Metal is a big part of how we humans get along. We use metal in everything, but it doesn’t come out of the ground as MRI machines or semi trucks. The metal fabrication process is how we create the products we are familiar with from sheets or coils of raw metal. It’s a fascinating procedure full of variety and unique challenges.
What Is Metal Fabrication?
Metal fabrication is the process by which raw metal materials are changed into a finished product. It is not confined to one industry. In fact, metal fabrication is pretty universal across most industries, structural, commercial, and industrial. It is difficult to find a component of daily life that hasn’t been affected by metal fabrication in some way.
Though sometimes considered synonymous with metal fabrication, welding is only a small part of the metal fabrication process. There are a number of techniques and methods that also play a role, including cutting, forming, burning, machining, and assembling. Any process that takes metal from a raw state to a finished product is included. Because of its additive nature, metal fabrication is considered a value-added process.
What Are the Stages of the Metal Fabrication Process?
As indicated by the word process, metal fabrication is completed in stages. The steps employed vary slightly depending on what is being created, and the details within each stage are highly specific to customer specifications. While the nitty gritty of the metal fabrication process is based on industry needs and standards, these are the most common stages:
The metal fabrication process begins with a design. Engineers create shop drawings designed precisely to the client’s specifications within a computer aided design (CAD) software. CAD accommodates incredible specificity and accuracy, even with highly complex designs.
The software produces a 3D prototype that can be tested in simulated environments, displaying the success of the design without expending any metal. Once the design is finalized to reflect the intended measurements, it can be fed directly into welding machines for precise cuts.
Fabrication may involve the aforementioned cutting, bending, and/or assembling in a completely unique program. Fabricators must often work with plate metal, which describes metal at least two inches thick, and the methods used will reflect that challenge.
The way metal is cut is a reflection of the type of metal used, its thickness, its hardness, and the application for which the metal will be used. Though any metalworking project has a very low tolerance for error, some industries require a greater degree of precision than others, and the tools used will reflect that. Those tools may include nibblers, mills, shears, and lathes in addition to more precise equipment like plasma cutters.
Mechanical shearing, water jet cutting, and laser cutting are all standard methods to cut metal. Shearing is best for getting through very thick sheet metal, when greater physical force is required, while laser cutting is excellent for cutting intricate designs or achieving extreme accuracy. At Cd’A Metals, it is common for us to use plasma cutting because it is highly accurate and efficient.
Other Reductive Methods
Sometimes simply cutting metal isn’t the most effective way to get to the desired product. In such cases, there are other means of reducing metal to the right size or shape.
- Shearing works with what amounts to industrial scissors, a combination of movable and stationary blades that slice flat metal with straight diagonal cuts.
- Notching (sometimes called nibbling) is perhaps a finer version of shearing, producing detailed angles and cuts in sheet or rolled metals in smaller volume than the shearing process.
- Blanking uses a metal punch and die to cut out large pieces of sheet or strip metal.
- Punching is very similar to blanking, producing a slug as opposed to a new metal work surface and better for high volume production.
After cutting brings the metal to the correct size (and even the right shape sometimes), it can be shaped into the correct form. Forming may be the most versatile stage of the metal fabrication process. It includes methods like bending, forming, stamping, machining, and punching holes to bring the metal to the desired shape.
Sometimes the cutting process may be bypassed if the raw metal used is molten. In such cases, forming is achieved through casting. Casting is the process of pouring molten metal into a die or mold of the intended shape and allowed to harden and cool. Casting is particularly effective in the mass production of the same form. After the metal has been cast, it can be further formed into the correct shape by using a lathe to trim the metal’s edges and sides.
Assembling is the process of bringing all the pieces together to form the final product. The parts are fitted together and usually held in place by clamps. Then, they are fused together often with screws, rivets, or another kind of bond. This is where welding comes into play, and there are many different kinds of weld.
Even when the product is the correct shape, it is still not quite finished. The finishing stage of the metal fabrication process is a last check for fabricators to ensure that the product meets specifications. It is also the time to add finishing touches such as glaze or paint for color or other properties like rust resistance.
Finishing is the time to grind down or debur the product to remove any excess material; to heat treat or plate it to give it extra strength; and to brush, polish, or shine it to give it a finished quality. This is also the stage where decals, logos, and other information are added.
Once the product is complete, occasionally the metal fabrication process includes installation. If engineers or fabricators are involved in this process, they can make on-the-spot corrections or adjustments specific to the product.
Lastly, the metal fabrication process may incorporate necessary repair and routine service. This allows those who have project-specific expertise, skill, and equipment to be invaluable to make sure everything is performed correctly.
The Future of Metal Fabrication
As mentioned above, metal fabrication is a key component of almost everything we interact with on a daily basis. The industry isn’t going anywhere. The applications are so broad and encompass so many different industries. Here are just a few:
- Food-safe food processing and packaging equipment
- Home appliances
- General consumer products, everything from car seats to kennels
- Aircraft parts for commercial and military craft
- Components of automotive and recreational vehicles
- Materials, tools, and equipment used in construction projects
- Agricultural equipment
- Alternative energy structures and equipment for retrieving and processing fossil fuels
- Military defense tools and communication equipment
We rely on metal fabrication for almost unlimited applications. If you are considering a career in the industry, know that the variety and job security are both excellent.