By Hugh Abner
[44 Years and Counting Manufacturing Batteries and Battery Machinery]
When we get together at the various battery conventions we listen to several discussions about grid Pb or active material Pb but seldom are we entertained with a paper on top Pb. Yet Top Pb is one of those “Must” items.
Just in case you are not quite sure what I mean about top Pb then here is one explanation. Top Pb is all the Pb at the top of the battery. It is the Pb that connects the plates of a cell. The Pos. plates on one side and the Neg. plates on the other. Each cell has 2 cell posts. Again, one will be Pos. and the other Neg. The cells are connected together in series to form a battery of cells by using a Pb connector. Each connector connects the Pos. post of one cell to the Neg. post of the adjacent. Three Pb cells gave us the 6-volt batteries and 6 cells gave us out 12 volt batteries. The two end cells have a special post added to them and these are main terminal Pos. and Neg. post. These posts are used to connect the battery of cells to the electrical system’s terminal cables. In short the Top Pb is the internal electrical conductor of a battery.
When the price of Pb surges upward Top Pb gets special attention. That is: financial attention. Yes, when cost need lowering then top Pb gets the spot light and this little report hopes to provide enough detail so that the alteration and reduction of Top Pb gets the notice it deserves.
Farmer Mold and Machine Works, Inc. has been a participant in the front line of the top Pb reduction struggle ever since John Farmer developed our Cast On Strap machine. All the other C.O.S machine manufacturers likewise participate. MAC Engineering and TBS come to mind but all had to wait for certain changes to take place and these changes came from the makers of the little black boxes.
Go back with me and let’s visit a typical battery factory in the sixties before the big change came to the black boxes. The company I worked for produced the top Pb of batteries through the use of methods and machinery that are out dated today for the huge quantities of batteries built for automobile starting and lighting. The cell post and cell connectors were made using Pb casting machines called “Parts Casters”. Hand held torches and Pb welding sticks were used to fuse the post to the battery plates and then the post to the cell connectors. Finally the two main terminals were built similarly with torches and a simple mold.
First though the individual Pos. & Neg. plates had to be sandwiched together with separators and then these groups of plates were inserted into a clamping device, upside down, or more commonly known as “Lugs Down”. This clamping device held up to twelve groups of cell plates.. When the operator was satisfied that the cells were held tightly he turned them up into the lugs up position. (Lugs are small extensions or tabs that extend from each plate, Pos. & Neg. These tabs are melted in order to fuse the plates to a cell terminal post — one for the Pos. and one for the Neg. Each post was generally centered on the group of plates.).The lugs had to be enclosed very tightly. This was accomplished by sliding a heavy steel comb, shaped like a hair comb, into the row of lugs. Again: one for the row of Pos. lugs and one for the Neg. row. The combs allowed the protruding lugs to be melted while prohibiting the melted Pb from running or leaking out below. Mounted on the combs were plates with cut out notches. These notched plates were called “Back Dams and Post Dams”. The notch on the back dam was a simple rectangular shape but the notch of the post dam had a rounded cut out generally in the center and this is where the cell post was inserted. With the plate lugs held snug and secure in the combination of combs and dams the operator could insert the round terminal post into position and then use a torch and a Pb melting stick to melt all the exposed and protruding lugs. The melted Pb was forced to flow and fuse with the base or foot of the rounded cell post. These groups were now fused together into battery cells and ready to be placed into the battery case. The machines or devices described above were called Cell Burning Machines or Burning Boxes. The ones I was familiar with were all made by Tiegle. Farmer Mold and Wirtz may have made them too but I was not aware of it. We did have a much smaller model that was called a Winkel Box but it only was large enough for 6 cells at a time.
I have mentioned little round cell post several times. The posts were fully round and they were just about the size of your little finger. They were used to connect one cell to another but before this could take place the cells had to be inserted into the black battery box. A typical battery box, just as now, had a separate compartment for each cell. This compartment had to be sealed off with a cell cover. (Yes that is right; each cell had its own cover).
These covers were hand placed one at a time and they had to be placed so each rested into place at the same height to be level and even. Uneven cell covers just looked terrible and projected a low quality appearance. Placing them level though was not always easily done because there was much friction going on between the post opening in the cover and the little round post plus the cover had to fit into the cell opening. In other words sometimes if you did not tap the cover just right then it would not slide into place and if you tapped it too hard it would slip too far down into the cell cavity. The workers that did this job were called ‘Cover Men’ and they actually had a hooked tool which was used to pull the cover back up when it got tapped too far down. Then the cover was again tapped into a level position. Sometimes so much force had to be applied to pull the cover back up that the cover would break and it had to be totally replaced. It took more than just one day’s work to get the proper touch. A new person on the line was not always welcomed because the experienced people generally had to do double work so they could keep up the pace by doing their work plus redoing the new persons work. I know because I was both – a new person and then an experienced person: I never did though get to be a better experienced person than I was a new person. All this is getting away though from a discussion of Top Pb but these covers had to be properly in place before the cell connectors could be installed because they were located on the top and outside the battery.
