Heavy Press Program – Monster Machines for Forging Light Metal Components

The Fifty, 16 million pound heavy press with 50,000 tons of force

The Fifty, 16 million pound heavy press with 50,000 tons of force

We talk about all sorts of methods here for making metal components, from welding and machining to casting small and large parts, and some of you are personally involved with a lot of these methods on a daily basis, but I came across this article yesterday about the Heavy Press Program, and it just stopped me in my tracks. These machines are absolutely breathtaking.

The Heavy Press Program was run by the U.S. government in the 1950s, to give us the ability to forge metals like magnesium into large but light component parts, primarily for aircraft and rockets. At the program's end in 1957, a total of 4 enormous presses and 6 extruders had been built and eight of these monsters are still in use today.

When I say monster, I mean mind bogglingly HUGE! The machine shown here is known as "The Fifty." Look at these specs and then think about them for a minute; it stands nine stories tall, the photo doesn't show the four stories under the floor, it weighs 16 million pounds and it exerts 50,000 TONS of compressive force! all for the purpose of producing light and strong structural components.

The Fifty, 16 million pound heavy press with 50,000 tons of force

The Fifty, 16 million pound heavy press with 50,000 tons of force

A fascinating article over at BoingBoing goes into a lot of detail, describing how this capability was developed by Germany in WWII and after the war, the U.S. and the Soviets wanted to do it, too, leading to our construction of these presses here.

For those of us who appreciate machinery of all sorts, a monster like this just makes you feel a bit, ... well, you know. I've never been up close and personal with one of these, but I can see a road trip sometime in my future. Wow!

UPDATE: The photo at the start of this post has been updated to a newer color photo, pointed out to me by reader Florent B. It comes from an article on the SAE site discussing the repair and refurbishment of this press in 2009.

Link: BoingBoing
Photos from Library of Congress


  1. B50 Jim says

    BOGGLING. I’ve worked on “small” punch presses in the 5- to 20-ton range, and I had to climb onto them when it was service time. I’m trying to imagine the concept of 50,000 tons pressing capacity. But it’s all in a day’s work for heavy industry. During WWII, aircraft crankcases were forged from chunks of aluminum using equipment like this. Imagine — pop in a billet of aluminum or magnesium, hit the green button and stand back. Lots of noise ensues, and out comes a part that’s stronger than anything that can be machined or cast, nicely forged to close tolerances so it requires little machining. Machinery like this is out of range for all but the largest manufacturers, and the tooling costs tons as well. But I’m glad to know it’s available, if only because it represents the kind of “can do” attitude that American manufacturing always has had but sometimes forgets.

    • Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" says

      “I’m trying to imagine the concept of 50,000 tons pressing capacity”

      The author of that article puts that force into perspective, when he says it’s like bench pressing the battleship Iowa, with 860 tons left over.

  2. bbartcadia says

    In a book published in 1917 is a photo of a 15,000 ton press, the largest in the world at the time. I have run a 160 ton press brake and 100 ton ironworker on a daily basis. They make the job easier and faster, but still rely on the creativity of man.

  3. germancarnut2 says

    I design forming presses for the plastics industry. So far my largest press is good for 390 tons. Definitely a far cry from the 50k tons. And to think that was designed and built in the 1950’s when they did not have CAD & FEA software. Awesome!

    • Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" says

      “And to think that was designed and built in the 1950′s”

      That’s the other part of the story, beyond what this press does, just think about what it took to build it in the first place.

      Protractors and slide rules and some really heavy lifting, … the mind boggling continues.

  4. B50 Jim says

    “Bench pressing the Battleship Iowa…”

    The most I ever could bench press was 200 pounds. I have seen a 200-ton steam locomotive with its tender, and that shook the earth when it rolled past. Nope — 50,000 tons still doesn’t compute.

    But why is anyone surprised that this was done in the 1950s? They thought big in those days. Remember, we were in the midst of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and we knew the Ruskies could make some really impressive stuff. It was a matter of national pride to show the world we could stamp out the biggest hardware, be it crankcases for aircraft or crankshafts for ocean liners. We now have highly sophisticated manufacturing technology and can do things no one even imagined in the ’50s, but there are times when nothing will do but slamming out huge pieces with huge machines. Bigger sometimes is better!

  5. Kevin Rammer says

    I had the good fortune to spend some time interning at Ladish Forging in Cudahy, WI. Home to what is called ‘Number 85′ and is the largest counter-blow forging hammer in the world (which means it has both an upper and lower ram [weighing 375,000lbs. a piece] that impact the worked part simultaneously). It was quite impressive to watch, and it would shake my desk from about 1/2 a mile away when it was running. The only spec I’m able to find says it’s capable of 150,000mkg. The bit that I was given to put that into perspective was that it would be approximately equivalent to the force of a fully loaded sedan (and we’re talking 1958 here when I say ‘sedan’) hitting a wall at 100mph.

