If you’re involved in the metalworking industry, you often hear the terms welding and fabrication. People sometimes use the two terms interchangeably, but there’s a distinct difference between fabrication and welding.
What is the difference between welding and fabrication? Metal fabrication is the overall process of manufacturing metal, whereas welding is one single part of the fabricating process. Fabrication may include welding, but welding is always a part of fabrication. You can fabricate metal parts without welding but, if you’re welding, you’re definitely fabricating your end product.
There are different skill sets involved in the fabrication process and the welding trade. Both welders and metal fabricators are highly trained craftspeople that often overlap tasks in the overall metal manufacturing industry.
What are Welding and Fabrication?
The simplest definition of welding is that it involves joining metal pieces together. Welding can also include glass and thermoplastics but, for the most part, people associate welding with metals. Welders merge metals as part of the fabrication process.
The term fabrication refers to the larger group of tasks involved in making metal products. It includes the whole manufacturing process from designing products to their final finish. Fabricators are responsible for taking product concepts and utilizing any number of complex procedures to turn a vision into a metallic reality. One of those highly skilled procedures is welding.
Many metal fabricators are also trained and competent welders. Many welders also act as fabricators. A person’s role of welder or fabricator can change depending on the facility and the specific job they are working on. For instance, you might be employed primarily as a welder but also take on the tasks of cutting, bending, shaping and finishing your project. Or, your primary role is a metal fabricator, and you do some welding as part of getting the job done.
Metal fabricators and welders are part of a vast American industry. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 1.484 million people work in the U.S. metal fabrication industry. Many of them are welders. Other skills in the fabrication world include machinists, millwrights, cutters, benders and assemblers. Then there are the people who design, engineer and manage fabrication projects.
Analysts predict a bright future for the fabrication businesses. According to economic analyst Chris Kuehl, despite the current tariffs on steel and other metals, the metal fabrication industry will likely move ahead at the same pace as the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) rate of between 2.7 and 3.4 percent. That’s good news if you’re a metal fabricator or a welder.
The Metal Fabrication Process
Welding is only one step in a process that begins with a concept and ends with a finished product that’s ready for installation and use. Fabricating any part or component requires a process that follows a linear and logical progression from start to finish.
The metal fabrication process begins with the end in mind. Whatever materials are being fabricated and welded into a project have a definite purpose planned and accounted for. There are many steps involved in every fabrication job, and each one depends on the other for success. Here are the main parts of the metal fabrication process:
Every project starts with the work being tendered or bid on. At this point, the end-user will have a scope of works framed-out that specifies what the product is for and the number of units required. This can be very detailed in the case of some unique part used in a highly complex industry like aerospace, or it can be a general concept applied to a truck trailer.
Companies bidding on metal fabrication jobs will assess their capability to take on the work with the resources they have. Some fabrication firms have a total in-house capacity to undertake all scope-of-work facets where other companies might have to subcontract specialized services such as welding.
Bids are only as good and as accurate as the information provided by the client to the prime contractor. Competitive bidding between different metal fabrication companies tends to be an adversarial exercise and counterproductive for achieving the best-priced work with the highest-quality manufacturing.
Today, many fabricator and client agreements follow the design/build structure.
This is a critical fabrication phase. Although there isn’t any hands-on metal cutting, bending and welding going on yet, the time and effort put into planning a project can make or break its success. They say failing to plan means planning to fail, and this holds true in the metal fabrication process.
Planning sets the stage for other steps in the process. Designers and engineers work with their client to fully understand the concept, its end-purpose and its specifications. By fully disclosing what’s required to build the project, the planning team can develop the right combination of materials and techniques necessary to complete it.
Planning is all about teamwork. Good project managers make sure they have input from everyone involved in the fabrication process. They expect task-oriented professionals like welders to contribute their skills and experience-based knowledge. If welding is involved in the project, then welders should be part of the planning process.
To the outside eye, production is where the real work occurs. Once the client awards the fabrication company a contract through the competitive bid system or a design/build arrangement and the plans are made, the production phase takes over. This is where things get built.
During production, raw materials take shape from standard stock or specialized sources and start to transform into a useful product. In a typical fabrication process, metals are selected and cut to component sizes. This can involve simple equipment like shears, or you might see high-tech procedures like laser cutting and water cutting.
Once the metal fabricator or fabricating team has the critical components shaped by way of cutting, bending and forming, it’s time for assembly. In most fabrication projects, this involves welding. Here is where the difference between welding and fabrication becomes evident. Welding is one step in the process, but it’s a crucial part of a complete fabrication job.
Metal fabrication businesses rely on many skilled individuals to take projects through the bid, planning and production process. Fabricators and welders are two of the main roles in many metal fabrication projects, but other specialized players significantly contribute to a successful outcome as well. Some of these metal fabrication specialists are:
- Engineers: Professional engineers are vital to the fabrication process. They’re responsible for setting standards, ensuring compliance and predicting performance. Some of the engineering disciplines you’ll find in metal fabrication are structural, mechanical and chemical engineers.
- Designers: These professionals take over from engineers and turn concepts into workable instructions. Most metal fabrication projects are computer-assisted and rely on computer-aided drawings (CAD) to plan the work and ensure everyone in the process builds from the same page. Designers also specify procedure steps that fabricators and welders can follow.
