From the 1913 formation of the American Drop Forge Association through World War II, this article covers the early evolution of what today is the Forging Industry Association (FIA). Archival photos give a true feel of the historic meetings that helped America grow an industry in both peacetime and wartime.
Technology has changed throughout the past 100 years, as have the challenges and the people chosen to meet them. But amidst the trials and successes – and an alphabet soup of acronyms – what is now the Forging Industry Association (FIA) has always assumed the point, tasked with keeping the interests of the North American forging industry at heart.
So how did the FIA come to be?
As smithing and forging processes evolved throughout the centuries, so too did the ways in which experts could share information and strengthen their professional fields. What were once loose associations became guilds through the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution brought great emphasis on productivity and the business of industry, which essentially doomed the artisan-guild paradigm. Professional associations took their place.
1913 – American Drop Forge Association is Born
U.S. foreign trade – the sum of imports and exports – first reached $1 billion in 1872, $2 billion in 1900, $3 billion by 1907 and $4 billion in 1913. Statistics reveal interesting indicators of the economic drivers at the time. Horses comprised the export item with the highest dollar volume in 1913, while sugar was the main import. As exports, metal products rated far below animal hides and wood products. Against this backdrop, what would one day become the FIA was formed.
A meeting was held in 1911 in New York to discuss some forging concerns. What is considered the first actual association meeting was held two years later in Detroit. Attendees at the 1913 meeting included these Detroit-area men: Robert T. Herdegen of Dominion Forge & Stamping Co., Walkerville, Ontario, Canada; Mr. Ellis of Detroit Forge Co.; Mr. Johnson, superintendent of E.M.F. Motor Car Co.; and Emil Horne of Packard Motor Car Co.
The next year another meeting was held in Pittsburgh, with Herdegen elected president of the newly named American Drop Forge Association (ADFA). Mr. Siemon, of Union Switch & Signal Co., was named vice president, and Horne was selected as secretary. This 1914 meeting was said to focus on labor conditions, mainly to stop considerable “pirating” of competing companies’ workers, and to build rapport among forging competitors.
World War I Dominates Association Activities
The association’s first decade was dominated by issues surrounding World War I. Conferences focused on meeting production demands and obtaining supplies. ADFA’s Fifth Annual Convention, held in Buffalo June 20-22, 1918, was nearly postponed. Association leaders debated the necessity of meeting during wartime, when forging companies would be running at full capacity continuously, and whether company leaders could get away from day-to-day plant issues to meet and discuss the bigger picture.
Getting together won the day. “…everyone is trying to help the other fellow out, because in the long run we are doing just one single thing now, and that is digging in to win this war,” explained ADFA President Herdegen in his opening remarks. “And the only way we can do that is by everyone helping everyone else, and if anyone has any idea or any good suggestion, let him give them to his neighbor and help him along…”
Incidentally, annual association dues in 1918 were $25 – a hefty hike from 1916’s $5 dues. The association’s official magazine, American Drop Forger, chronicled industry news, events and technology during this time.
Forgers Draw Down After the War
As the war concluded, forging companies were tasked with reconstruction. This effort was summarized by ADFA President E.J. Frost of Frost Gear & Forge Co. at the association’s Sixth Annual Convention in 1919 in Pittsburgh.
“Disposal of government work on hand, both finished and partly completed, together with the absorption, resale or turning back to the government of raw stocks, was no easy matter and incapable of expeditious handling,” Frost said. “And added to this, the discomfiture of waiting for months to have adjustments made and claims allowed, followed by other periods of grim waiting for cash to replenish badly depleted working capital, put new furrows in the brows of some of you that even a fishing trip to the incomparable trout streams of Michigan could not remove.”
Concerns during this immediate post-war period included the possibility of forging companies undercutting each other on price just to win business as the lucrative and plentiful war work dried up, labor issues, concerns about the growing worldwide Socialist movement, and the need to find new markets for forgings. Discussions of pricing, now forbidden, were approached carefully in this period as the federal government refined antitrust regulations.
