Every day, people are surrounded by products created by metal fabrication — including cans, cutlery, metal pipes and many car parts.
However, many aren’t familiar with how the process works and why manufacturers use it to create things.
What is metal fabrication? Here is everything a beginner needs to know about metal fabrication and its importance to modern manufacturing.
Metal fabrication is a broad term for manufacturing processes that cut, shape, fold or mould metal raw materials into finished products. Companies can use one or more machines to carefully reshape molten metal, plate metal, rods, billets and bars into custom and mass-produced products. Specific items include cans, barrels, valves, doors and building components.
Fabricators use various metals and alloys in manufacturing products, including stainless steel, copper, iron and brass.
Companies that specialize in metal fabrication are called fabricators and operate facilities called fabrication shops. These buildings store raw metal materials and the machinery necessary to manufacture products.
Various businesses depend on the services of metal fabricators, including contractors, vendors and other manufacturers. Companies may need them for custom product design, mass manufacturing, or creating components and product parts.
Fabricators may also offer finishing services that improve a product’s surface. This includes polishing, deburring, electroplating and coating.
One product may require various metal fabrication processes to take it from raw materials to completion. It depends on the available raw materials, the product’s shape and purpose, and important technical requirements.
Cutting is one of the most common metal fabrication processes. It’s exactly what it sounds like — dividing a piece of metal into sections. Fabricators use various tools and machines to cut metal. Popular options include waterjet, plasma and laser cutters, as well as power scissors.
A related process is die-cutting. A manufacturer uses a die — a metal object with a sharp, raised area for cutting — to cut shapes out of a piece of metal. Two common types are rotary die-cutting, which uses a cylindrical die to cut material fed through a press, and flatbed die-cutting, which uses a die to punch out a shape from a piece of metal.
Die-cutting allows for the rapid manufacturing of many similarly shaped objects. This speed makes it a good technique for creating flat items like metal wall art at scale — though the method is also useful for fabricating custom products and items.
Folding involves bending a metal plate, sheet or object into a desired shape. It can be bent by hand, generally after being softened by heat — or more typically by a machine, like a press brake.
The press brake works by lowering a punch onto a piece of metal positioned on a die. The force bends the material into the desired shape, as long as it’s properly placed.
Often, a piece of metal may need more than one fold before it’s ready for use or modification with another fabrication technique.
A fabricator shapes raw metal into shape by stripping away bits of material using various machining techniques. Three common strategies are turning, drilling and milling.
With turning, the fabricator uses a lathe to rotate a metal object at high speeds. They use a sharp cutting tool to strip away material from the item. This technique can allow fabricators to create cylinders, bolts, washers, bearings and similar objects. Turning can be accomplished manually or with a precision CNC turning machine.
Drilling involves the fabricator using a drill bit to excavate a hole in a metal sheet or object.
Milling allows a manufacturer to remove material from an object using rotating multipoint cutting tools. It’s either fed into the cutting tool or held stationary while the fabricator mills the item into the right shape. Milling is typically reserved for finishing a product or performing additional shaping after the fabricator uses another metal fabrication technique.
Welding joins two pieces of metal through heat without using a separate binding material. The process is popular among fabricators because the sections can be of almost any shape and size.
Gas, arc and lasers are common welding methods.
Gas welding — also known as oxy-fuel welding — is a well-established technique. It works by funnelling gas to a welding stick, where it is ignited to create a high-temperature flame — up to 5,700 F when a fuel like acetylene is used.
The welder uses the flame to heat an area on each of the two pieces to be joined, called the weld spot. The metal melts, creating a meld pool where liquid metal from both objects mix. Once it cools, it will form a strong joint that will hold the two objects together.
In addition to fuel gas, the welder may also use a nonreactive gas like argon to create an oxygenless environment around the weld. This prevents oxidation of the weld as it cools, helping ensure its strength.
Arc welding is a similar method that uses an electrical arc in place of gas. This allows for a more precise weld pool and higher temperatures than are possible with gas.
Laser welding uses a high-energy laser beam in place of gas or an electrical arc. Manufacturers use it to create welds that are deeper and narrower than what is possible with other kinds of welding.
A manufacturer uses extrusion to stretch a metal object into shape. This is done by forcing it through or around a metal die, pressing the piece into the required form.
Extrusion can be done with hot and cold metal. Hot metal is generally easier to extrude and work into shape. However, with enough force, it’s possible to perform cold extrusion with various metals, including stainless steel.
Heat treatment is the process of heating metal without letting it reach its molten, or melting stage, and then cooling the metal in a controlled way to select desired mechanical properties. Heat treatment is used to either make metal stronger or more malleable, more resistant to abrasion or more ductile.
Heat treated parts are essential to the operation of automobiles, aircraft, spacecraft, computers and heavy equipment of every kind.
What is metal fabrication? Manufacturers can use various shaping and machining techniques to transform raw metal materials into complex finished products, ranging from consumer goods to architectural components.
Common metal fabrication techniques include cutting, folding, milling, drilling, welding and extrusion. These methods are often subtractive, removing material from a piece of metal.
Metal fabrication techniques may be achieved manually or with the assistance of machinery that can allow for highly precise manufacturing. However it’s done, the result is quality products that stand the test of time.