Designers reap the plaudits whilst manufacturers soak up the awards, but without the hidden practice of metal stamping, the car making process would remain firmly in the carriage days, accompanied by a dirge rather than a more symphonic assurance.
While the engineering technology was pioneered in the Victorian era, nowadays many groups and global corporations deal with the stamping of metal. Today, we look at two well established companies who shape metal for a variety of manufacturers, whose methods, size and ownership have changed far beyond their humble beginnings. One must add that from this layperson’s perspective, the process is not only fascinating, but quite musical.
Schuler, now a member of the Austrian Andritz Group, was established in 1839 by Louis Schuler and a single apprentice. Based in Göppingen, a town around 40 kilometres east of Stuttgart, his small firm began to produce fruit and cider presses. By 1852, he believed his company had taken on too many projects too quickly and rather hot-headedly took an axe to his existing machinery in order to concentrate on sheet metal pressing. Starting with coin minting machines headed for China, by the time the automobile had arrived, Louis Schuler had passed on, although his eponymous company had expanded considerably.
Adam Opel AG proved the first automotive connection to Schuler in 1924, their electrical direct drive multi-station press transforming how body panels and parts could be formed. Ideas and changes were still carried out manually by draughtsmen on paper. The 1980s witnessed computers taking greater control over the whole process. From designing the dies to implanting their use, Schuler’s Programmable Logic Controller was installed at Ford’s Köln plant in 1983. As tolerances became smaller, details and pressures became higher. Dies changed in minutes, exerted pressure variable, accuracy and flexibility constantly improving.
Peugeot’s Mulhouse facility was Schuler’s chance to reveal its five stage, fully automated process with forces up to 52,000 kilonewtons in 1991. As digitisation progressed, alongside the use of not only forming but laser cutting, yet more complex shapes and parts could now be easily produced at speed; the company motto Forming the Future being confidently apt.
AP&T are a considerably younger operation, initially three competing Swedish engineering firms from the mid-1960s backwaters who combined in 1989 as Automation Pressing & Tooling. Nowadays AP&T form materials not only for manufacturers but also components suppliers; from the Onnaing, France plant making Toyota Yaris to China’s Great Wall Motors; from parts supplier Gedia Automotive Group to the Sunderland Nissan plant where almost a million large body parts such as doors and floors are pressed each year.
AP&T’s largest operating system was fitted out for then FCA (now Stellantis) Cassino plant in 2013 where five huge presses assisted in making the Fiat Bravo, Alfa Romeo Giulietta alongside Lancias. Over 1,400 cars could be made, and 15,000 parts pressed in a single day. Dependant on role, the press can harden, stamp out, roll or any combination including both hot and cold treatments.
A far cry from the relatively recent past has seen parts being pressed both hot and cold simultaneously. Multi-layer furnaces can pinpoint exact areas requiring specific temperatures, before being plunged into a forming die and naturally all timed with robotic perfection.
For example, coils of material are unwound, straightened and prepared for forming into doors. These may be steel, aluminium or composites. First press might be to glean a door-like shape before trimming, with the excess collected and carted off for recycling. Strengthening parts along with combining materials is next as suddenly the material takes on the shape comprising a car door skeleton.
The balletic movements of the robots are to your author, mesmeric. Gone, thank goodness the dark days when humans neatly lost fingers or worse as the unswerving press descended and when the process and noises became too repetitive. When humans are used, clad in leather gauntlets and normally wearing ear plugs, the role of stacking what has been pressed before the next stage process does appear mind numbing – but well paid.
Robots have taken away employment in this respect, but their programmers deserve applause for creating such fine performances. From the repeating artillery-aping boom of the large press to the next, more delicate handling of the part in question. Brute force initial pressings to stamping subtleties like a bird of prey feeding her chick, each twist and turn, could easily have a musical score written for each scene.
The prelude and Carillon to Bizet’s L’Arlésienne suite could drown out the metallic booms (the others too genteel) repetitive proceedings or for a classical sense of choreography, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Knights for this enthusiast could blare from a factory speaker. Far from the macabre, dark satanic mills of yore where such music lived, today’s process is as clean as the proverbial whistle. Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance appears apt for the blanking section. And should a part of a robot require changing, such as the genteel rubber suckers that handle the metal, the humans return to swop things over in moments, allowing the (almost) ceaseless hunger of the machines to continue to perhaps the tune of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor. Would the employees go for such accompanying chords? The tutus and ballet shoes are a definite no-no here.
