July 20, 2008

WNY’s Trash, China’s Treasure: Mothballed Press Going to Shanghai to Make Parts for N-Power Plants, Ships

By Lou Michel, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 20--NIAGARA FALLS -- A 12 million-pound relic from the glory days of the region's industrial past soon will be shipped to China to help build that country's economic future.

A gargantuan press, capable of shaping steel with its 14,000 tons of pressure per square inch, will be used to manufacture the internal workings of new Chinese nuclear power plants.

The press sat unused for more than two decades at a former Union Carbide plant here. But when it arrives at its new home near Shanghai about seven months from now, it will work overtime to help meet increasing energy demands for the growing economy.

This is not the first time Buffalo Niagara has become a harvesting grounds for used equipment at plants that have gone belly up.

In the late 1980s, after 400 people lost their jobs at Roblin Steel, Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies snapped up equipment in that steel company's Dunkirk and North Tonawanda plants.

Trade and business experts say it is not unusual for manufacturers in emerging economies, or, for that matter, established industrial economies to scour the globe in search of used machinery.

So rather than resist these types of sales, they say, why not make money off mothballed machinery?

"These kinds of transactions need to be encouraged. Only then will other countries continue to look at the U. S. as a source of not only knowledge but machine tool hardware," said Nallan Suresh, a professor and department chair in the University at Buffalo School of Management.

But with this particular sale, there is an element of irony.

While Wuxi Heavy Forge, the buyer, plans to make nuclear plant parts to help satisfy China's energy appetite, Niagara Falls is trying to come to terms on whether to allow windmills on old industrial sites to generate wind energy -- a debate that has taken place in other local communities.

The Chinese, meanwhile, are excited about getting the press. Not only will it churn out power plant parts, it will be busy punching out steel shapes for the ship-building industry.

And that raises the question of whether sending the Niagara Falls press to China represents a betrayal of the U. S. economy by giving China more tools to compete against America.

Andrew Blakely, the Ohio businessman who brokered the $9 million deal to sell the press to Wuxi, strongly rejects that notion.

"I wouldn't call this a betrayal of the economy," Blakely said. "The U. S. buys all kinds of equipment from China. It's a pipeline back and forth."

If an American company wanted the press, he added, it had more than two decades to buy the machine, which has sat idle since in the mid 1980s.

"It was no secret that this press was on the market," said Blakely, who has made some 25 trips to China over the years.

Blaming foreign competition for the sad state of the local economy also serves no useful purpose, according to Chris Johnston, executive director of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara.

"Rather a collective focus on creative solutions to become leaders of the new global economy is paramount," Johnston said, adding that the Chinese have expressed interests in investing in this region and could serve as an economic catalyst.

A sprawling storage yard joining Union Carbide's former National and Republic plants, off Hyde Park Boulevard, looks like a massive city lot where weeds and scrawny trees are reclaiming the dusty landscape.

"There were probably a thousand people working here in 1972 when I was an ironworker apprentice," said John Stempien, who has come full circle in his career. "I helped change the rails on the overhead crane above the press."

He now works as the foreman supervising a handful of ironworkers who are finishing up the job of taking the press apart. Shadowing them throughout the last several months have been four Chinese engineers who will supervise reassembling the machine once it arrives in their homeland.

Old drawings of the press, Stempien said, indicate it was built in the late 1930s and produced military armaments for World War II.

It later received a makeover to build parts for U. S. nuclear power plants and arrived here in the early 1960s, Stempien said.

Others familiar with the press, which has nuts and bolts that weigh as much as 5 tons apiece, say that it was so big -- perhaps the biggest in the world -- that a cavernous structure was built around it after it arrived, rather than first building the structure to house the press.

But the press, for unknown or forgotten reasons, never did produce nuclear plant parts, according to Stempien. It was instead used to make carbon electrode cylinders for use in furnaces at steel plants.

Then, as the domestic steel industry faded and environmental regulations increased, the need for the huge carbon rods decreased and the Union Carbide plants were shuttered.

Listening to Stempien, it's hard to miss the resignation in his voice.

"We live in Niagara Falls, and so you kind of get used to it," he said. "But we did make good money dismantling the press."

The fact that the press is headed to China, UB Professor Suresh says, is by no means a strike against the U. S. economy. These types of sales, he said, help the economy and put America on the map for future sales of similar equipment.

At Midwest trade shows, the Chinese are regular customers for new machinery and they are often on the lookout for used equipment as well, Suresh said.

Blakely, in fact, said it was the Chinese who approached him to purchase the press.

The possibility that sensitive or proprietary technology is being sent to China with the press, Suresh added, is unlikely because "it sounds like a very standard machine tool."

As for the $9 million price tag, he said the buyer got a bargain.

And though workers like Stempien say they wish the press were staying in the United States, perhaps "at some shipyard" or as the focal point of "a new industry," not everyone shares the ironworker's view.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster says the city is turning its economic attentions to tourism and environmentally friendly industries.

"If the Chinese want to open a dirty industry and pollute their environment, God bless them," Dyster said, apparently referring to nuclear power plants. "Remember, Niagara Falls is home to Love Canal, and we are the wiser for it."

He acknowledged that the city misstepped when it failed to replace a number of traditional industries after they left town years ago, but he said there is new industrial development on the horizon.

That includes:

--The reopening of Globe Specialty Metals to produce high-grade silicon, which is in demand for solar panels.

--The reopening of the former SGL Carbon plant by Ashland Advanced Materials of Ohio in a $9 million project to make components for lithium batteries, which can be used in hybrid cars, and the production of fuel cells, which have multiple applications.

Ethanol production, Dyster added, may also be coming to the city.

As for the industrial press that is leaving the city, he said Niagara Falls is not focusing on resurrecting older industries, though he supports existing industries "that are retooling for new products and markets."

But to see the Chinese engineers and their translator watching over the preparations for the big move, it hardly seemed like an industrial step backwards for them.

The interpreter explained that they are anxious to get the press reassembled and operating.

"It's cheaper to buy a used press," the translator said, "than to buy a new one that would take five years to build from when it was ordered."

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