Retrotechtacular: The Drama Of Metal Forming

It may seem overwrought, but The Drama of Metal Forming actually is pretty dramatic.

This film is another classic of mid-century corporate communications that was typically shown in schools, which the sponsor — in this case Shell Oil — seeks to make a point about the inevitable march of progress, and succeeds mainly in showing children and young adults what lay in store for them as they entered a working world that needed strong backs more than anything.

Despite the narrator’s accent, the factories shown appear to be in England, and the work performed therein is a brutal yet beautiful ballet of carefully coordinated moves. The sheer power of the slabbing mills at the start of the film is staggering, especially when we’re told that the ingots the mill is slinging about effortlessly weigh in at 14 tons apiece. Seeing metal from the same ingots shooting through the last section of a roller mill at high speed before being rolled into coils gives one pause, too; the catastrophe that would result if that razor-sharp and red-hot metal somehow escaped the mill doesn’t bear imagining. Similarly, the wire drawing process that’s shown later even sounds dangerous, with the sound increasing in pitch to a malignant whine as the die diameter steps down and the velocity of the wire increases.

There are the usual charming anachronisms, such as the complete lack of safety gear and the wanton disregard for any of a hundred things that could instantly kill you. One thing that impressed us was the lack of hearing protection, which no doubt led to widespread hearing damage. Those were simpler times, though, and the march of progress couldn’t stop for safety gear.

22 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Drama Of Metal Forming

        1. Yeah, as it turns out you don’t necessarily want people running these pieces of equipment anymore. For one thing, automation gives you a more uniform product, which leads to a higher quality product with much less waste. I work in a wire mill with 0% automation, I have to manually setup and monitor everything, and while I’m pretty good at it, alot of people aren’t, to the extent that you can tell just by the operators name on the WIP tag whether or not the wire is probably going to be out of spec.

          Where I work is one of the few factories that you can’t automate due to the fact that we only make custom wire. Each run is different and current automation used in mass production just doesn’t work with the constant changes to the finished product. That said, the constant hands on from the operators shows in the amount of scrap wire we produce due to human error.

          1. Reminds me of explosive hydroforming being a manual process also that I’ve never seen automated. Now that I think about… guessing hydroforming in general is still a manual process.

        2. Not all robotic automation removes the human from the work force. For example

          We designed the exogrind for the foundry because the manual operation of grinding off the risers etc was tearing up the operators wrists, shoulders, and elbows, and from a business perspective hand grinding those would take 2 shits. With the robot, its still operated by a human, but they don’t get the wear and tear on their body. Plus the grinding that same piece with the robot now takes 6 hours.

        3. It’s really funny how many “enemies of automation” argument is “I need pay the bills!!!111” instead of realizing fact that they are really need no of those and they simple wasting their time to feeding parasites instead of having fully automated home farm/manufactured powered by their own distributed electrical grid.
          You need a live, not a work to have it.

          1. Yeah, early proponents of industrialization calculated people would have to work less than 20hr/week to maintain a society’s quality of life. Instead of that happening, all work-saving measures have instead shifted work in order to create more goods/wealth, with that increase in many cases being funneled to very few. The shifts historically haven’t been handled well on a societal level, so each time a sea change comes to an industry, it hurts many people very badly.

            In a just society increased automation, even if it does render a job completely obsolete, would either marginally increase the quality of an average person’s life or marginally decrease an average person’s workweek. If neither of those things happen, it’s not automation’s fault, it’s society’s. Just because we’ve handled it poorly in the past doesn’t mean we should accept it being handled poorly in the future.

    1. My work career involved design and commissioning of automation systems and bespoke electronic instrumentation for rolling mills. In many countries steel mills are rust belt industries and so had undergone minimal upgrade since first built. Even up to the mid 90s I saw similar work practices to those in the retrotechtacular.
      Although not shown in the video the most memorable task was performed by “Ironmen”. They stood on the sides of the roller tables at mills and if there were problems with the operation of the shifting tables or sideguides they stepped in to move the red hot slab position or re-instigated turning to get a slab to pass through the correct profile section of the mill rolls. These men had nothing more than long crowbars and their strength. Their PPE comprised of a hard hat and a leather apron.
      When things went wrong and mill tackle broke the red hot partially rolled section would come out of a mill and snake anywhere, including vertically, occasionally crashing through the operators’ pulpit. These traditionally straddled the line so the mill operators can see the mill bite while manually rolling. Youtube videos don’t do justice to such spectacular events.

  1. From my own experience Shell is a good company to work for, compared to the others in the same industry. It was a common saying, in the group I worked in, for a hand that had a thought ‘neck to the deck’ meaning that you don’t get paid to think. A strong back and and a weak mind are the things nations and corporations are built on.

    1. Shell didn’t abuse you?
      Uhm… ok

      They’re still a corporation. You understand that right? They do not care about anything but profit, they however have and they never will. If they didn’t kill you and your entire family, its only because there was no profit in it at the time. You think yours would be the first?!

      I just don’t understand how people still try to ascribe morality to corporations.

  2. OK, it’s hard to beat the guy lighting a scrap of paper off of a yellow-hot ingot on it’s way to be drop forged so he can light his ciggy.


    That’s old school.

  3. Good stuff. Reminded me of watching some zirconium manuf. processes, the Watervliet Arsenal and how permalloy and I think metglas is made.

    Was trying to find what I was recalling as spin forming metglas or permalloy. Wikipedia calls the process metal spinning:

    Not finding the video that I had in myYT history… though found this one which demonstrates the level of safety from the retrotechtacular era, in modern times, for the amorphous high magnetic permeability material.

    Kind of neat combines the RF heated furnace (that I wonder if can be modified to be even more efficient with some high magnetic permeability ferrite or other coating on the RF coil), some earlier ferrite homebrew watching and metal forming.

  4. The subject should be: If you make you tube videos then watch this”

    If more people made them like this I would not wear out my “5 second back” key trying to catch what people are saying. A two second pause is all it takes for the brain to accept the input before it moves onto the next sentence.

  5. Back in 1994, as part of a university program, I went on a tour of the Geneva Steel mill in Utah (fwiw, the one used in _Footloose_). There was a lot more automation — and more safety equipment! — at that point, but it was doing much the same process as the initial segment. The final rolls were massive — something like three to a train car.

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