Crucial to the whole operation is ceaseless monitoring and measuring, something which Schuler the younger could have only dreamt of. Accurate slide rules and gauges really are from another century as pyrometers along with infrared cameras oversee the operations where humans could never both during and after processing.
And all this merely the beginning of making a single car, time and again, day in day out. Our lives too can be placed into a musical composition even in these continuing strange times but therein lies some comfort that even if not actually aired, Kraftwerk’s The Robots plays on to create lighter, safer and better cars for us all. Here’s to the art of stamping.
A five-minute insight into Schuler.
A two-minute view of the Cassino operation
10 thoughts on “The Man Machine”
Good morning, Andrew. Thanks for today’s writing. The process of metal stamping is indeed fascinating. One of my friends is, like me, very much into cars. I remember us having a talk about how the increased pressure of metal stamping changed car design. I can’t recall the exact conversation, but we agreed that today’s car design with all the creases and folds isn’t our thing.
I agree with the musical connection as well. I have to check the music you mentioned.
Of course the way a car’s body work is produced has an influence on its design.
Just consider that the basic bodywork (non moving parts) of an A Class is made from just six giant pressings or that the complete production line for the Panamera’s consists of just six Schuler presses and you see the effect.
One big change was when the process changed from stamping/punching the part into the desired form with one almighty blow (with forces of several thousand tons in the moment the dies hit each other) by use of conrod or flywheel and spindle driven machinery (as in the above black and white picture of a Schuler press) to slowly pressing it with varying speed and force in a hydraulic press.
Many of the fashionable sharp creases are rolled into the metal because this puts less stress on the material than stamping/pressing.
The musical accompaniment was used in the Fiat Ritmo/Strada “Handbuilt by Robots” commercial. This was the borrowed by “Not the Nine O’clock News”, a British TV satirical programme for a piece on British Layland. I’ll say no more as that would be a spoiler!
That was classic.
Another excellent piece Mr Miles – thank you. By strange coincidence I have just finished reading a book picked up in a local charity shop entitled “Working Lives – the forgotten voices of Britain’s post-war working class” (David Hall, 2012 – ISBN 9780593065327) which I highly recommend for its first hand accounts from people describing the working practices and processes in the days before robots took over. And it was all so recent….
Nobody in their right mind would want a return to that era, but the loss of labour-intensive heavy industry and the mass unemployment which inevitably results has yet to be seriously addressed; certainly not by politicians who might claim otherwise. The New Jerusalem remains as elusive as ever!
Good evening John. You make a good point regarding the loss of unskilled and low-skilled jobs lost to automation in manufacturing (as well as in agriculture and fishing) in the UK, the official response has been to ‘upskill’ the young people that traditionally filled those jobs so they can instead become skilled tradespeople.
Having worked for five years in a further education college where I managed the school of construction and engineering, I found myself fighting against a prevailing mindset amongst those that govern the sector that every student, irrespective of how poorly they had performed in secondary education, could be turned into a skilled tradesperson. Experience proved that this was absolutely not the case.
Now that computerisation and, in particular, AI, is threatening to do the same to clerical jobs, many of which are already filled by ‘overqualified’ graduates, the problem is only going to worsen.
Daniel, good Point.
The old mistakes are repeated out of a belief in progress.
The same with the propagated transformation of a production society into a service society. But we won’t be able to live by cutting each other’s hair.
But only a few old white hillbillies like me who have read too many history books have any doubts.
Thank you for this Andrew- Automotive interest combined with Kraftwerk and Khachaturian; only on DTW 🙂
Having seen (and felt and heard) large presses like this in action at the Ford factory in Cologne and the BMW plant I respect these giants; that they at times are forced/programmed to produce overly fussy metal shapes is unfortunate but such is life.
Good morning Andrew. Thanks for another very interesting article. It takes me back to our trip to Sindelfingen, when we walked through the Mercedes pressing hall and felt the noise and vibration as the massive machines transformed rolls of sheet steel in to curved body panels. An experience to savour but not for too long!