What is Metal Fabrication?
Metal fabrication is a manufacturing process used to shape metal into parts or end products. Most people think of welding when they hear metal fabrication, but welding is just one process metal fabricators use. We use several techniques to shape sheet metal into a part or good.
Though fabricated metal products are common and metal fabrication is a critical part of the manufacturing process, few people understand how the process works. From paper clips to plane parts, it’s used to create a wide variety of products for almost every industry. The United States saw nearly $353 billion USD of fabricated metal production in 2020 alone!
Most metal fabrication uses sheet metal, which can be up to 0.25 inches thick. Fabricators convert this sheet metal into products or tools that get stamped, folded, shaped or joined to create a finished component.
Some examples of products made with metal fabrication include:
- Hand tools
- Bolts, nuts and screws
- Pipes and pipe fittings
- Metal windows and doors
- Equipment attachments
- Car parts
Metal fabrication is important in making parts for mass consumption. Products like cans, screws, cutlery, pans and pipes are included in 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 and still function as expected.
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’s needs. Customized valves, car parts and hardware are all examples of this type of project.
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 3D prototype of an object before we begin the actual metalwork.
Because a project can include many components, this phase helps ensure the product will function as required. From the prototype or rending, we’ll determine the size and shape of each part required and clarify the types of metal and finishing techniques needed.
Fabricating the Part
The actual building process is the second step of a metal fabrication job. During this phase, we 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 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 the CNC machine.
The finishing and assembling processes then strengthen the product and ensure it’s ready for use. Finishing techniques like grinding and deburring ensure the materials function properly and have no excess material. Metals might also be heat treated or plated with zinc or similar finishes for additional strength.
Fabricators also make sure products are marked and printed according to each project’s specifications. This can include measurements, company logos and other information.
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, spas, military craft and cars.
Some industry applications for metal fabrication include:
- Commercial and military aircraft parts.
- Agricultural equipment and attachments.
- Alternative energy components for solar, wind and geothermal structures.
- Individual parts for automotive and recreational vehicles.
- Materials, tools and supports for construction projects.
- Food-safe food processing and packaging equipment.
- Consumer product creation for everything from home appliances to car seats.
- Military defense tools, communication equipment and vehicle components.
- Fracking tanks and pumps.
What Does Metal Fabrication Look Like in Different Industries?
Fabrication is often associated with the 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 and manufacture components for heavy-duty equipment.
Some industries have niche-specific requirements, like metal fabricated spa furniture or custom parts for lighting or machinery.
Metal Fabrication Techniques
The metal fabrication process goes beyond simply shaping metal, and even the most straightforward products may require a variety of techniques and processing steps. Most metal fabrication falls into three primary categories:
- Commercial: Commercial fabrication refers to work 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: Industrial fabrication creates pieces for other equipment, which is used to manufacture consumer goods. Many manufacturers use products created through industrial fabrication, such as ironworking machines and bandsaws.
- Structural: Structural fabrication refers to metalworking done as part of the building process. These are typically large-scale fabrication projects that create the metal components for shops, manufacturers, buildings and skyscrapers.
Within these categories, a fabrication project might entail one or several of the following processes:
- Laser cutting: A technique that uses high-intensity light beams to cut metal via burning, melting or vaporizing.
- Centerless grinding and polishing: A finishing technique for tightly toleranced metal products that creates a smooth, consistent finish.
- CNC machining: A method of fabrication for prototyping and high-volume production that utilizes programmable computer software for ultimate precision and efficiency.
- Bending and forming: The use of hydraulic equipment, CAD/CAM capabilities and various tools to bend and shape materials to fit specifications.
- Powder coating: An alternative finishing method to paint that creates a custom, durable coating for metal parts.
- Saw cutting: A highly precise cutting method requiring skilled workers and specialized saw blades.
Metal Fabrication and Processes
Every industry has different needs, and each fabricated piece has its own specifications. The metal fabrication process might include a variety of methods to reduce, shape and join materials.
Some 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 is common for 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 while a movable upper blade slices through the metal from above. Blades are 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 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 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. Manufacturers 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.
Shaping examples include:
- 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, such as:
- 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 from 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 to shape the final product. There are a number of tools used in machining. Lathes, mills and drills are some of the most common.
How to Choose a Metal Fabrication Partner
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:
1. 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. 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, it may not have the capacity to handle larger orders quickly.
2. What Services Does the Fabricator Handle In-House?
It’s frustrating to hire a fabricator only to realize 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 are also important. If a shop has a good relationship with its suppliers and pays its 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.
The Future of Metal Fabrication
The metal fabrication industry will continue changing and growing as technology and increased market demand promise more streamlined fabrication processes. While much of this advancement will come from adopting more sophisticated technologies and better work processes, some of it also comes from increasing interest in applications like custom automotive fabrication.
Some trends to watch for include:
- Fabrication automation: Automated equipment, tools and processes mean fabricators can take on more projects in less time with fewer inconsistencies. For the consumer, this could look like lower costs per order and faster turnaround times for high- and low-volume orders.
- Innovation to compete with 3-D design: Additive design processes, like the rise of 3-D printing, will require the metal fabrication industry to stay competitive through new technologies and processes that match 3-D prototyping quality, speed and versatility. Though some applications will undoubtedly be better suited for additive creation, metal fabrication will remain a cost-efficient alternative for most industries.
- Advanced specification capabilities: A new generation of skilled fabricators with advanced CNC experience will push the metal fabrication industry forward with advanced software that makes it easier than ever to create ultra-detailed component designs and highly precise fabrication techniques.
Contact Summit Steel for Your Metal Fabrication Needs
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!
Last updated October 17, 2022