Once the connectors were on then the “Connector Burners” welded or fused the connectors to the protruding cell post. This torch welding process took a considerable degree of skill. The finished weld had to obtain a maximum fusion of the cell to the post. If it were a “Cold Weld” or just a capped over job the battery would fail for sure because the electrical path would be open and incomplete. The finished weld had to have a smooth and professional look. If the torch work went beyond a certain point the entire weld would overheat and collapse into a melted puddle. Here I remained a “New Person” for a long time. A steady hand like a surgeon’s was most desirable for this job and even as a kid or young man I never had that. I think it is safe to say that this job is a natural for women because this is the job that brought them first into the industry or at least into the manufacturing parts of it.
Finally the top main terminals had to be built onto the top of the battery as we already discussed but for clarity they are the tapered Pb Pos. and Neg. terminals which are on all batteries today with the exception of the batteries with side terminal connectors.
Top Pb then was added to the battery with much worker energy, sweat and skill which added up to a need for large numbers of workers on the assembly lines. So, in short the large number of manual laborers and the large amount of Pb used for Top Pb purposes made them both targets for reduction and elimination.
Somebody in our industry made a bold move and introduced a battery case made of plastic. This plastic was generally polypropylene and was commonly called “Polypro”. At the same time the individual cell covers were replaced with a single top cover. This was the beginning of the end for the reign of the “Black Box”. The buzz words for the new technology were – “One Piece Cover Construction”.
When someone said “one piece cover” you knew right away many, many things. You knew you were talking about: a plastic battery case with the one plastic top cover thus no more individual cell covers, no more cell connectors and no more fully round cell post. We will not go into it here but one other common component was replaced. The individual cell covers had to be totally sealed after they were tapped into a level and even position. This was done with a hot tar compound. The single plastic cover had to be sealed on also but this was done with glue, (A, two part, epoxy glue). Volumes of grief can be written about gluing on these plastic covers. Thank goodness gluing was replaced after about 3 or 4 years with the plastic heat sealing process.
The introduction of the “one piece cover” changed everything for the “Top Pb” component of a battery. The connection of one cell to another was no longer on the top outside. It was all under the single plastic cover. The little round cell post were moved over to rest against the cell partition and this is a flat surface so a flat surface had to be added onto these post. This way the post from one cell was only the thickness of the partition away from the post of the connecting cell and this was a very short distance. The lengthy cell connector was not needed because the new flat sided post of each cell could be pinched together and held with a small mold so that the tops of each post could be melted and fused together. The cells were now connected by a Pb post that went up and over the partition. This was true no matter how large the cell was because the posts now were always just the partition thickness away. Much Pb was saved. The molds needed for battery parts began to disappear. The cell connector molds all disappeared completely and the molds for the little round posts were all replaced or modified. The rugged looking “Black Box” now had a sleek and smooth appearance and it did not have to be black anymore. But if anyone of the day thought the major changes were complete then they were in for a total surprise.
At our battery manufacturing sites many people that had been required to cast connectors, tap on individual cell covers and to attach cell connectors disappeared from our assembly lines. The reduction of Top Pb and labor cost made for exciting times up in the front offices and for Wall Street. Unions too took notice but this is a story for another day.
We still needed people though to operate the burning machines, insert the cells into the battery cases, weld the flat sided cell post together (glue on the single piece covers which is another story for the future). The top terminal welders were still required.
The “One Piece Cover” design opened a huge door for the battery machinery manufacturers. The new world was to belong to those interested in assembling batteries using the Cast On Strap method. This new world did completely away with the “Cell Burning Machines” and all their operators and for small automotive batteries it has mostly done away with battery parts casting and those operators. So again many workers were replaced.
I will get into the world of Cast On Strap in Part Two of Top Pb. because this has become lengthy. Only hard core battery men will have read this far.
So to close this out let me just suggest, for all of us which are still hanging around in the industry and for the new ones as well that we sometimes should take notice as we walk through the people barren thus lonely battery assembly lines of today that they once were filled with rows of people that had personalities. There was laughter and cursing along with much sweat all while doing routine task to an endless line of black boxes that were constantly moving away from them and immediately replaced with another.
One time a worker that spent over 20 years on the same assembly line building battery top terminals with a torch and a Pb stick asked me a question that gave me insight into the thoughts which went through his mind to help fill his day. He asked, “Where does the light go when the bulb goes out”? Now it can be asked, where did the people go when Top Pb did not need them anymore?