  6. B50 Jim says

    Paul —

    Don’t sell slide rules and protractors short. Engineering slide rules could be 6 feet long and were accurate to four or five decimal places, which is close enough for aerospace work. A person who knew how to use a slide rule could run some sophisticated calculations very quickly — I still have my Pickett slide rule (and a book on its use), and although I use it mostly to impress the 40-year-old kids in the office who never saw one, I still rely on it to make quick calculations when my electronic calculator isn’t readily at hand.

    Slide rules indeed ruled even after the late 1960s when the first 4-banger electronic calculators hit the market. At $200 each they only could add, subtract, multiply and divide; so slide rules held on until the mid-70s when electronic calculators came into their own. Then slide rules went to the back of the drawer or resale shops, where I bought mine for a buck.

    • mustridemore says

      My “slide rule” of choice is Spatial Analyzer by New River Kinematics, I cound not imagine doing what I do with a real slide rule.

  7. Paul Crowe - "The Kneeslider" says

    I have a couple of slide rules myself, and though I haven’t put them through their paces for quite a while, I used to be pretty good with one, … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The batteries never run down, either. Those are keepers.

    I still have a very nice set of drafting tools, too.

  8. B50 Jim says

    At the rate American industry is being hacked by the Chinese, Russians and God-knows-who-else, those slide rules and drafting tools might get dusted off and put back into use. The only way to hack an engineering drawing is to break into the office and jimmy the lock on the filing cabinets. That requires operatives in the country; not so easy as paying a misanthropic adolescent to sit at his terminal and play James Bond. I realize this conversation is going far afield, but the magnitude of cyber-espionage is staggering. We’re fighting World War III and don’t know it.

  9. Paulinator says

    RE-espionage. I bet the new Chinese stealth fighter emits an embedded signature that (only) the Pentagon can easily track…and neutralize.

  10. B50 Jim says

    Paulinator —

    Let’s hope so. Our boys have the most sophisticated stuff in the world, but the Chinese have been playing catchup at an impressive rate. It’s a strange world. I guess all we can do is ride our bikes and trust that our guys are faster and better than their guys.

    Still, remember Tom Lehrer’s song about Verner Von Braun: “In German and English I know how to count down… Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Verner Von Braun.

    • Carolynne says

      There was an interesting story on the news here the day before yesterday about how they are doing that “catch up” according to the CBC they had full access to Nortel records for more than 10 years. The speculation is they are doing this with many North American companies and the level of data they are accessing is phenomenal. This is becoming a bit of a issue up here as our PM has been looking to increase our business ties as a nation to China, and opponents are wondering why we would be strengthening economic ties with a nation the steals our Intellectual Property.

  11. jim harrell says

    Fascinating! Brings back fond memories. Along with National Forge in Erie Pa. I had charge of developing a 2500 ton upsetter for making the male and female (pin and box ends), attachements to drill pipe for the oil/gas drilling industry. We would take 10 inch RCS (round corner square) 16 foot length bars, shear to length, induction heat to 2150 f, then with a REALLY big guy manipulate the heated chunk into a horizontal die three stage upsetter and die press the hot shape into a male and female end for the drill stem while at the same time pierce punch a hole through the middle.

    We would then process the cooled piece by machining the id and od and put the male or female API threads on the part.

    Now what was really “kool” was these parts were then welded via Thompson friction welders to the end of Timken made 4130 tubing. We would spin up the tubing, and the part and push them together and the friction would essentially weld them together. I recall the friction press force was 50 tons.

    And finally what makes all this amazing is that those attachements to 20 foot lengths of tubing would be screwed together to drill for oil and gas and often times go 5-7miles in length to the drill bit doing the work way down under.

    The world of making stuff is FASCINATING! We need more youngsters learning what we oldsters are not leaving behind.

  12. says

    After the kickstart on my old T140V Bonneville bent slightly after years of me kicking the damn thing!! (good old points always going off with all that vibration) – I was told to take it to the old guy in the corner – on the 50 ton press, I told him to straighten it slightly as I was fouling the pillion peg (or something…) on the way down
    “I”ll just give it a kiss…” sure enough one kiss later it was straighter!!!

  13. B50 Jim says

    Carolynne —

    I’m old enough to remember the “good old days” of the Cold War when (we were told) there was a Communist agent hiding behind every tree, and if you showed too much interest in Russian music or literature, or if — God forbid — you had a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, you could get a visit from the FBI.

    That all changed when Nixon went to Red China, ostensibly on a diplomatic mission but more likely to open trade talks. (Nixon had been a top lawyer for Pepsico, and guess which American soft drink company landed the first distribution contract in the PRC?)

    The rationale was that a Communist nation as a trading partner would be less likely to bomb us back to the stone age. I suppose that worked — as if China didn’t have enough problems at home — but ol’ Tricky Dick opened up Pandora’s box and it can’t be closed. The same technology that allows us to have so much fun conversing on the Kneeslider and Facebook allows foreign operatives to walk barefoot through “secure” files within government and industry. The technology grew so quickly that few of us foresaw the downside. It’s a completely different world than the one most of us grew up in. After cyber theft comes cyber attacks like those that wrecked Iranian uranium centrifuges, and that was merely an opening salvo. At least a cyber war doesn’t reduce cities to smoking ruin, but the overall damage could be more devastating.

