Approaching Alcoa’s 50,000-ton forging press feels a bit like approaching an alp: it starts out incomprehensibly huge and keeps getting incomprehensibly huger. From a distance, the thing dominates the horizon of the hangar-like Cleveland Works facility; as you get nearer, catching glimpses through forests of girders and around cliffs of firebrick, it begins to dominate the air above. But even as you stand at its foot, being told that the eight steel bolts anchoring it are 40 inches thick, calculating in your head that that makes them 10 feet around—even then it’s still a bit out of reach. Only when you climb it, peer down from its sixth-floor summit, and realize that the puny machine next to it is, in fact, its 35,000-ton brother—well, then you finally appreciate the size of the thing. It’s big.
The Fifty, as it’s known in company shorthand, broke down three years ago, and there was talk of retiring it for good. Instead, it was overhauled and is scheduled to resume service early this year. One of the great machines of American industry has been reborn.
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.