Detroit’s manufacturing heritage continues Downriver

Many places in metro Detroit can strike a person as feeling like the real heart of the area. Woodward and Jefferson, Eight Mile, Grosse Pointe with its old money, Dearborn with its entanglement with Ford Motor Co. Oakland County has its moments.

But there’s something about Downriver. Poor, downtrodden, derided Downriver. It’s long been the butt of jokes for locals of the greater Detroit area, for reasons I only partially get, having come from the other far end of the area, Port Huron, another waterfront place that isn’t exactly known as a bastion of high culture.

But Downriver shouldn’t be so readily dismissed. Where else around here can you still see such a clutch of industry alive and kicking? For a greater metro region that loves to tout its grit, its history of big, tough manufacturing, we might want to pause to appreciate that Downriver is the only place left that contains any of that in any significant density. It’s all well and good to applaud entrepreneurs opening yet another craft brewery, another small-plates restaurant, another pop-up artisan stand. Much of this spirit came out of the recession when we all needed a good kick in the pants to wake us out of self-pity and get busy again. It was needed.

But not to be overlooked is the industrial base on which the region has so long depended. This base can be seen Downriver between I-75 and the Detroit River. Yes, big plants have closed down there, such as McLouth Steel, still hulking on the Trenton Channel (and rivaling any abandoned industrial structure in Detroit). But a drive around the area is a reminder of what the foundation of this region’s economy is, and, encouragingly, that it still exists. That might seem obvious, but after the economic roller coaster ride of the past decade, and decades of pushing young people toward anything but manufacturing, it’s easy to get in the habit of thinking that all that stuff is gone.

It isn’t. I was afforded a chance to see a slice of this up close on a perfect spring morning last week. Trenton Forging, tucked at the end of a dirt road in the shadow of DTE Energy‘s Trenton Channel power plant and next to some railroad tracks, has been in business since 1967, when President David Maxlow’s father started it. He invited me to come for a tour, and I don’t often pass up tours of places like this.

The square mile or so around the company’s plant holds Chrysler‘s Trenton Engine plant and an Eastman chemical factory. Even a nearby former McLouth plant is alive following last year’s purchase of it by Cleveland’s Ferragon Corp. Around there you get the that feel, you see that look, that makes you stop and say to yourself, “Detroit.” Industry. Steel. Production. That Detroit.

Trenton Forging takes big round bars of steel, cuts them into small bars, heats them to a red-hot 2,300 degrees and then bashes the hell out of them into a desired shape to make a part. These parts can be anything from components for military weapons to connecting rods for race car engines, including for racing brands CP-Carrillo and Callies.

Inside Trenton Forging, a skilled worker known as a “hammerman” grabs one of those red-hot bars with long tongs, places it on a die and then works a foot pedal to make a “ram” come down and smash it. Then he moves it to another die of finer detail and smashes it again. He does this once more and a part is born. It moves along a conveyor and, still red hot, falls into a hopper to cool off amid a pile of other cooling steel parts. It’s loud, hot and filled with intimidating machinery. It has the smell of real, fundamental manufacturing taking place, one that hot steel is peculiarly well-suited at representing.

It’s all nothing more than a sophisticated form of the tools that started it all for this industry — the hammer and anvil, said Dane Moxlow, David’s son. It’s just that this hammer gets pneumatically lifted and then dropped with a force of 3,000 pounds onto an anvil that weighs 1,000 pounds. And this anvil is a precision-cut and machined die with fine contours and angles.

“That’s all we are: glorified blacksmiths,” Dane said.

It’s tough, honest work with real purpose. Besides weapons and race cars, Trenton’s parts go into farm equipment, highway infrastructure, mining operations and railroads.

There’s also high-tech involved. The company has a new scanner that looks more like a cool laser robot-arm toy for kids in the early 1950s and 1960s, when space-age stuff was all the rage. But this thing works, make no mistake about it. It measures up to 20 million points as a worker guides the arm over a die. A few passes and a perfect image of it appears on the screen.This allows for far greater control over not only making the dies, but also in refining them as part of quality control. To work out any imperfections, a skilled worker goes over the die with hand tools. These scanners mean the worker only has to do that once; the data for the revised die is fed back into the design software, eliminating more defects with each successive round.

The company has 92 employees and had $24 million in sales last year.

Not everyone is cut out for the work, said Stephanie Cobb, head of human resources. She can usually tell as soon as someone walks in the door whether that person will make it or not as a hammerman. Those who can make it past the first week of pushing around steel dust with a broom tend to stick around.

Some have paid for college and earned manufacturing engineering degrees using their wages. But places like this mean not everyone has to go to college. They start at $12 an hour but experienced, talented workers can command $60,000 to $80,000 a year, Moxlow said.

That could get better in the years ahead. As with every other industry dependent on skilled labor, this one faces the looming prospect of a steel worker shortage once the baby boomers cycle out.

“It’s impossible to find guys who want to get their hands dirty,” Dane said.

So those who are willing to get their hands dirty can make a good living, and they don’t have to take on tens of thousands of dollars of college loan debt for the honor of doing so, either.

Not a bad living. And a person who takes that path does so amid a rich industrial history that is Downriver, and Detroit.

— Crain’s Detroit Business; May 31, 2016.