Metal fabrication is a critical part of the manufacturing process. From paperclips to plane parts, it’s used to create a wide variety of products. Metal fabrication is an essential step in creating everything from hardware and tools to car parts and pipes. Fabricated metal products accounted for $345.1 billion of shipments in 2013 alone!
Although fabricated metal products are common, few people understand how the metal fabrication process works. Most people think of welding when they hear metal fabrication. But welding is just one process that metal fabricators use.
So what exactly is metal fabrication?
Metal fabrication is a manufacturing process used to shape metal into parts or end products. We use a number of techniques to shape sheet metal into a part or good.
Most metal fabrication uses sheet metal, which can be up to .25 inches thick. Fabricators convert this sheet metal into products or tools. We cut, stamp, fold, or shape metal to create the finished part.
Some examples of products made with metal fabrication include:
- Hand tools
- Bolts, nuts, and screws
- Pipes and pipe fittings
- Metal windows and doors
- Medical devices
- Equipment attachments
- Car parts
Metal fabrication plays a large role in creating parts for mass consumption. The mass production of products like screws, cans, cutlery, pipes and pans all fall into this category. These products tend to have consistent requirements and a wider tolerance for error. This means that the parts can differ in small ways from the original design but still function as expected.
The fabrication process is also helpful when creating customized parts. On one extreme is precision metal fabrication for customized medical devices. These products have unique requirements and a very low tolerance for error. Even small differences in the thickness of the materials or the shape prevent the part from functioning as intended.
On the other hand, metal fabrication can also create large runs of customized fabricated metal products. These projects usually include the design and fabrication of customized metal parts to fit a business’ needs. Customized valves, car parts, medical equipment and hardware are all examples of this type of project.
Different Types of Metal Fabrication
The different types of metal fabrication fall under the end use of the product being fabricated, or by the type of process used during the fabrication process.
Most metal fabrication falls into three primary categories:
Commercial fabrication refers to work that’s done while creating commercial products. This category covers goods designed for use by consumers. Appliances and cars are both common consumer products that use commercial fabrication.
Industrial fabrication, on the other hand, creates pieces that are used in other equipment. This equipment, in turn, manufactures consumer goods. Manufacturers use most products of industrial fabrication. For instance, bandsaws and ironworking machines are both products of industrial fabrication.
Structural fabrication refers to metalworking that’s done as part of the building process. Usually large-scale fabrication projects create the metal components used by shops, manufacturers, buildings and skyscrapers.
Each of these categories use a wide variety of processes. Metal fabrication can use just one of these processes, and may depend on a combination of processes.
Many metal fabrication projects require multiple steps. Even relatively straightforward products, like a pot or a pan, require a variety of techniques. The metal fabrication process goes beyond simply shaping metal.
The Metal Fabrication Process
Although most metal fabrication focuses on the shaping and cutting of metal, there are multiple steps involved in a successful fabricated project. The process starts with a design or rendering and ends with a finished, functional part.
Designing a metal fabrication project: The first step in any project is design. Some businesses come to us with a completed design. More commonly, businesses come to us with a prototype. We work with them to refine and test the design before starting a large run.
Today, many metal fabricators use Computer Aided Design (CAD) or Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) during the manufacturing process. With CAD and CAM programs, we’re able to develop a 3-D prototype of an object before we begin the actual metalwork.
Because a project can include many components, this phase helps to ensure that the product will function as required. From the prototype or rending, we’ll determine the size and shape of each part required.
During the design process, we’ll also clarify the types of metal that will be used, and the finishing process that’s needed.
Fabricating the part: The actual building process is the second step of a metal fabrication job. During this phase, we’ll cut and shape each of the components from the design phase. The tools used to fabricate metal can include shears, mills, lathes, and nibblers.
We often use CNC tools, or Computerized Numerical Controls, to ensure that each piece is cut exactly to the specifications of the design. These tools extract a computer program of the exact commands and specifications used to create a piece. This program is then loaded into CNC machine.
Finishing and assembling the part: The last step in metal fabrication is finishing and assembling the pieces into the final product. These processes strengthen the product and ensure that it’s ready for use.
