Detroit author spent a year inside a stamping plant as it lay dying.
Published: January 19, 2011
The papers took note of its announced closing. The headline in the New York Times, via Bloomberg, got what and where ("Detroit Parts Plant Closing"), the headline in the Detroit News got why ("Landmark Plant Shuts as Sales of SUVs Fall"), and the headline in the Detroit Free Press got who ("ThyssenKrupp to Shut Down Detroit Plant"). The story was small and faded fast. The next day brought bigger news, when the FBI began to dig, at a horse farm in suburban Detroit, for the remains of Jimmy Hoffa.
I read the articles, read the company press release, and then called the vice president for public affairs at ThyssenKrupp Budd who'd penned the release. I explained over lunch weeks later that I wanted to observe, up close, the plant-closing process. The public affairs VP, a pleasant man, said he'd support the project. Some time after, his decision was reversed. Someone above him had said no, or nein, and so I looked for other avenues into the plant. In Detroit, as in any big city, there are always several ways to get somewhere.
I consider this to be consulting work," he said, pointing to the newsletter. "I do two things. I do consulting work, and then I buy and sell equipment. I can make a lot more money buying and selling equipment than I can doing consulting work. But you can't depend on it. Consulting work is a fairly steady income." I asked him where his work buying and selling used equipment was taking him these days. "Right now it's not taking me anywhere," he said. We had originally planned to meet in Columbus, Ohio, rather than Houston, but the Columbus deal got postponed. "There's just not much work going on. Here's the thing: There are a lot of plants closing. In order for the plant-closing business to be substantially meaningful, you have to have buyers. Not a lot of buyers right now." He added: "Don't feel sorry for me. I'm ain't gonna go hungry. It's just a truism: For there to be a vibrant used-equipment market, there need to be both companies closing and companies opening.
"I've been called a vulture by more than one company," Clark said. "That's OK: Vultures have to eat. I feel like I provide a service, just like all the people making the calls off of my newsletter are providing a service to the plant. You're closing — what are you going to do, just walk off and leave it?" The business never ceased to amaze him. Earlier in the year, he'd been at a closed plant in Massachusetts. "I'm on the fourth ?oor," he said, "inventorying some equipment. We're going to tear the end off of the building, move the equipment out, and then tear the building down — within the month." He was hired by the company that had closed the plant to "sell the equipment off their job site," he said. "So, I'm on the fourth ?oor, inventorying this equipment, and I hear this errerrerr — strange noise. So I walk to the stairwell and go down to the first floor, and, I swear to God, there, on the first floor, is a guy buffing the floor. Of a building that's going to be torn down the next month. The only two people in the building are him and me. And I stopped him and said, 'What are you doing? This building's going to be torn down in a month.' And he said, 'Really? I wondered.'"
It was, Clark said, force of habit. "That's why people sit in the shadow of a plant that has closed down and twiddle their thumbs waiting for it to come back," he said. "'The biggest employer in town is closing' — that's one of the most common statements in that Plant Closing News. 'The biggest employer in town is closing.' Single-employer towns are losing their single employer. Waiting for it to come back. 'Tain't never gonna come back, McGee."
Assembly plants are distinguished by their assembly lines — Henry Ford's great innovation — which produced middle-class prosperity as surely as movable type made possible widespread literacy. Similarly, stamping plants like Budd are identifiable by their press lines — the linked presses, arranged in rows, that stamp out auto body parts, with each press performing a separate but sequential operation: blank, form, trim, pierce.
Should you ever find yourself near an active press line, you'll no doubt know it. Like the liftoff of an airliner, the stamping of auto body parts requires inhuman force, producing decibels registered by your internal organs. The presses sound, unmistakably, as if they could kill you, which they could, without much interrupting their normal functioning. You'd notice the collision more than they would. The force required to cut, bend and form steel — a force mechanical stamping presses producing auto body parts exert many times per minute — is orders of magnitude more than what is required to separate you from life and limb. The first of the six stamping presses in 16-line, one of the Budd plant's primary press lines, had a 2,000-ton rating — that is, it was capable of delivering a force of that tonnage. By comparison, your femur will snap under less than a single ton of pressure. It'd be difficult to find a stamping plant of long standing without a history of tragedy. In recent decades, OSHA and automation have helped to reduce the human loss — the latter, in large part, by reducing the need for humans altogether.
To be anywhere near an active press line is a total sensory experience. To have stood in a press shop such as Budd's would have been to see, spread across 140,000 square feet, several Stonehenges of steel. What you'd have felt, for a moment or two after a press struck, was a not-so-distant rumble, as if you were standing astride a fault line. What you'd have heard would depend on whether or not you wore earplugs — though you really should've. What you'd have smelled, and to some extent tasted, was the oily mist that, like industrial dew, hovers in the air and then settles atop surfaces in a press shop.
