I am a flanger operator. Does anyone know what that means? I operate a flanging machine. Does anyone know what that is? I didn’t, 42 years ago. Ken, the human resource guy who hired me, explained it this way. “Imagine making a steel tank (the storage kind, not the military kind). You roll a flat sheet of steel into a cylinder and weld the ends together. Easy. So how do you make the ends? Each tank requires two ends. How do you fashion them? You could cut a circle of steel for each end to fit, then weld the circles onto the cylinder. But all that would be holding the tank together at the ends would be weld. Not strong enough. What would make it stronger? If each end had a flange that would fit snugly down into the tank, and then welded to it.”
A flanging machine spins metal. As the metal spins, a forming roll shapes it around an inside corner roll. Once completed, the edge of the head is machined, or cut. Sounds simple. Ha.
There are no automatic controls. No computer assist. You are in control of the vertical, you are in control of the horizontal. It sometimes feels like you are in the outer limits when you are operating the damn thing. Every variable is up to your judgment. There are a thousand and one ways to scrap material you are working on (and I bet I’ve only learned half of them yet). So if you want to be a flanging operator you have to love a challenge.
Here are some of the specs you have to maintain while forming tank ends. The diameter, inside and outside. The circumference, inside and outside. The overall height. The thickness. The size of the inside corner. The straightness of the flange. The length of the flange. The radius of the dish. The cosmetics. The overall shape. And then there are the machining details: square cuts, bevels (inside or out), tapers (inside or out), bore-ups, and any combination of them.
But the posts won’t only be about the work. Also about the workers. Since I already mentioned Ken, the human resource guy who hired me so very long ago, let’s start with him. He got fired not long after I started. Not because he hired me. Well, maybe, a little bit. I started in July of 1973. Back then people drank on the job. Whiskey, mostly. Roy H., the flanger operator who trained me, was a heavy drinker. As were a lot of people on third shift. The third shift foreman was one of the heaviest. And they weren’t discrete about it at all. The office people would arrive in the morning to find empty beer cans and whiskey bottles throughout the shop.
One day not long after I started (I worked second shift, from 3pm to 11pm, while Roy, after training me, went to third, from 11pm to 7am) I saw Charley F., the maintenance supervisor, trying to break into Roy’s locker. Was he actually keeping liquor in his locker at work? Charley must have thought so. Knowing Roy, he probably was. Anyway, I warned Roy what I had seen. Of course I did. The guy had trained me, was a union brother, and besides, he was so likeable. I thought if he knew they were on to him, he’d be more cautious. Not Roy’s style.
It all came to a head one night at lunch break. Which on third shift is at 3am, hardly a time most people would choose to eat lunch. The plant supervisor, the maintenance supervisor and the human resource director, Ken, made a surprise appearance about half-way through lunch. They caught Roy and two others in a car drinking. The trio was fired on the spot. One guy I wasn’t going to miss, he was a rotten son of a bitch. But the other guy was young, hired about the same time I was. I heard he started crying. I can’t blame him, his wife had a baby about two months prior to this. And of course, I hated about Roy.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Since two of the guys were such long-time employees our union, United Steelworkers, took the case to arbitration. Of course it was a lost cause, they were caught drinking on company property during working hours, by irreproachable eyewitnesses. But somehow during the proceedings Ken got tripped up in some lie. I don’t know the details, but he was under oath. So he lost his job, too. Maybe if I hadn’t warned Roy, Ken might not have lied in court. Who knows? I liked Ken, he took a chance on hiring me. He was just collateral damage. The third shift foreman was also fired, of course, which was done much more easily, since he wasn’t in our union. And the drinking stopped. Or at least third shift became more discrete about it.