Every time you get in a car, pick up the phone, handle a tool or turn on an electronic appliance, you are looking at the result of custom metal fabrication.
Our economy relies on metal fabrication processes. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to run our electrical systems or create the parts that keep our houses, kitchens, businesses, computers, and vehicles operational. However, it is difficult for many of us to understand what precision metal fabrication entails, as well as all of the areas of our lives it affects.
This article will explain the essentials of metal fabrication: its definition, history, process, benefits, types, and applications. By the end, you will have a more in-depth understanding of how crucial this process is to civilization and how many different parts of our lives it touches.
Metal fabrication is the process of manufacturing sheet metal and other flat metals to make it conform to specific shapes. It takes place through cutting, stamping, shaping, folding and welding.
The sheet metal fabricators use is typically around a quarter of an inch or less. At this thickness, the shaped metal is pliable and can easily assume different shapes. The metal fabricators themselves are highly skilled specialists, trained to cut and manipulate metal with a surgeon’s precision to the desired shape. Many manufacturing operations operating on a grand scale will have their regarding onsite metal fabrication crew.
Many jobs outsource metal fabrication to machine shops. Machine shops exist all over the United States — and the rest of the world, of course — and they often operate by creating schematics to bid on jobs for companies. The work can vary widely, from medical to building materials to computers, but the beginning phases can look similar across industries.
Metal fabrication requires a lot of strategy and planning before actual work commences. The process involved is far more than just taking drill bits to sheet metal — there is engineering, bidding, back-and-forth communication with the client, adjustments, material sourcing and material ordering. Additional parts that go into the process may include:
- Plate metal
- Expanded metal
- Formed metal
- Wire for welding
Of course, these will vary depending on the job. Essentially, a fabrication shop or machine shop will start with a collection of assorted metals and transform them into the tightly built structures so common in our everyday lives.
The History of Metal Fabrication
Humans have been mining and machining metal for the past 10 millennia, as evidenced by a copper pendant archaeologists found in northern Iraq that dates back to about 9,000 BCE. Fabrication shops as we know them today began to exist around the Industrial Revolution, when sheet metal was in much higher demand than before. The invention of the hydraulic press, which allowed manufacturers to apply unprecedented pressures to pieces of metal, transformed the metal fabrication industry.
Metal fabrication on a broad scale was necessary to form systems of railroads, telegraph lines, weapons, tools, printing presses and other implements that have been so instrumental in our history. All of these advances relied on machine shops performing joints, cuts, bends and forming operations, just as is done today. The advent of compressed air has made riveting, another important part of fabrication, much easier and more efficient.
With the onset of the 20th century, metal fabrication has assumed an even larger role in our lives. We now perform machining on grand scales, ranging from small, family-run operations to large manufacturing plants employing thousands of people.
How Does the Metal Fabrication Process Begin?
Metal fabrication starts with an idea, typically born out of necessity, that involves a piece of metal suited for some particular task. For example, a tech company may need a machined aluminum case for a new gadget. Their engineers design the part and send it out to several machine shops as part of a request for a quote. The machine shops analyze the schematic, calculate the cost of production and reply with both cost and lead time.
At this point, the company chooses the machine shop they wish to work with. The shop then puts the order in their queue and sets about ordering materials for the machining job. These may consist of sheet metal, metal bars, metal rods and more. As soon as the parts arrive and the job is in the queue, the team sets to work building the part itself.
The time it takes to fabricate depends on the complexity of the part and the demand on the machine shop. The fabrication shop may also provide assistance in both design and production, though this is more common for custom parts that require unique processes to complete. Skilled machinists can produce practically any shape or design once they figure out the best way to solve the problem.
Problem-solving includes conceptualizing the best way to create the part, which may mean figuring out what material characteristics are necessary to accomplish the design. Computer-aided design has made parts much easier to fine-tune, and it allows engineers to figure out crucial information instantaneously, including information on spots that may be structurally weak.
What Is the Metal Fabrication Process?
The actual process of metal fabrication begins with choosing the right method. This will vary with the geometry of the part, the type of usage it will get and what it is made of. Here are examples of some choices for different metal fabrication processes:
- Cutting: This is the most fundamental process in metal fabrication, and it can be accomplished through waterjet and laser cutting, chopping, sawing, shearing and chiseling. Cutting is what turns the sheet metal into a piece of the required size and shape. Today, waterjet and laser cutting comprise the foremost technologies available.
- Casting: A die forms a mold, and the fabricator pours molten metal into it. This metal cools down and turns solid, and the part remains after removing the die.
- Forging: High-pressure machinery compresses raw metal, allowing a fabricator to bend and shape it.
- Punching: Turrets punch pre-designed patterns into the metal, either for decorative purposes or utility.
- Drawing: This process uses tensile force to pull liquid metal into a tapered die.
- Milling: A milling mechanism bores perforations into the metal, which, due to the nature of the machine, can be non-circular.
- Drilling: A drill cuts holes into the metal using a circular bit.
- Turning: The piece of metal goes onto a spinning platform, allowing a technician to cut it radially with a tool as it spins.
- Extrusion: A ram forces billets through a die. This extrusion process forms cylindrical parts, such as pipes or electrical wires.
After the initial process turns out the resulting part, it is possible a secondary finishing process may be required. This may be some sort of assembly if two or more parts need to be joined. The part may also need deburring, grinding, riveting, adhesive application, bolting or painting.
