius (dr) must be equal to the diameter (od, or outside diameter, in this case, although if the customer requires the diameter can be measured from the inside, which would make it id).  The inside corner radius (icr) must be six percent of the diameter.  The straight flange (sf) and overall height (oah) can be whatever the customer wants.  I don’t even know what idd stands for, we don’t measure it.  And thk, of course, is the thickness of the metal.

This is a standard head.  Same as an ASME, but the requirements aren’t as strict.  TL stands for tangent line, the point where the bottom of the straight flange meets the top of the icr, which is kind of fuzzy.


This is an elliptical.  It is much deeper and rounder than an ASME or standard.  The diameter is twice the drop radius (hence the ‘2:1 ratio’).  Another way of saying this is the drop radius is 50 % of the diameter.


This is an 80-10.  The drop radius is 80 % of the diameter.  This head has a measurable icr, whereas a 2:1 elliptical doesn’t.  The icr is 10% of the diameter, hence the name 80-10.

ASME 80-10

This is a dished only.  It doesn’t get flanged, only pressed.  Although we do trim the edge to a required diameter, with either a radial trim or a vertical trim.  A radial trim is one which maintains the angle the edge of the head was pressed to.  A vertical trim is self-explanatory.

dished only

This is a flanged only.  It doesn’t get pressed.  We turn up the edge of a flat metal circle.

flange only

This is a flared and dished.  Instead of turning up the edge of a dished head to 90 degrees, we flare it out to 45 degrees.

flared & dished

This is a shallow head.  The drop radius is much less than that of an ASME.  Which makes the overall height shallower.


This is a cone.  Pressed, or bent, segments are welded together into the cone shape, then we turn up the edge to give it an icr and a straight flange.


I couldn’t find a drawing of a reverse head.  Instead of turning up the edge in the direction of the radius, to make a bowl shape, the head is flanged upside-down and the edge is wrapped completely around the icr roll to give it this weird shape.


Also couldn’t find a drawing of a hemisphere.  These are pressed segments welded together to a dish only head.  Sometimes we put these in a flanging machine to spin it to a certain circumference (they are pretty close to start with) and to machine the edge.


These are the different kinds of tank ends I’ve worked on at Brighton.


More show and tell.  It’s easier to show a flanging machine in operation than try to describe it to you.  Here is a short minute and a half video.  The head being flanged is so small that the upper center post can’t be used.  Instead, the head is bolted to an adaptor, which is a bearing pack bolted onto the lower center post.  The head itself is bolted to the adaptor.  The icr roll, which is bolted to the end of the shaft (which an electric motor rotates) makes the head spin.  The forming roll, manipulated by the operator, shapes the spinning head around the spinning icr roll.  We have many different size icr rolls, to form whatever size corner the customer requires.  The two side rolls merely stabilize the head as it spins.  You can see the upper center post back out of the way, since it is not being used.

Here is a brief video of a larger head being flanged.  Not much is shown, but you can see how the two center posts line up to hold the head in place as it spins.  Notice the icr roll being used this time is much sharper, making a smaller sharper inside corner.

Another video of a flanging machine.  The quality is much better – it has music!  It was done by Italians, of course the quality is better.  Notice the several icr rolls sitting on the floor by the machine.  We change these out to create whatever inside corner radius is required.  Also, this video must be watched on You Tube (why?  I don’t know).  But by clicking on the link it opens another window, so merely close that window after viewing the video in order to return here.

One last video.  This one is rather long, four minutes, but it shows the pressing operation along with the flanging operation.  So it shows a flat circle of steel being transformed into a tank end.  A couple of things to notice as you watch this video.  Day changes to night while they are pressing this one head.  Their pressing process is much slower than what I am used to.  Also, this head does not have a center hole, it is being flanged no-hole.  The head was centered up by the operator before he began, and it is held in place only by the pressure applied against it by the upper and lower center posts.  But the operator has let it slip off-center; by the end of the flanging process one side of the head is much higher than the other.  He did a terrible job.  Also, running a flanging machine is a one-man job.  Having that many men stand around watching me work would make me nervous.  No wonder he screwed up the head.

I hope this helps you to understand what a flanging machine does.