Reflecting the relative health of the forging industry during this period were steel prices. Spurred by World War I, steel prices ran wild from 1913 to 1922. According to the January 1922 premier issue of Forging and Heat Treating, which succeeded American Drop Forger, the 10-year average price for a composite steel product (including finished and unfinished steel) was $36. It reached a high of $116 in July 1917 and ended 1921 at $45.20. The last four months of 1921 showed how the steel industry had shrunk following the war, with producers running at only 30-50% capacity.
Proceedings from that first decade of ADFA confirm that safety in the forge shop was a problem, with numerous professionals claiming the industry lagged far behind stamping and machining in regard to worker safety. The question was how to fix it. A consensus developed around two needs: mechanical guarding and education. From there, management was implored to make safety as important as productivity.
“No company has ever succeeded in reducing accidents to the absolute minimum,” explained one conference speaker during this time, “until safety work was made part of the business of the company.”
Throughout its history, the association would make shop safety a high priority.
Following World War I, some members became disgruntled at the course plied by ADFA. On Feb. 4, 1920, a group of ADFA members met in New York City to draft a new constitution for a proposed organization that would, they hoped, bring better results to the industry. The outcome was the creation of the American Drop Forging Institute (ADFI) that same year. ADFI merged with ADFA after approval by members of both organizations at a meeting in Cleveland on Dec. 8, 1921. The new organization adopted the ADFI moniker.
ADFI worked to develop a method of cost accounting unique to the drop-forging industry through the 1920s, and this would be its primary mission throughout the decade. Growth continued through the decade as the forging industry adapted to peacetime needs. A growing population required more goods and services, with the transportation, oil and gas, and construction industries demanding forgers’ products. Electrification also benefited forgers, with the process in high demand to meet electrical-equipment and line-pole needs.
Even so, warnings sounded in regard to the drop-forging industry’s “appalling overcapacity,” as described in a magazine article that noted government studies pegging drop-forging output at less than 57% of capacity in 1928 and 1929.
Automobiles Help Forgers Survive the Great Depression
The Great Depression brought change to big business and the common man alike. One saving grace for the forging industry was the continued growth of automobile production. For some reason, people still wanted cars, which meant continued orders for auto parts as well as oil-and-gas equipment needed to feed the iron horses. As Will Rogers said, “We are the first nation in the history of the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.”
The Depression years prior to World War II had a profound effect on industry in general and drop forgers in particular. This was reflected in ADFI actions. In 1933, with an Executive Order, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the National Recovery Act (NRA), the key piece of his New Deal program. The act sought to bring industry, labor and government together to create codes of fair practices and set prices to eliminate cutthroat competition. ADFI worked as a drop-forging-industry code authority to examine prices and labor issues. On June 11, 1935, the Drop Forging Association (DFA) was formed to succeed ADFI after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional. Code authorities for various industries were immediately disbanded upon the court’s decision.
At DFA’s founding in 1935, the association, with new offices in Cleveland, Ohio, had 27 members. The association reached 51 members by the end of that year and grew to average more than 60 prior to World War II. Save for 1955-57 when association headquarters relocated to Lansing, Mich., the association would to this day remain based in Cleveland. In 1937, the association’s 71 members represented 74% of the companies in the U.S. industry, producing 69% of the industry’s volume. The forging industry clearly appreciated the benefit of a trade association looking out for common interests during this period.
“There is a definite trend among members of the industry to become members of the Drop Forging Association,” trumpeted a March 1937 DFA newsletter. “Indeed, these are unusual times, and those who have common interests find much satisfaction in working together.”
Industry Ramps Up for World War II
Prior to World War II, the U.S. forging industry had the capacity to meet domestic demand. Deemed critical to defense planning, the industry gained preference upon the start of hostilities. Unfortunately, shortcomings would soon become apparent. With ramped-up production demands for airplanes, tanks and ships, forgers found themselves short of needed hammers and presses. Companies could produce the needed machinery, but raw material to build the equipment was deficient early on. In fact, due in large part to a lack of forging capacity, only 48,000 of 60,000 planned airplanes were built in 1942. In 1943, planned airplane production of 125,000 dropped to 96,000, with 45,000 less than that ultimately produced. Bottlenecks eventually opened up, and the forging industry formed the vanguard of industrial might that propelled the Allies to victory.