A Somerville manufacturer has seen the Boston suburb change over the years, but it maintains its tool and die roots in a high-technology city.
By Mark Langlois
Peter Forg Manufacturing has stamped metal parts in a Boston suburb since the late 1880s, and a lot has changed in its Somerville neighborhood, a short walk from Harvard Square.
“Some of our guys have been here for 40 years,” said David Forg, president, Peter Forg Manufacturing, in an interview with D2P. “We have guys whose fathers worked here. Our biggest problem is, Somerville used to be a blue-collar town and our workers walked to work. Now we’re close to Harvard Square and students live all around here. We’ve got million-dollar condos. The rents are through the roof.”
David Forg is the fifth-generation grandson of the founder, Peter Forg, a German immigrant and woodworker who opened a carpentry shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. He did a little metalworking—drawer pulls, hinges—on the side. Other woodworkers started buying the metal parts, and then the Forg family put away the woodworking tools and stuck to metal.
One advantage of being in the stamping business for 140 years is that the firm stocks a wide range of dies so for many customers, they can order a part without having to pay for a die. Most of the dies are round discs, larger diameter or smaller. Many are washers.
“We have so much tooling here we’ve accumulated over the years. We have round discs for washers, heads for water tanks. We have a lot of different dies for that,” David Forg said. “We may have a tool that will do what the customer wants, so right off the bat we’ve saved them $50,000. That gives us a lot of leeway in the early design stage. I’d rather make a million parts, but if we have the tooling and they’re early in the design stage, we’ll make five.”
The moment Peter Forg Manufacturing begins working with a new client is sometimes the start of a long-term relationship that helps both Peter Forg and the client.
“Every job is different. I start the conversation, but I’ll bring in a tool and die maker and the guy who’s been running a press for 40 years,” Forg said. “I’ve got a tool and die maker slash plant manager who is a great person. I bring him out to a customer to talk about designing a part. He knows how to make it easier to run, which makes it less expensive. We want to work with our customer to hook them up with solutions that make their part to the tolerance, to the print, in the least expensive way. That’s one thing we’ve done. We own the die, so that’s good for us.”
Customers Want Lower Costs, Higher Quality
One difficult challenge David Forg tries to meet up front is how to save money for the customer when the parts numbers are low. “How do we, upfront, spend the minimum amount of money on tooling, but get started?” he asked. The first place they look is their tool and die inventory.
A customer buying a 12-inch, 11 gauge, 304 stainless steel disc for an HVAC recirculation unit had one critical tolerance, and the customer came back to Peter Forg looking for ways to save money. The inside diameter was 1.8470 inch, plus or minus 0.0005. The part was being made in a two-step process. Peter Forg stamped the original shape. The customer then sent the disc to a machining firm that machined the desired tolerance.
The machining heated up the disc, and that left oil on the finished part that someone had to clean off. The customer wanted to lower the cost. “They were asking, ‘Can we go to steel instead of stainless steel? Can we laser cut it?’ They went over all the potential ways of doing it.”
David Forg said he brought Carlos, his tool and die manager, into the discussion. Carlos looked at the part and said Peter Forg could stamp it, then add a secondary shave and burnish step that would hit the right tolerance and eliminate the need to send it out for machining. That also erased the added oil.
“We had to design a tool 100 percent through our own efforts,” Forg said. “They were a very good customer of ours, and we asked if we could give it a try. We were willing to experiment on it on our own hook. We tried it and went back and forth a few times. We had to get some kinks out of it. The hole had to be straight and in tolerance. We worked it out well.”
Once the disc was stamped, the new tool shaved a tiny bit off the disc and burnished it with a punch that sized the ID on the disc. It became stamping, shaving, and burnishing in two operations. “In a secondary operation, we built a shave and burnish tool,” Forg said. “It was an extra step, but it saved them a lot of time and operations without shipping the part anywhere and without the machining operation.”
The customer orders about 20,000 parts a year, and Peter Forg stocks the items for an emergency. “It’s not a lot, but it’s a good size for us, and it’s continuing,” David Forg said.
Forg said he tells people that Peter Forg Manufacturing is nimble. “The main value is quick turnarounds, being able to change on the fly, smaller batches or order quantities. Those are the main selling points when I’m trying to talk people into bringing a product here.”
More Safety with Electronic Controls
Forg said the company is always looking for any new technology that can speed up the stamping process. “It’s an old process: The machines go up, they go down. Not much changes in the machines,” David Forg said. “It’s just a matter of speeding up feeding equipment or secondary operations.”
He said the real improvements come from the old tool and die makers. “The best innovations we have here are old-time tool and die makers coming up with ideas to innovate the tools we’re already making—to combine operations, cut out operations, or to use less material.”
