A 100-ton press is used to shape metallic blanks into car parts like bumpers and side panels. Most shaped metal automotive components are made using two or three hundred-ton presses lined up side by side. Shapes that are partially formed in an earlier press are passed to downstream presses for finishing and further deforming.
A press looks like a huge rectangle about twenty feet long by about six to eight feet wide. It is three stories tall. The press has a lower blank rectangular slab of steel that acts like an anvil. The upper part moves up and down: it consists of two massive pistons with crank arms attached to a massive steel rectangle that moves vertically. Attached to the bottom rectangle are hardened steel dies called preforms. Attached to the top rectangle is the upper half of the dies. The top part of the die comes down, and like a set of teeth it bites down on the blanks and deforms them. The hundred ton press is an awesome thing to see when it's in motion. It will deform four foot, eighth-inch steel blanks as if they were butter. Human hands and arms offer no resistance to the enormous crushing power of the presses.
Four operators run a press, two on each side. A fifth man, the oiler, oils a flat steel blank (shaped roughly like a flat cigar) on both sides and hands it to the first two operators, who grab the blank's ends and place them on the first die. They then remove their hands and press large red buttons above and outside the press cavity . When all eight operators' buttons are pressed, the press begins its motion downward. If properly oiled, the blank is deformed and no noise is made. When the press comes up, the two operators remove the deformed blank and flip it onto the next team's die for another operation. The other two operators remove the blank from the second die and hand it to the offloader. The offloader either puts the piece of shaped metal into a storage bin or moves it to the next press team.
If any of the operators' hands comes off any red button, the press's brakes are applied and the press can be stopped within six or eight inches. It's not a foolproof system: a fast operator can take his hand off a button and get his hand between the die before the press will stop in time. Sometimes an operator will want to adjust the die on the blank to center the punch, and quickly moves his hand into the danger zone. Loss of fingers or even an entire hand occurs almost instantaneously.
Good teams can deform 5000 pieces of metal in an eight hour shift. Incentive pay is set by plant managers and foremen. The press operators get hourly wages if they make below a certain number of parts, say 4500 parts, in an eight hour shift. Once the numbers of components go above the quota every (skilled) member of the team gets a certain piece part pay bonus. Every press team usually has a team leader, and if he feels that his team is able to push the limits, he will gather his team around him like a quarterback calling a football play, and tell his team that this is the day: they will all have to work hard all shift to exceed the quota. Days like this are few and far between, since these are high stress days - the slightest failure, during any hour of the shift, will ruin the ability to make the quota. No one on the team can be high, drunk, hung over, or physically unable to finish the shift, and no one can go out to his car to get high at lunchtime. Mondays are usually out for this sort of work. If hunting season is about to start and the guys are looking to buy a new bow or rifle or camper cap, this is usually incentive enough to push themselves, for that paycheck sweetener. Everyone in the factory is aware when a press team is attempting to exceed quota. The pallets of blanks have to be available to the oiler at the beginning of the shift. Enough empty parts bins have to be ready for finished products at the end of the assembly line. Forklift operators cannot take breaks, because they have to be alert to move parts bins away from the presses when they get filled up. Maintenance men can't schedule press maintenance during these runs. And usually nurses are alerted during these times, because they know that accidents will happen toward the end of the shift when each of the men is bone tired.
An evening's sleep offers absolutely no relief from such work. Dreams consist of doing the same repetitive motion done during the day. You wake up tired, as if you had just completed another shift. I began to understand why heavy machine operators began drinking heavily. It was so that they wouldn't dream.
Press men wear leather gloves to soak up the machine oil. Since they handle metal blanks by their edges, cloth gloves won't do - the metallic burrs at the edges will cut right through them. Shirts and pants are usually soaked with machine oil by the end of the shift. Ever hour, one of the press team assistants will sprinkle kitty litter around the feet of the press operators to soak up the pooling oil so that their rubber soled shoes don't slip.