Through the eyes and ears of one “old man”, primarily in steel industry

Hopefully the bits and pieces that follow will have the reader find a common thread that is intended to exist and, in a way, tie them together. Hopefully also, it is more than just something as experienced by one person.

During the college years, a summer job required one to respond to emergencies, service one diesel electric locomotive and have one or more steam hoists ready for operation for the day shift. Consequently, the first thing was to “bank” the fire in the boiler(s), service the locomotive, then, by around 5 am, start building up the pressure in the boiler(s). Once the operators started to arrive close to 7 am and they found out they were assigned to the steam hoist, they could hardly contain their happy emotions. Even though they were required to pull/push on numerous “long” levers, they liked the fact that the hoist allowed them to travel on the tracks, slew, operate the boom and the hook/bucket, all at the same. (To do that, one did not learn it in one day and one had to have a good breakfast before the shift.) The other option would have been to sit in a diesel/electric hoist with short handled knobs, but only having enough power (in the early stages of development) to control, mostly one function at a time, maybe two at the most.

Later, when working out of an office, one of the first jobs was to design better and sturdier “cow catchers” (plows in front of the travel wheels) for the charging machines of the open heart furnaces. The floors were cluttered with junks of steel and whatever else happened to get on them. The previous plows did not last under those conditions. Similarly at the 25” break down mill, the crane operators were damaging equipment. It became necessary to design covers that would follow the various contours and shapes, be sufficiently strong to absorb the impacts from poorly controlled crane loads, yet be easy to remove/reinstall as and when required.

After about 6 months in the office, one was now ready to participate in weekly repair shifts in the various different operational departments. If the rolling went into the “down shift”, one could use some of the time observing, for example, how the 46” break down mill operator (roller) effortlessly and without a word, roll the 40T ingot back and forth, altering its shape at each pass, occasionally flipping it from wide side to short side and, after few passes back again to the opposite side. The speed at which he went through, knowing exactly when to do what, was just amazing. Not only were the rolls going back and forth but the dial for screw downs seemed to know exactly where it needed to be. He did not have to look at any books or reminders, all that was through experience and know how.  Similarly, at the merchant mill or rail mill, the operator had to roll the product back and forth, except, for each, there were mill housings, side by side. The rolls, instead of just cylindrical, were grooved. The operator thus had to bring the product through the appropriate groove and the appropriate stand, till the final shape was obtained.

If the repair shift involved exchanging heavy equipment in close quarters, that would involve riggers. On one such occasion a rigger, as they were loading the blocking, chain falls, slings, etc. onto the back of truck (to take them to the job site) commented how the job  was so much easier; he still recalled the days when they had to bring all the rigging to the job site by a wheel barrow.

Sometime later it was time to get back on the night shifts again, to “drop” the roof of an open hearth furnace (for rebuild)  or run up and down the stairs to follow though much of the required activity associated at the time of the re-lining of BOF vessel.

The developments within the operational side were making progress. The ingots started to be replaced by continuous casting. The earliest casters were mostly for blooms (rectangular or square cross sectional shapes). It was no longer necessary to be “flipping” ingots, but, more automated as the equipment had become, it did not mean the life was without challenges. In the continuous casting the liquid steel is poured into an oscillating mould from where and as it exists is being guided, supported by “apron sections”, and sprayed with water, all inside a “spray chamber”.  At initial stages top is all liquid, then the outer edges begin to solidify while the inner part is still liquid. Misalignments, foreign particles, variations in the cooling sprays, etc. could cause the fracture of the “skin”. This would allow the liquid to flow out and make the recovery of parts of the equipment somewhat challenging. But, though experience people learn and later, the caster would operate shift after shift without stopping and thus produce as the name implies by “continuous casting”.