Benefits of Metal Fabrication
There’s not much need to sell anyone on metal fabrication these days. Metal has demonstrated its aesthetic quality, longevity and structural strength for millennia now, and with new alloys continuing to emerge, it is only continuing to improve. Here are some of the benefits of metal fabrication:
- Superior strength: Metal is a cut above the rest in terms of its strength. Particularly important is its high tensile strength, or resistance to being pulled apart, that makes it useful for wires, cables, screws and other hardware. It also demonstrates great compressive strength and nearly unparalleled hardness. All of these qualities come coupled with the fact that metal is easy to manipulate, bend, drill and shape.
- Stronger than plastic: Plastic is metal’s main competitor. However, while plastic is suitable for certain applications, there is a compelling reason metal often wins out: It is vastly stronger. Metal is also more durable and more resistant to wear than plastic. If there is a risk of high temperatures, metal also wins in that it can handle a range of temperatures that would cause most plastics to melt. Metal can also undergo a wider range of manufacturing processes than plastic.
- Aesthetic quality: There is hardly a product in the world that doesn’t benefit at least partially from aesthetic quality. Whether it is a consumer product or a piece of industrial equipment, metal bespeaks strength and smooth operation. We largely associate our perception of its beauty with its advantages — that’s why the latest technological revolution has mostly centered on sleek, elegant metal forms such as laptops and smartphones.
- Heat resistance: Beyond its comparison with plastic, metal is capable of withstanding dramatic increases in temperature. Assuming the manufacturer has accounted for the expansion that results with increased temperature, this heat is unlikely to damage the metal part.
- Versatility in fabrication: Metal can withstand lots of different manufacturing processes. These include deep drawing, forging, casting, welding, soldering, chipping, peening and more, making a wide array of metal shapes and geometries feasible. The sky is the limit with what parts will be required in the future, so metal will likely remain the material of choice.
- Cost-efficiency: Particularly in high-volume production, metal is extremely cost-efficient. Machine shops can replicate procedures and create large runs of product for relatively little cost per unit.
Metal Fabrication Applications
To give some idea of the breadth of industries where metal fabrication is an indispensable tool, let’s take a look at the applications of fabrication in everyday life:
- Automobile bodies: Automobiles may contain plenty of materials, but their skeleton and skin are completely reliant on metal. A car’s chassis is metal, typically steel or aluminum, as are most of its exterior panels, suspension riggin, and frame. Without metal, a car would not have the structural integrity to handle bumps on the road or heavy cargo.
- Automobile engines: Automobile engines consist of tightly machined parts that interlock to form a functioning whole. Metal fabrication techniques make everything from the long, snaking pipes of the exhaust system to the crankshaft and pistons. Other components include the crankcase, oil pump, spark plugs, fuel injection system, chain, throttle and gudgeon pin. Bolts and rivets hold most of these components together, which also rely on metal fabrication.
- Tools and hardware: Our homes, automobiles, appliances and everyday conveniences would not exist as we know them without metal fabrication. That is thanks to the fact that the majority of our tools and hardware get produced by machine. Hammers, air compressors, nail guns, drill bits, grinders and saws are all the result of metal fabrication. Of equal importance are the pieces of hardware they are responsible for installing, such as nails, screws, bolts and tension rods.
- Smartphone and laptop shells: The computers and phones we have come to know and love are the results of metal fabrication. Particularly with the popularization of simple, sophisticated products that have served to tame the growing complexity of user interfaces, a phone or laptop’s case can, in many ways, define it as a product. For instance, what would the iconic iPhone be without its smooth backing of anodized aluminum and stainless steel?
- Kitchen hardware: Look around your kitchen, and you will soon realize all the tiny, fabricated parts that make it functional. There are metal handles on the cabinets and drawers. Hinges and drawer slides make the cabinets open and close easily. Faucets and entire sinks are made from low-maintenance stainless steel. Toaster ovens, tea kettles, stove grills, vent fans, refrigerators and trash cans — metal fabrication makes all these things possible.
- Gadgets and electronics: Electronics rely on metal fabrication for more than just their shells. Fabrication is responsible for creating wires of different sizes and materials, as well as piping and internal architectures that allow for the placement of circuit boards and components. Cooling fans and parts like potentiometers are also often made with metal fabrication.
- Aerospace: One growing sector of industry is aerospace, whose components and craft must follow tight tolerances and uncompromised integrity. These parts must withstand sustained use, extreme temperatures, pressure fluctuations and chemical exposure — the perfect job for metal. Metal fabrication jobs for aerospace range from large, industrial plants to smaller operations specializing in a specific part or component.
- Medical: The medical industry and the metal fabrication industry are inextricably connected. From hospital beds to surgical tools, and from ventilation systems to lifesaving defibrillating devices, metal fabrication has helped build the medical industry. Metal is also advantageous to this industry because it provides an easily sterilized material that does not trap bacteria, moisture or germs.
Learn More About Laserfab Metal Fabrication Services
Our metal fabrication services prioritize three factors: price, quality, and delivery. While many companies excel in one or two of these qualities, Laserfab understands true value is about treating all three equally.
It all starts with filling out our Request for Quote form. We take every step possible to ensure the lowest price with the highest quality. You’ll receive your quote quickly, allowing you to make the most of your time.
Our production involves state-of-the-art equipment in a high-grade, professional facility that employs some of the industry’s best engineers and technicians. As soon as we finish your product, we will deliver it to your doorstep when you need it.
Contact Laserfab today to discover why we are leading the industry in high-quality metal fabrication.