Finishing techniques like grinding and deburring ensure that materials function properly and have no excess material. Metals might also be heat treated to strengthen them, or plated with zinc or another finish.
We also make sure that products are marked and printed according to your specifications. This can include measurements, company logos, and other information. Finally, we assemble and package the materials.
Industries that Use Metal Fabrication
Metal fabrication has applications in a wide variety of industries. Because of the versatility of tools and processes, it’s used to create parts for industries as varied as agriculture, medical equipment, and cars.
Some of the industries that use metal fabrication include:
- Agricultural industries
- Alternative energy
- Consumer products
- Medical devices
- Medical equipment
- Military and defense
- Original equipment manufacturers
- Recreational vehicles
What does metal fabrication look like in these different industries?
Fabrication is often associated with automotive and heavy equipment industries. It’s used to make a variety of car parts, from engine components to caps and valves. We also manufacture components for planes.
But metal fabrication doesn’t always mean small components. We also cut and join large pieces for tanks and transport vehicles.
Metal fabrication can be very detailed and precise. Precision fabrication creates small, high quality medical devices and equipment. These pieces require medical grade materials and very detailed work. Bone screws, stents and implants are all examples of fabricated medical devices.
Metal fabrication for the construction and agricultural industries is on the other end of the spectrum. In these industries, durability and strength is essential. Metal fabrication applied to heavy-duty materials has applications in pilings, tractors and heavy equipment attachments.
Metal Fabrication Techniques
Metal fabrication is a complicated process. It takes many techniques to create customized metal parts. Knowing more about the techniques that a metal fabricator uses can help you find the right fabricator for your needs.
Read on to learn more about some of the techniques used in metal fabrication.
One of the most common metal fabrication processes are reduction techniques. These processes remove parts of the metal to create a correctly sized and shaped piece.
Shearing: Shearing reduces metal pieces to the correct size or shape. It’s commonly used on aluminum, steel, stainless steel, brass or bronze. Shearing is most suitable for flat sheet metal.
In shearing, a stationary blade holds the metal in place. A movable upper blade slices through the metal from above. Blades mounted at an angle to produce diagonal cuts. Shearing only produces straight lines, but can create a variety of shapes.
Punching: Used to place holes in sheet or rolled metal, punching is most suitable for high volume production.
Punching involves a hardened metal punch placed above the metal and a die beneath it. The punch produces a slug of metal within the hole, which is usually recycled. Punching helps to remove excess material from the work surface.
Blanking: Used to create metal workpieces for medium and high production workloads, blanking is best for sheet or strip metal, and is more suitable for softer metals like aluminum.
During the blanking process, machines force a punch through the metal into a die. The piece that’s cut out during blanking is the new work surface. The material produced by blanking is usually larger than that produced by punching, and usually undergoes other metal fabrication processes. Manufactures usually punch blanks closely together to reduce waste.
Notching: Used to create detailed cuts and angles that aren’t possible with standard shearing processes, notching can be used on a wide variety of metals. However, it is most suitable for sheet or rolled metals. It’s usually lower volume than shearing. Nibbling is another industry term for notching.
Notching removes materials from the outside of a piece of metal. One or more blades placed at angles remove excess material from the metal. Notched materials often go through multiple rounds of notching to arrive at the final shape.
Sometimes metal needs to be shaped instead of simply cut. There are varieties of different processes used to shape metal. During the fabrication process, metal is usually cut first, then shaped.
Stamping: Stamping creates one or more raised sections of metal. Often used when fabricating medium to large batches of parts, stamping might refer to progressive die drawing, shallow stamping or deep stamping.
In stamping, metal placed between a stamp and a die creates a raised or lowered surface. Many stamping processes are relatively shallow, and create a narrow surface. This is why it’s most suitable for sheet or rolled metal. Used in sequence, multiple stamps or dies help create the final piece.
Folding: Folding creates angles in sheet metal during the fabrication process.
Several other processes used during the metal fabrication process join different sheets of material together or shape large blocks of metal.
Welding: Welding is one of the most common ways to join pieces of metal. A skilled welder can extend sheet metal and join it with a number of unique joints.