- Ironworkers: Raw iron is a complex material requiring special handling. Ironworkers contribute to fabrication work by sourcing and preparing iron in the early production stage. You might also find an ironworker shaping or cutting iron.
- Blacksmiths: At one time, blacksmiths were the backbone of the metalworking industry. They’re the experts when it comes to heating and forging raw iron into finished products. Today, fabricators and welders handle most blacksmithing duties, but there’s no substitute for blacksmithing skills when it comes to working iron.
- Machine setters: Machinists and millwrights play important metal fabricating roles. Most fabrication shops have complex machinery for turning blank metal stock into workable parts. Setters prepare or set metalwork machines for accepting stock and then monitor the machinery throughout the manufacturing process.
- Managers and supervisors: No metal fabrication shop could function without someone in charge and supervising processes. Managers and supervisors ensure a responsible and cohesive workflow from start to finish. They also take on client fulfillment and quality control duties.
While many different parts of the process come together to complete a metal fabrication project, they’d be weak without welding support. Welders play a crucial role in the overall fabrication process. To function and properly contribute, welders have their own welding process.
The Welding Process
Welding is a process of joining metal-based materials together. The technique is called fusion. This is a complex function that involves using heat and pressure. There are many specialized tools and individual processes used in the welding field.
Although welding is as a single part of the metal fabrication process, it’s a highly skilled trade requiring a lot of training and practice to master. Most welders follow a path from apprentice to journeyman, and it takes years to be extremely proficient. That’s because of the huge material variety used in metal fabrication and the wide assortment of welding methods.
There are two main welding processes you’ll find in the metal fabrication industry. One is fusion welding, and the other is solid-state welding. Fusion welding involves heating metal parts and adding a filler to fuse them into a joined entity. Solid state welding is a similar metal-joining concept but doesn’t require an additive. Here are the main welding processes you’ll find in the metal fabrication industry:
- Shielded metal arc welding (SMAW): This is the best-known and most commonly used welding form. It’s a fusion method that’s also called stick welding. It involves an electric current and consumable welding rods that act as a filler between the surfaces being joined.
- Oxy-acetylene welding (OA): Another common welding method involves combining a tank of oxygen and a tank of acetylene through a torch nozzle. This flame heats the metal while a filler rod allows metal fusion.
- Tungsten inert gas welding (TIG): TIG welding is called the most refined because of the high-quality results you’ll see from a TIG weld. This is a “two-hand” procedure that involves the use of a non-consumable tungsten electrode to create the weld.
- Gas metal arc welding (MIG): This is a wire-feed welding method with a consumable rod fed from a continuous spool of electrode wire. MIG welding is excellent for thin stock and sheet metal welds.
Welding methods don’t stop with these four processes. Although SMAW, OA, TIG and MIG welding are the mainstays used in most metal fabrications, some welders also use other methods. One example is submerged arc welding (SAW), which is done underwater. Another is exothermic welding (Thermite) which involves using extremely high heat followed by an aluminum-based charge to fuse metals.
Welding and Metal Fabrication Tools
Because metal fabricating and welding are complex and specialized occupations, it’s only natural that their tools are equally specialized and complex. There’s significant overlap in welding and fabricating tools, yet there are unique differences between some tools of the trade. Typically, welders use tools that facilitate joining while fabricators utilize tools that cut, bend and shape metals.
Another difference is that welders depend on heat to get their job done. That’s not necessarily so with fabricators who do a lot of cold rolling and dry bending. Here is a list of tools you’ll commonly find in metal fabrication and welding shops:
- Adjustable wrenches
- Angle grinders
- Arc welders
- Benders and breaks
- Chipping hammers
- Computers and CAD software
- Consumable electrodes
- Laser and water cutters
- Oxygen and acetylene tanks
- Vices and vice grips
- Welding clamps
Another type of tool that is vital in welding and fabrication shops is safety equipment. Personal protection equipment (PPE) is critical for shop safety, whether you’re fabricating or welding. By the nature of the job, you’re working with hot metal, sharp surfaces and heavy materials. Here’s a list of PPE commonly used for metal fabrication and welding tasks:
- Eye protection
- Hearing protection
- Face shields and goggles
- Leather gloves and aprons
- Safety-toed footwear
- High-visibility clothing
Every professional metal fabrication and welding facility must pay close attention to workplace safety. They also need to pay attention to their clients’ needs and outcomes. Prime Source Parts and Equipment is one of these professional metal fabrication and welding services you can count on to get your job done safely.
Choose Prime Source for Metal Fabrication and Welding Services
At Prime Source, we strive to build your trust and keep your machines running. No matter if you need equipment repairs or custom welding and fabrication applications, we’re here to make sure your needs are looked after. Our skilled technicians and welders have the experience to work with your equipment and make sure your parts are properly fabricated.
Prime Source Parts and Equipment is a top choice in North Carolina for heavy-duty equipment welding and component fabrication. If we don’t stock it, we can make it. Contact Prime Source today to discuss product support solutions. Call us at (704) 597-0030 or request a quote through our online contact form.