The charging of blast furnaces changed considerably at the top but also, where some had used skips to bring the raw materials to the top, some started to use conveyors.  Obviously there were numerous other changes as well, but not for everyone. Some still had to put on their aluminized, protective clothing and attend to the flows of slag and iron. Where previously the slag had been dumped, transported in liquid form and later, after cooling, maybe crushed for road or other coverings, granulation plants started to occur, for the purpose of selling the granulated slag to cement plants. This involved less processing.

Some production departments did not see many major changes over the years. For example most of the coke ovens have a long life span and thus, most changes were not to the process but for meeting the new environmental requirements and standards. Where the incoming coal had been unloaded by “coal towers” (basically specially designed cranes with clams for scooping the coal from the hulls of the lake freighters), the coal started to arrive by self unloading lake freighters, thus ultimately eliminating the coal towers.

Once the continuous casters started to cast more shapes than just blooms, the ingots and break down mills along with various reheat furnaces disappeared off the property. So did the mill operators jobs or changed as they ended up being a “back up for computers”. The processes became “continuous”, in that once steel was poured out of the BOF vessels, it seldom stopped till it exited from as a finished or semi finished hot product.

But, it wasn’t just the machines that changed. As mentioned, some jobs were eliminated altogether and/or changed in altogether. Had the rigger with wheel barrow, started few years later, he would have found that the chain falls, and much of the work he had done were now handled by mobile, hydraulic hoists that could easily get into tight quarters, boom in and out, pick up a load, and transfer it without having to transfer from one hook to another. Ultimately the rigger position was eliminated altogether.

Although there are still workers in steel plants that walk barefooted or in sandals and without any protective equipment/clothing/foot wear, that is not the case in many other countries. Almost all external parts of the body, and unlike the earlier years, now have something that, if properly used, will protect them in the normal course of their daily duties. Interestingly enough, for some of them and during the initial stages, there were all kinds of reasons/excuses as to why they should not be wearing them (something similar to police still, after all these years, having to issue tickets for some drivers not wanting to wear seatbelts).

One could give a lot more specifics and expand on many other changes, all of the above, is still in the life time of the one writing this. Gone are the steam hoists, slide rules, and many of physically demanding jobs, jobs where one had to “retain the information in one’s head”, instead of being controlled and/or second guessed by a computer.

Perhaps the most important thing to take from the above is the fact that none of the changes arrived on a “silver platter”; one had to observe, dream, test and work to see changes that actually resulted in improvements in one form or another. For some there were oppositions, failures, but, if one persisted, there were successes as well. Much like the diesel electric hoists, eventually they became better and/or were replaced altogether by something else, depending on the end requirement. Someone had to work on it and find out what worked the best.

If one looks at the skyline of a steel plant, occasionally one may still see the boom/jib of a crane exceed the heights of some blast furnaces. Someone has assembled those booms, the jibs, stretched out the cables only to feed them through the sheaves, work that the rigger with the wheel barrow used to do as well.

Most, somewhere along the line, end up passing the baton to those who now are prepared and ready to accept the responsibility for not only carrying on what was started but are seeking their contribution to continuous improvement.

At such times, one may find it hard to give up “all”. One may still get the feeling that one needs to do something, maybe to return to the “roots”. t is somewhat more difficult, today, to apply the knowledge one was given on how to “bank the fire”, to make it last and not allow the boiler to cool down while attending to emergencies or whilecatching a bit of sleep during those night shifts.

Foundries have been around for a long time. By being close to one is perhaps the next best thing; even though the foundries have been around, actually hundreds of years, much like the jib of a crane above the blast furnace, they are still very necessary and serve a much neededfunction today.

So, after passing the baton, it is also OK to hang onto the computer, I-Pad, or the cell and make use of them, the Apps and all that goes with them.  However, that is another story, for another occasion, to write about or maybe even make a video and post it.

Companies such as Wabi Iron & Steel Corp. have the capabilities to re-engineer obsolete industrial plant replacement components, either as a casting, or a fabrication, or as a combination of both.

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