If you’re new to the metal fabrication industry, looking to get into this industry, or even a casual bystander who happens to be curious, the term “metal fabrication” might be confusing. What is it, what does it mean and how is it done? Like many industries, the meaning of metal fabrication is often misunderstood by those who aren’t a part of it.
Today, we want to break things down for you and explain the world of metal fabrication in clear, simple language. We’ll define metal fabrication, talk about how it works, what it does and what different types of metal fabrication there are.
What Is Metal Fabrication?
While the term “metal fabrication” can be used to refer to a multitude of different processes, all of these different procedures have one thing in common. They all involve taking metal and re-shaping or forming it into something else. In other words, metal fabrication is the shaping and designing of a metal product according to pre-determined specifications.
This is not a very specific definition, of course, but that’s as it should be. Metal fabrication is a vast industry that produces an incredible range of different products and uses a wide selection of different sub-processes to make this happen.
What Are the Different Metal Fabrication Methods?
Metal can be manipulated, shaped, cut and molded in a variety of different ways. There is not a single homogeneous method that always involves the same process of cutting and bending — metal fabrication can look vastly different depending on the situation.
This is because metal fabrication is capable of creating objects of nearly every size, shape, color or texture imaginable. To achieve this level of dexterity and variety, metal fabrication needs to employ an expansive range of different methods and tools.
Skilled workers use some of these methods by hand. This is typically in smaller settings, where the item in question does not need to be mass-produced. If production is required on a larger scale, usually a machine will take over these same tasks.
A few of the methods that fall into this category include:
In addition to these more mechanically-rooted processes, metal fabrication can also use a computer to complete more precise tasks. In these situations, a worker will program a computer to give the correct commands to shape the metal according to the specifications. Some of the methods that fall under this computer-controlled label include:
- Laser Cutting
In many cases, it may initially seem that the mechanical methods are the same as the computer-automated ones. To the casual observer, this may sound foolish. After all, why create two different processes that do the same thing? Take something like cutting, for example. A mechanical process might use shears to cut the metal, while a computer-based system might employ laser cutting. What is the difference between the two methods and which, if either, is better?
The answer is that each type of process is well-suited to specific tasks. For example, shearing might be appropriate for a situation where precision is not extremely important and quite simply isn’t worth the expense of laser cutting. When the utmost precision and delicacy is necessary, laser cutting is more appropriate. In this way, neither process replaces the other, and each has their place. Instead of asking which is better than the other, it might instead be more appropriate to ask, “Which is better suited to the task at hand?”
Through solely mechanical processes, solely automated ones or a combination of the two, pieces of metal are transformed into products which can then be used by a variety of different industries for a whole host of purposes. For this reason, metal fabrication falls under the umbrella of value-added processes, so called because it is a process where value is added to the metal through shaping it into a useful design.
How Does Metal Fabrication Work?
With a basic understanding of fabricated metal is, the next question is what the process as a whole looks like, from start to finish. First up, before any fabrication can take place, there’s the bidding stage.
Many manufacturers will complete their own metal fabrication in in-house. They’ll have the necessary tools and facilities to do so, and it simply makes sense to keep the process all under one company’s roof. However, this isn’t always the case. Smaller companies, or those without a metal fabricating facility of their own, will often need to contract with dedicated metal fabricators to get the job done.
If a company has a metal product that they need fabricated, they may offer the work to several different fabricators. These different shops will then bid against one another for the job, with each fabricator offering their designs, drawings and plans of what the final product would look like when they were finished with it. The company in question will choose the shop that gets the product, the bidding stage completes, and the project advances to the next step.
This is a critical phase where there isn’t any metal fabricating happening yet, but the stage is being set for the work which will commence later. During this stage, designers, engineers and workers plan exactly what the finished product will look like, as well as how to achieve this goal. They’ll plan which different tools they’ll need to use to cut, fold and shape the metal in question. They’ll evaluate whether they will need to use computer processes or not and if so, they’ll program these.
During this step, raw materials will also be ordered as needed for the project. Items such as castings, fittings, wire, plate metal and more will be assembled until everything is ready to go.
While it might be easy to look at this stage and assume that nothing is happening, this is arguably the most vital step in the entire process. If this stage goes well, then it sets the tone for a smooth and steady production. If this stage is neglected, rushed or not given adequate attention, there’s a strong probability of a troubled production.
This is the stage where, to the outside eye, the real work actually happens. During this phase, raw metal and materials are transformed into something beautiful or useful. And as we mentioned before, the success or failure of this phase is in direct correlation with the success or failure of the planning stage.
Firstly, the metal will typically be cut, through the use of water jet cutters, laser cutters, CNC machines or a similar process. It will also be formed and shaped through the use of devices like dies or punches. If any part of the metal needs to be rounded, a rolling machine might be used. This is a highly versatile set of processes that will be different for every specific item being produced.
