By Max Larkin
In advance of our radio show on the future of work in the United States, we (Conor Gillies of WBUR’s Stylus and I) visited Peter Forg Manufacturing, an unusual factory (est. 1881) between Park Street and Rev. Nazareno Properzi Way in Somerville, Mass., about half a mile from Harvard Square. It is, in the words of its receptionist, “an anachronism.”
We went to record a short audio segment to play during our show with the technologist Ray Kurzweil and the economist Andrew McAfee. Here that is:
For three years in and out of college I lived right across a lot from the Forg Mfg. building. I knew it as a metal-stamping factory that opened unpredictably on weekdays, but always early. I quickly forgot how apocalyptically loud it is during hours of operation.
Many of the neighborhood’s old warehouses are now being repurposed as condominiums and businesses that serve the city’s whimsical youth, places where you study “circus arts” and do high-priced indoor rock-climbing. The receptionist (17 years employed there) conceded that the plant could benefit from free advertising on public radio. Everyone who lives on Properzi Way in Somerville knows Peter Forg is there, still rattling China cabinets 130 years after its opening. Set backthe street it looks semi-abandoned, though, awaiting its second life. (Plus, when you see ‘Mfg.’ don’t you think, gone?)
The firm is now run by Dave Forg, who lives in Lexington with his wife and children, and who represents the fifth generation of Forgs to direct the stamping of metal in Somerville. He started there in his early teens, and, but for a brief interlude in business school, he’s received his paychecks from the firm ever since.
Dave began our tour by scrounging around a little to find something — a yellow rake designed to rip down shingles — that comes out of Forg as a recognizable consumer product. (They only make the teeth of the rake.) He employs a little more than a dozen people —mostly men over 55 — and since most of their products is contracted and sold to other manufacturers, they are part of a makers’ economy in America that is largely invisible to the people who buy things. We will not necessarily know if it closes.
Dave led by accepting that Forg Mfg. had “beaten the law of averages”, having persisted from his great-great-grandfather down, finally, to him. It was a source of pride, how the company had survived American war and peace over the years — helmets stamped for World War I, and a new boiler patented in by Peter himself and announced, by the by, in a 1901 edition of The Horseless Age, the original trade magazine of the auto enthusiast.
We wanted to know how Dave and his workers regarded the things they did all day. Did they feel comfortable in a second machine age? Did they enjoy the work? Where did they see it going?
The space itself centers around a large room arranged with 25-foot-tall, midcentury presses, which run on rotors that have their own enormous aesthetic appeal. These bring hundreds of tons of force to bear on a focused sheet of steel, sometimes a half-inch thick, again and again, under limited human supervision. The men are repeating typical industrial tasks, throwing levers, shearing metal and ferrying scrap around in a forklift. There are running fans everywhere, and natural light comes in from marbled skylights over the presses. This is, in its essence, exactly the kind of aerobic, absorbing, simple, productive work that people are, sometimes, nostalgic for. And Forg employees are aware of a sense of the broad, vague envy of desk workers, even as many of them can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood where they work.
Leaving aside the question of whether jobs like these can or should be saved from automation — 3-D printing, laser- and water-jet-cutting, or the equivalent disruptive technology — it seems worth noting that Forg Manufacturing endures to the present day, and that its staff of men and a very female administrator seem to enjoy each other and their work.
They explain their survival in terms of adjusting to an age of automation without losing sight of what is they do: stamping holes into metal. They have a 30-year-old JAPAX JAPT 3F computer(seen below), a wire EDM machine that cuts precision shapes into the dies using sparks. It took some jobs off the floor itself.
Now they may be more productive than ever, and the men in the quiet second-floor tool-and-die shop are training apprentices, since no one young knows how to do the job. Next door they’re training acrobats. It’s anybody’s guess who lasts.
“I have friends with jobs and they work on a project for months and months and months at a time. That would just drive me crazy. At the end of the day, I can say, ‘This is what I did today.’ Tomorrow I have something different to do. I’m not doing the same thing, not sitting at a desk, not typing on a keyboard. Always something different.” — Jim, shop foreman.
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