  14. B50 Jim says

    I don’t mean to be so negative —

    jim harrell and Sportster MIke — Heavy industry is an amazing place, isn’t it? Those craftsmen who wield huge pieces of steel and powerful tools like presses can manipulate metal as easily as a sculptor wields clay. It’s fascinating to watch them turn raw stock into finished products, or to “kiss” a bent kickstarter back into shape. The secret is to understand the metal and how it wants to be worked, to apply heat and force in just the right place at the right intensity, and to know when to stop. A true craftsman sees steel as a compliant material that will become whatever he wants, and sets about using his knowledge and experience to do just that. It’s fascinating to watch.

  15. says

    The great thing about this photo and conversation is how it opens the book and sheds light on the impressive, mind-boggling technology that has lead us to where we are now. My perspective on technology was forever altered when I saw an early, silent film that showed a huge (maybe 5-story) Bessemer stamping press from the early part of the 20th Century. This machine was terrifying and clearly effective and balanced on the razor’s edge of what man was capable of doing at the time. The way it moved, it’s mass and red-hot material it processed was magnificent and clearly hazardous by today’s safety standards. But, throughout the movie, the steelworkers and technicians walked in and around this beast like they were in their own homes. If I recall correctly, Carnegie and his technicians were responsible for this industry changing innovation.

  16. Paulinator says

    One of the first and most practical shop tools that I built was a 30 ton press that used a re-purposed landing-gear ram from a CF-100 fighter. I paid 50 bucks for it, surplus, though I was told that it was worth $3500 in 1959. Anyway, I’m humbled.

  17. AlwaysOnTwo says

    Impressive, and takes “thinking big” to whole other levels, but…
    16 million pounds is 8000 tons and that is a bit more than just an impressive piece of mass. But back in WWII, there was a German industrialist that took things over the top. His name was Krupp, and among other things he produced the Big Bertha cannons that launched a projectile larger than and heavier than a VW and was credited with capsizing a destroyer with a single round without even making direct contact. He also built a press that weigh in at 15,000 tons (30 million pounds) which was eventually taken apart and shipped to Yugoslavia.

    Faced with these monuments, I’m not even gonna talk about my little 25 ton bearing press at the next back yard beer fest.

  18. Buck Norton says

    Okay. Read through everything including most – okay, a lot – of the comments to the original article. Some of the commentators writing about the civilian use of government funded collusion between industry and the military never results in dividends for the taxpayer. There’s a banker in the middle all threee ways. And the taxpayers end up paying interest on the loan – all threee ways. The Federal Reserve initiates and perpetuates this cycle for its own benefit. What it does with the money only the neocons know.
    I’m amazed and enthused every day to see how fresh and innovative motorcycling is in using modern technology in minimalist fashion for pure enjoyment of the individual.
    Buck in Phoenix

    • AlwaysOnTwo says

      So you think Harley puts riders ahead of stockholders and the extra 20 percent tax break of investing in other publicly traded companies at the expense of those that can’t? Or that Honda/Suzuki/Kawasaki doesn’t use the motorcycle segment of their operations to take advantage of certain qualifying loopholes in trade agreements for their share owners/CEO bonuses? You think the Goldwing/Concours/R1600/etc are minimalist? Do you think that none of makers don’t rely on bankers to provide financing for the tooling and machinery, or to finance the average owner out the dealership door? And you’re understanding of the Federal Reserve system is that it functions only for intrinsic interests and not for providing liquidity and stability to the banking system? And there’s no benefit from the military use of taxpayer money when the cost of that military might is what funds your freedom on an hourly basis 24/7?

      I think someone is just a tad overboard in glorifying and using his favorite indulgence to backbone a hairbrain philosophy with nary a regard for fact or reality.

  19. Ferg says

    Slightly off-topic… but I think that the interpretation of the picture caption is wrong.
    It’s not referring to the big metal object at the back, but to the guy stood on the left…

  20. Buck Norton says

    You should reconsider how liquidity and stability have gotten the world buried in debt to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Federal Reserve. All one and the same. Without allowing massive amounts of government debt there wouldn’t have been a WWI or WWII. Communist Russia would have been a nonstarter. WWI didn’t start until a year after the Federal Reserve Charter had been passed (without a quorum) by a Congress already on vacation. The US taxpayer became the ‘lender of last resort’ to all governments through both wars. The massive debt of our own country is increasing by billions every month, as you say, to protect our freedom 24/7. Our sons and daughters are carrying 9mm instead of .45’s because our politicians wanted listening posts and an air base in Italy. A decision that’s still costing lives. Bring ’em home. We’ve got more important borders to control right here and I don’t want them ‘stuck’ over there when something happens.

    I’ve got almost 70 years of watching and reading about this. Interestingly, my research started with TE Lawrence and Brough Superior. His path was actually encouraged by Progressive teachers from the Fabion Society of the 1880’s who were a spinoff of Cecil Rhodes’ world monetary policy.