Once the basic tasks of cutting, shaping, rounding and rolling are done, the final step is to assemble the different pieces into the final product that will leave the fabrication facility. Workers will now weld all the individual fabricated components together to create the larger metal product. They’ll cool the metal, sandblast it, paint it, and complete whatever finishing touches are necessary for the product to pass inspection.
Finally, it’ll pass through quality assurance professionals, who will make sure that the product is up to standard and is in no way unsafe or harmful. With this completed, the product can then make its way to the company that ordered it and eventually to the consumers it was designed for.
What Is a Metal Fabricator?
The simple answer is that a metal fabricator is a person who works in metal fabrication. However, the real answer is slightly more complicated.
In many professions, there’s a one-to-one correspondence. For example, a teacher is someone who teaches. A retail worker is someone who works in retail. Metal fabrication, however, doesn’t just employ a large group of people known as “metal fabricators.” Instead, this industry relies on many people across a variety of different industries.
Together, these groups of people with different trades, abilities and areas of expertise work together to pool their skills and resources to fabricate various metal products. Just a few examples of some of the types of people you might find working at a metal fabrication facility include:
- Welders: Welding is a vital process that’s imperative in the final stages of production. Without a welder to join all the finished parts together at the end of the process, there would be nothing but a few disjointed pieces of metal instead of a completed and polished product.
- Ironworkers: These professionals handle the raw iron, particularly in the early stages of production, and may be responsible for things like shaping and cutting, depending on the process and facility.
- Blacksmiths: These are individuals who are experts at re-shaping raw iron into more useable shapes. While in some cases, the work traditionally done by blacksmiths can be done by machines, these workers are still vital for much of the raw material handling and manipulating that’s necessary for production.
- Machine setters and operators: With the sheer amount of equipment and machinery present in a metal fabrication shop, it should come as no surprise that there is a high demand for people to work these machines. These workers will reset machines, place materials into the equipment, remove them when the job is done and step in to fix problems when they arise.
- Computer programmers and experts: We mentioned earlier that a large amount of metal fabrication work is done on computers, by way of advanced technology such as laser cutting and CNC machinery. None of this would be possible without individuals who are well-versed in this technology and are capable of programming it to achieve the desired results.
- Managers and supervisors: No team of workers would be possible without a cohesive and responsible group of managers to oversee things and make sure everything stayed on track, and everyone’s needs were being met.
Based on this impressive roster of workers alone, it should come as no surprise that metal fabrication accounts for high numbers of jobs. Approximately 1.425 million individuals are employed in metal fabrication in the United States. This includes workers at every level, from ironworkers and machine setters to programmers and management staff.
What Are the Raw Materials Used in Metal Fabrication?
Based on the name alone, we can easily guess that metal fabrication relies heavily on raw, unshaped metal as its base material. This is far from the only component used, however. Many more materials are shaped, molded and attached to the basic metal, and these materials are all manipulated together to produce the final result.
A few of the common materials that are commonly used in tandem with metal fabrication include:
- Plate or Sheet Metal
- Welding Wire
- Flat Metal
- Expanded Metal
- Additional Hardware
What Are the Applications of Metal Fabrication?
Finally, it’s worth asking what the purpose of all of this work is. Who is commissioning these metal fabrications and which industries are using them as a vital part of their operations?
It’s impossible to mention every single industry involved in this work, but a few of the highlights include:
- Construction and architecture: Fabricated metal is a vital part of building skyscrapers, office buildings, fire escapes, catwalks and so much more.
- Shipping: The shipping industry uses fabricated metal for everything from building the ships themselves to crafting the crates, containers and tanks that the items being shipped will be stored in.
- Automobiles: Auto parts are made from small, specially fabricated pieces of metal. From new car dealerships to corner auto-repair shops, they all need fabricated metal.
- Computers and electronics: In case you thought fabricated metal was all about creating, bulky, heavy items, think again. It’s also used in tiny, delicate pieces in the electronics industry.
- HVAC: The equipment needed to keep heating and cooling systems running is highly specific, and in many cases, it comes directly from metal fabrication shops.
- Aerospace: Fighter jets, commercial airplanes and even rockets would be impossible without the precise work of metal fabricators.
- Farming: Farming is yet another industry that is only as fast, efficient and productive as it is because of the fabricated metal products they rely on.
Beyond the industries included on this list, so many of the items we encounter in our daily life are the product of metal fabrication. Silverware, lamps, cans, blinds, door handles, chairs, locks, keys, pots, fans, hinges and so many more innumerable items that we all use every day are all the direct result of this fascinating process.
Get the Welding Services You Need at Prime Source
While metal fabrication as a whole is an enormous, complex and multi-faceted process, it’s only as strong as the individual methods and procedures that contribute to the final product. One of these vital services that help produce fabricated metal is welding.
Are you in need of welding repair services? Here at Prime Source, we know how important it is to keep your equipment and machinery running smoothly. To help you do just that, we offer top-of-the-line welding repair services. Learn more about the services we offer and how you can benefit from our knowledge, attention to detail and excellent customer service.