To stand in front of a stamping press and see it up close is to encounter a sight. (I speak here of an inactive press. The space between presses in an active line will be caged off, allowing the robots to do the repetitive work, once supplied by humans, of moving the stampings from press to press along the line.) A couple of stories or more, and a million pounds plus or minus, presses such as those in the Budd press shop seem stuck in another era, a bloated Gilded Age when brute force was the road to riches and when humanity, not yet overcome by its mania for miniaturization, hadn't figured out how to get what it needed by finesse.
Most of the behemoths in the Budd press shop were, by brand, either Danly or Clearing. Whatever their make, the main components of a stamping press are, beginning from the bottom, its base, its bolster, its die, its ram, its crown, and — running from base to crown — its side columns, on which the crown sits and between which the ram slides. (Some call the ram the slide for this reason.) The one impermanent piece of the structure is the die, which will be changed out depending on the part. Each stamped part has a specific die that produces it; though necessary, die changes create downtime along a press line. In a state-of-the-art stamping plant, die changes are quick — a matter of minutes — and completely automated.
Budd was not state-of-the-art. A spring 1987 plant newsletter, the Budd Communicator, ran an article on the Budd Detroit die transition team, which competed against the Budd plants in Philadelphia and Kitchener, Ontario, to see which plant could complete die changes most quickly. The photograph accompanying the piece pictured 30 or so men on the team — "truck drivers, crane operators, hook-up, die setters, maintenance, sanitation and supervisors." A caption beneath a photograph of a group of men guiding the die noted that "teamwork and muscle are required." Philadelphia won the inter-plant contest. Detroit, where "the elapsed time was 89 minutes," came second.
Depending on the part it's producing, a die can be an industrial cookie cutter, a waf?e iron, a three-hole punch, or some combination thereof. It comes in a top and bottom half, with the bottom half attached to the press's bolster and the upper half attached to the press's ram. The ram, at the bottom of its stroke, drives the die's halves together, forming, trimming and punching the steel that has been fed into the press by the robot. The press' crown, up top, contains the motor, the gearing, and the ?ywheel driving the ram.
When there is no die in a press, as is the case in a closed stamping plant, a straight-side stamping press forms an arch, and one can walk through it as if entering Washington Square Park. That ?rst press in Budd 16-line with the 2,000-ton rating was a Danly — speci?cally, a model QDC D4-2000180-108, meaning that its bolster was 180 inches, or 15 feet, from left to right, and 108 inches, or 9 feet, from front to back.
One can walk under an industrial arch of such size arm in arm with several friends.
Beneath a running press line, down in its pit, will be a conveyor to collect and carry away the steel scraps that the dies trim from the stamping. In a big stamping plant such as Budd, the conveyors beneath each press line will carry their scraps to a baler. Down in the pit will likely be oil, though the amount will depend on the press, much as the amount of oil in your driveway depends on your car. (Some of this oil will be from the tooling, and is no sign of malfunction.) The oil will be carried, by a series of pumps, to a skimmer pit outside the plant. In Budd, much of the ?ooring around the presses was wood — squares of pecan and bricks of pine — into which Saudi Arabias of oil had soaked. You could walk around the press shop for centuries and not wear out your shoes.
Compared with a state-of-the-art assembly plant, such as Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant, the scene in an old, closed stamping plant such as Budd is hellish, backlit by Goya. (There were in fact foam fingers in the Budd plant that said "GOYA." It stood for "Get Off Your Ass.") To see what I mean, visit Dearborn Truck during the Rouge tour. There's a better than even chance, if you have kids, that the plant is both cleaner and quieter than your house. It smells clean too: the plant uses only pneumatic tools, and so lacks the telltale scent of oil and hydraulic fluid. The more modern the plant, the more the robot-to-people ratio tilts toward the robotic. If your pulse is quickened by efficiency and precision, a modern assembly plant is for you.
Ray took earplugs and a pair of goggles from a safety cabinet and handed them to me before we stepped onto the plant floor. As our tour started, Ray waved to a group of black workers who had huddled together. The oldest among them asserted mock control of the scene. "Trying to get these guys to work, Ray!" he yelled. Ray laughed. Amid the noise, this qualified as a lengthy give-and-take. The blunt talk of blue-collar workers is both virtue and necessity. It's hard to holler compound sentences.