There are several types of welding, including Robotic Welding, TIG and MIG welding. TIG welding, or Tungsten Inert Gas welding, is usually used when handling very thin materials or when it’s important not to deform the metal. MIG welding, or Metal Inert Gas Welding, welds joints in thicker metals.
Machining: Machining, sometimes considered a separate industry to metal fabrication, actually plays a vital role in the process. However, many metal fabricators also do machining. Machining shapes blocks of metal instead of sheets or rolled metal.
Machining removes pieces of metal from the block in order to shape the final product. There are a number of tools used machining. Lathes, mills and drills are some of the most common.
Today, CNC machining is one of the most common types of machining. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Controls. In CNC machining, lathes, drills and other tools are controlled via a computer. This makes it possible to take an electronic design and shape it directly into the metal.
How to Choose a Metal Fabrication Business
Finding the right metal fabrication shop for your project can be challenging. Asking a few questions ahead of time can help you find the right fabricator. Here are five questions you should ask a metal fabrication shop before you decide:
Does the company have the capacity for your project?
When choosing a metal fabricator, one of the first questions to answer is whether the company has the capacity to take on your project. There’s a wide variety of metal fabricators in business. Some specialize in working with just one industry. Others offer a range of services.
If your fabrication project is complicated or has a very narrow tolerance for error, look for a company that specializes in precision fabrication. Also consider companies that fabricate metal for health and medical projects. Metal fabrication in these industries has very strict requirements. If a metal fabricator serves this field, they’re likely to have the skills and experience needed for other precision work.
Ask what the company’s standard project size is, as well. If a fabricator specializes in individualized products, they may not have the capacity to handle larger orders quickly.
What services does the fabricator handle in-house?
It’s frustrating to hire a fabricator only to realize that some of their services are outsourced. The unfortunate reality is that many fabricators do outsource steps of the design or finishing process.
Before selecting a metal fabricator, ask which services they offer, and whether they outsource any of them. Does staff handle all of the building and fabricating steps? What is their experience in the field?
It can also be helpful to ask about support during the design process. Can you work with engineers at the company to modify your design if necessary?
Some customers come to us with a complete computer rendering and prototype. Others want to test and modify designs before manufacturing a large run. Our in house engineering team can work with these customers to modify designs and offer suggestions on how to obtain the higher quality part.
How many staff does the company have, and what is their experience?
Experienced staff is critical for a successful metal fabrication project. Ask potential partners about the size of their staff and what experience they have in the field.
We recommend looking for businesses that have certified engineers and welders on staff. Certification provides proof that staff has the experience and skill necessary to complete your project successfully.
What does the project bid include?
It’s common to get several bids when shopping for a metal fabricator. But not all bids provide the same information. When comparing bids from fabricators, make sure you understand exactly what’s included in the proposal.
Some of the things to look for in a bid include:
- The services the business will perform
- Whether modifications are included in the proposal
- An estimate of how long the project will take
- The cost of materials
- Who is responsible for sourcing materials
It can also be helpful to ask the business whether they’ve padded their bid, and if so, by how much. Most project proposals include some padding to account for any problems that might come up during the project, from modifying part of the design to sourcing materials.
Can the company source materials and complete jobs on time?
Some of the best fabrication businesses, like Summit Steel, call the USA home. If you’ll be fabricating parts for use in the States, finding a fabricator based in the US can make a big difference. It will reduce shipping time and costs, and cut down on problems with sourcing materials.
You may want to find out whether the fabricator has a warehouse or factory near your company, particularly if you’ll be fabricating large or heavy parts.
The location of suppliers, and a company’s relationship with them, is also important. If a shop has a good relationship with their suppliers and pays their bills on time, they’re more likely to be able to source materials easily. This is particularly important if your parts will require less common metals.
Summit Steel is a precision metal fabricator located here in the US. Our experienced engineers and fabricators build parts for a wide variety of industries. Along with our wide range of services, our value-added processing makes us a one-stop shop for your custom metal fabrication needs.
Contact us today for a free consultation and quote!