World War II saw mankind develop new weapons and technologies that would go on to heavily influence the modern world. From nuclear weapons, to radar, to jet engines and rocketry, World War II laid the groundwork for many technologies integral to our modern lives. However, some of the most impressive advancements came from manufacturing methods – in particular, the forging press.
Allied planes had been engaged in constant dogfights over the skies of Europe with their German counterparts. Engineers from the US and Britain would analyze German planes that had been shot down, searching for weak-points and potential new technologies in the German planes. The German planes were impressively constructed – though their frame was light, it was strong, and the Germans were able to produce military aircraft at an impressive rate. Upon closer inspection, the German planes were comprised of only a few parts, rather than the hundreds of individual components that were riveted and welded together in American factories.
The key to producing these strong, lightweight planes had been the massive forging presses that Germany had built between World War I and World War II. Depleted of her iron reserves due to the Versailles treaty, Germany was forced to use other metals in her war machine – principally magnesium, which formed relatively weak alloys with other metals. However, when cold worked (meaning shaped at normal temperatures, rather than being cast or heated and shaped), magnesium alloys hardened considerably. Over the inter-war period, Germany built several massive forging presses, the largest of which could deliver roughly 33,000 tons of force. These presses enabled high-volume, precise production of strong, lightweight aviation components, which would eventually be used in German warplanes.
When Germany fell in 1945, there was an immediate rush from allied nations to capture the German forging presses. The Soviets captured the largest German press, as well as blueprints for a massive, 55,000 ton press. This left the Americans worried – if the Soviet Union had superior forging technology, they would be able to outproduce the Americans in terms of high-strength components, which could be used for military purposes. As a result, the US launched the Heavy Press Program, which called for the construction of several massive forging and extrusion presses.
The Americans would go on to build some of the largest industrial machines the world has ever seen. Two, 50,000 forging presses were built – these primarily manufactured light, strong airplane parts – along with six extrusion presses, which could take a billet of aluminium and force it through a die, working the metal as if it were play-dough. The extrusion presses produced missile bodies, with thin metallic skins to minimize weight and maximize fuel capacity. Even today, these presses are still used to construct parts such as bulkheads, turbines, and landing gear.
America’s presses brought America to the forefront of the jet age. America manufactured advanced, lightweight fighter jets and missiles. American presses forged components for not only weapons of war, but also harbingers of peace – planes such as the 747 and many Airbus machines. The presses created both prosperity and power, forging civilization itself from raw hunks of metal.
But America has lost her lead in heavy press technology. China has 3, 80,000 ton presses, which will likely be used to bolster China’s fledgling domestic aviation industry. Russia has built a 75,000 ton press, and France has a 65,000 ton press. These presses – especially the Russian and Chinese presses – are also likely used to manufacture high-strength parts for warplanes.
Perhaps America doesn’t need larger presses. But, given the impact the Heavy Press program has had on America, Congress should certainly consider retaking America’s lead in forging and extrusion technology. Heavy industry builds nations, and boosts national interest – this is why China has succeeded – and it is vital that America’s government takes a serious look at regaining America’s dominant position among industrial nations.