We walked past stacks and rows of stampings, all of it under contract and waiting to be shipped. I asked Ray about each part we walked past. "To tell you the truth, some of this I'm ignorant on," he said. Each part had a destination. Ford Ohio Truck Assembly. GMC Flint Assembly. Wayne Assembly. Ontario Truck Assembly. We walked past Ford F-150 tailgates on a conveyor. Ray guessed they were going to Ontario and flipped through a binder to confirm. "No, this one here's going to Louisville," he said. He shut the binder. What difference did it make where they were going? The important thing was that they go.
In some sections of the plant, stampings were stacked to the height of a decent-sized tree. What if the shipping of parts under contract hadn't been completed by Dec. 4? Ray chatted with an older black man in a gray skullcap who was driving a hi-lo and holding an application. "Get everything in? Sign everything?" Ray asked him. The man nodded. Ray told me that the man was applying to work where he already worked, doing more or less what he was currently doing. But since he would be doing it after Dec. 4, 2006, he wasn't applying to ThyssenKrupp Budd. Anyone who wanted to stay on and work would be applying to "a job agency of some type," Ray said. The agency had a representative in the plant, processing applications. The men and women who signed on for further work would go from being unionized employees on Monday, Dec. 4, to being independent contractors on Tuesday, Dec. 5. Did Ray think a lot of people would apply? "Oh, sure," he said. "Especially the guys that are going to get laid off." At the end of their talk, the hi-lo driver pointed my way. "Don't worry about him," Ray said. "New guy." They both laughed.
We walked and talked, and I took notes and mental pictures, fearing that this was perhaps the last time I'd see the place. I felt like a student whose teacher, rushed for time, had flown through an important lesson before a pop quiz. Any questions? The problem, then as now, was that I didn't know enough to ask anything of intelligence. I had nothing but questions, and so couldn't come up with any specific reason to raise my hand.
Though only one floor was now in use, the plant was four floors in one spot, Ray said, five in another. Some of the upper floors were condemned. "These presses here are some of the biggest presses in the whole state," he said as we walked past the plant's first press line. We talked over booms that seemed to come from the other end of a cave. "Watch your step," Ray said. "Look out here." He talked to an unhappy woman on a hi-lo who had 29 years and 11 months in. "She missed her insurance by 30 days," Ray said. Around the shop, ?iers were posted for the plant-closing party on Friday, Dec. 1, 2006, at Club Med on East Warren Avenue.
Outside the plant, Ray and I surveyed a field of storage racks, which from the road were the most noticeable feature of the Budd property. Most were stenciled "Return to Budd Det." What would happen to them all? "They're down there burning racks right now," he said, pointing to the smoke and fire coming from the plant's scrap yard. I wondered at the temperature necessary to burn solid steel racks. "These racks are hollow," he said. "A lot of them are not solid." He took a coin from his pocket and tapped a nearby rack. It sounded solid to both our ears. "See, that ain't hollow. So what they'll do is, they'll just start cutting." Up ahead, a giant magnet was lifting racks and dropping them into the flames. I said that it seemed as if it'd take a while to get rid of the racks. "No, no, they'll get this cleared out," he said, the can-do tone continuing, even with little left to do.
When we began our walk through the plant, Ray said he wanted to steer clear of supervisors. Now, on our way back, he said he didn't want to take me up to the second floor. "I don't want them to question you being in here," Ray said. We walked across the plant floor and through the causeway connecting the plant to the front offices. At the top of the stairs at the end of the causeway, two white workers, an inspector and a tool-and-die guy stopped Ray. Everyone who saw Ray stopped Ray. These guys had questions regarding their paperwork. Were they eligible for this? Did that apply? Could they skip this here? Ray was patient, paternal. They had the air of students cramming for a test they'd hoped would never come and so hadn't studied very hard for.
When Ray and I walked out of the Budd plant — it was Nov. 28, 2006 — we stopped on the porch of Independence Hall. It was a bit before noon, nearly 60 degrees.
The next Monday, closing day, would be more typical of the season — blustery, snowing. As we walked down the plant's front steps, I asked Ray about the two workers who'd just stopped him. They were too young to retire, their separation packages wouldn't float them for long, and their health insurance would expire in 18 months. As we climbed into Ray's Crown Vic, I asked him what the younger of the two would do.
"Find him another job," Ray said.
"Oh, I don't know. What would you do?"
I hadn't the slightest and said so.
Ray answered in a tone poised somewhere between God-will-provide and devil-may-care. "You figure — I was looking for a job when I got this one," he said.
Ray was pointing out that those still inside the plant had needed a job once before and had found Budd. And if it had happened once, what was to keep it from happening again?
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