Peter Forg Manufacturing survived the 1980s and 1990s, when a lot of manufacturing work moved offshore, David Forg said, because it stamps large pieces of metal. “We work in thicker materials. A lot of our parts are heavy. They’re not ideal for shipping overseas.”
During the summer of 2020, two former customers returned to Peter Forg to rebid and requote work they’d moved overseas. One was a big company that didn’t make a secret about buying most of its stamping overseas. They were nervous about their overseas suppliers and thought they might bring the work back.
“We’d made the parts years ago and we still had the tooling for it. I’d pretty much given up on them, but they came back this summer and had us re-quote everything,” David Forg said. “I tried to sell them on the quality and the benefit of not having to order so many parts. They didn’t bite. As far as I know, I did not win any business back from customers I know who were buying offshore.” David Forg said.
The manufacturers who stayed in the U.S. understand the advantages of local suppliers. “There is a shorter loop between design and manufacturing. That’s a big plus of being here in the country. They understand that and that’s why they stay ordering from us in the United States,” David Forg said. “They have much greater control being local. A lot of our customers are within a day’s drive of us. They can drive parts to us, and we can go back and forth. If they want to change something, we can go out and visit them and figure out a way to do it.”
“We’re willing to work with a customer during the process. That’s one thing we’ve done,” Forg said. A customer might want a 7.5-inch blank diameter circle, and Peter Forg has that. What makes the part unique is the customer wants to put holes in the disc in specific locations. Peter Forg will make a tool for that.
“You’re going to have to pay for the die to pierce all the holes, but we have the starting blank 7.5 on hand. We do 95 percent of our own tooling in house, so it saves a lot of time,” Forg said. “We know how to design tooling for our specific presses. Some hot water companies are in the design stage and they’re willing to design their tank around the tool Forg already has. It will do what they want and save them $50,000.”
In one case, a Canadian medical research and development firm wanted a few round metal pieces as parts of a diagnostic machine in a doctor’s office. The metal disc would be disposable, so once the R&D was finished and the machine went on sale, the client might require large numbers. When Peter Forg started working on it, the customer only wanted a few.
“They were experimenting. They’d want 50 out of this material, and 50 out of that material, all this different stuff,” Forg said. “They had to decide on the thickness. It had to have no burrs or sharp edges. It needed a film coating. It had details. It was a job you could easily say, ‘I have 100 other things to do today,’ but we didn’t. We worked with them, and we put the time in.
“We did what they asked, and in time, we found the material they were looking for,” he continued. “We had the diameter dies. They didn’t want to pay for the tooling early on. This went on for seven years. It was a gamble, and then they started ramping up. They started testing it. They wanted to pay for tooling. Instead of one at a time, they wanted five a minute and then 100 a minute. They started buying the material in coil. It was a simple part for us.”
Sometimes Five Parts Are Enough to Get Started
David Forg said most companies would rather make a million parts than five, but making five sometimes pays off. “If we treat them right and there is a potential future, we work with them.”
Peter Forg Manufacturing is about 35,000 square feet in size, with 20 employees. The company has been in business for 140 years, and in the same building for 130 years. The original site is less than a mile away.
David Forg said the company is a heavy metal stamper, and among the additions to the building over the years was a room with a pit, a foundation, and a 500-pound press. It also operates two 250-ton presses. Nowadays, most of the equipment upgrades involve electronic controls, light safety curtains, and servo feeds for the presses. “They’re more accurate, better than air feed or mechanical feeds. An air feed can slip a little. A servo delivers the material exactly where you want it every stroke.”
Peter Forg Manufacturing provides heavy-gauge metal stampings for construction, oil and gas, power generation, commercial fishing, and high-end bicycle frames. It works for other machine shops and makes a tool for taking shingles off roofs. It fills low volume, medium volume, and high volume orders. One of its more common products is a “dome-like” water tank head. They range in diameter from 22-inch up to 28-inch and are stamped and deep drawn from 11 gauge or 12 gauge steel. “In some cases, companies come to us and ask what sizes we can make before they design the water tank,” David Forg said.
When people walked to work, the company didn’t need a parking lot. Now the lot is full, and some workers drive an hour each day for work. “When we’re coming in with a truckload of steel, we’re not the most popular neighbor,” Forg said.
Peter Forg Manufacturing has three tool and die makers on staff. For four or five years, it had a machining and a sheet metal cooperative training program with the Somerville High School. When the high school moved into a new building, the program was put on hold. It was put on hold again for 2020 because of COVID.
“It was working pretty well, but when they built the new high school, everything was put on mothballs. It’s been three years since we had any co-op kids in here. Hopefully, next fall,” David Forg said. “We hired a few from it. We want local people to train. It’s the best way to get long-term employees.”