In the Beginning…
Who doesn’t love a good origin story? A dark-garbed vigilante roams the night in search of crimes to stop, motivated by loved ones’ wrongful deaths years earlier. A brightly clad hero soars the skies in pursuit of justice, able to perform fantastic feats because he was sent to earth as an infant from a doomed world possessed of advanced alien physiology.
So, too, we see the noble fabricator, earning an honest trade manipulating metal in a quest to make the world a little better through the forming of products made from steel, aluminum, copper, and the like. No, his origin doesn’t involve being bitten by a radioactive press brake but rather born out of a love of working with his hands and creating things that have never been seen before.
The genesis of metal fabrication as a field harks back to the later Stone Age when humankind was crafting weapons and tools from stone to assist with hunting and other aspects of everyday life. Native copper had been discovered and was being worked by craftspeople by hand, eventually being made into crude tools and ornamentation. Around six and a half millennia ago the Chalcolithic Period or Copper Age began as artisans began to melt copper as part of the forming process, allowing greater diversity in fabricated copper parts.
Metal fabrication shifted into high gear with the dawning of the Bronze Age a thousand years later. Workers had learned to smelt copper, taking it to temperatures beyond its simple melting point, and alloying it with other metals such as tin or arsenic. This harder bronze alloy made weapons and tools that were much more durable than copper, and civilizations who had mastered the technique found themselves in a superior position over their neighbors of the ancient world.
The Machines of Metal Fabrication
Primitive machine tools—machines that remove material from workpieces in chips to shape them—were developed to work with stone, bone, wood, and leather long before any serious attempts at metalworking were begun. Things like drills, lathes, and mills would later be adapted for metal machining and are considered a separate category from metal fabrication machines, which form metal workpieces by cutting, folding, rolling, or otherwise manipulating them.
While hand tools like hammers, chisels, and anvils were used to fabricate metal long before recorded history, more elaborate mechanisms came about in much more recent times. At first powered by hand, arm, or leg motion, the machines of metal fabrication later made use of energy sources like steam, electricity, and hydraulic power.
Common machines used today for metal fabrication include:
- Brakes. Perhaps no machine is more representative of the modern metal fabrication shop than the press brake or its “little brother,” the manual or powered leaf brake. Brakes put bends of different angles into sheets of metal. The term “brake” comes from the Middle English adaptation of the Middle Dutch verb “brēken,” which is the source as well for the term “break.” It means to break into pieces or be destroyed, but an old usage refers also to deflecting or changing direction, and therefore was applied to bending a flat piece of metal. John Hooper Crocker, the general manager of the Double Truss Cornice Brake Co. of Buffalo, New York was granted a patent in 1883 for the cornice brake, also called a leaf brake or straight brake. The box and pan brake, so named because it can be used to form boxes, pans, and other objects with side flanges was later developed. Also called a finger brake, its tooling consists of removable blocks of different sizes called “fingers” that can be moved to allow side flanges to be bent on a piece. The first press brakes came along in the 1920s, utilizing flywheels to power them. Press brake technology continued to progress throughout the 20th century, eventually resulting in the hydraulic machines so common today. Electric press brakes later entered the market in the early 21st century.
- Saws. Also often considered machine tools because they generate chips through their metalworking processes, saws were among the earliest fabrication devices, though not used for metal cutting until the last century. Approximately 7000 years ago someone in a Germanic tribe nicked small teeth into a curved piece of flint, allowing it to be used to saw through objects (most likely meat and possibly wood). Hand saws continued to develop, being made of bronze and more recently steel. Circular saws were in use in Europe by at least the late 1700s to cut wood and later larger treadle-powered saws were put into use in lumbermills in the early 1800s. The early 1800s also saw the advent of the bandsaw, a machine that uses a notch-edged steel belt continually running over two wheels to cut wood. The first metal cutting bandsaw was invented and manufactured in the US in the 1930s.
- Plate Cutting Machines. While metal cutting saws are great for slicing up thick metal workpieces, they don’t work very well with thinner plate or sheet metal. Primitive crafters would use knives and similar tools to score and cut through flattened sheets of copper and other metals. Archeologists have found heavy-duty scissor devices that date to ancient Rome that may have been the first tin snips. It wasn’t until the 1500s when modern sheet metal first appeared (thanks to the invention of the rolling mill) that mechanical means of efficiently slicing it were seriously considered. Based on the design of scissors—where a moving blade is at an angle to a stationary one to progressively cut from one side of a thin workpiece to the other—various types of larger scale manual metal cutting shears were invented. Steam-powered shears and nibbling devices were invented in the 1800s, with the first electric metalworking machines appearing by the end of that century. French engineers invented oxygen-acetylene welding in 1903, with the use of oxy-fuel to cut plate metal coming along with it. The first hydraulic metal cutting shears appeared in the 1950s, with plasma cutting also being developed in that decade. Other metal cutting technology was created during the twentieth century, including electrical discharge machining (EDM), waterjet cutting, CO2 lasers, and fiber lasers.
- Ironworkers. Holes were first punched in thin metal using an awl pounded by a stone or hammer before recorded history. Around 800 B.C. the ancient Greeks used the first punches and dies to mint coins. The first machines using aligned punches and dies date to the 1400s. Steam-powered flywheel-driven punch presses were introduced in the 1800s. Around the beginning of the twentieth century someone had the bright idea to put an additional station on a flywheel punch to redirect the machine’s power to shear a piece of metal and the ironworker was born. While probably originally intended as a trademark, the term “ironworker” quickly became a generic name as copycat machines popped up, obscuring the history of who produced the first one. Hydraulic ironworkers began production in 1949 and have become staples of metalworking shops, all but replacing stand-alone punches by the twenty-first century.
- Metal Rolling Machines. Using rolls to flatten and otherwise manipulate metal started over 2,500 years ago. In the late 1400s Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a proposed machine with one roll positioned over another to flatten lead for use in stained glass windows, though it would be decades before the first rolling mills would be put into production. Machines using metal rolls were in use by the 1700s to curve sheet and plate metal. In the early 1800s a hand-powered initial pinch bending roll was invented for use in fabricating air ducts and chimneys. The twentieth century saw the introduction of modern plate rolls and profile rolls (also called angle rolls), with hydraulic-powered models premiering mid-century.
Your Origin Story
We all have an origin story—how we got to be exactly where we are now in life. Hopefully it’s a heroic story, one of overcoming the odds to find success. If your personal story is not yet complete, you may want to call upon a sidekick to have your back while you move forward on your hero’s journey. Every metal fabricator and fab shop needs a league of dynamic allies who will crusade along with them in the pursuit of a positive bottom line. If you don’t have such a partner, please consider inviting Revolution Machine Tools to join you in your Fab Cave.
RMT has earned a reputation of standing by their customers and sharing in their successes. Whether it’s a competitive price on new cutting-edge technology, name-brand replacement parts delivered directly to your door, or around-the-clock consultations on service questions, Revolution Machine Tools is ready to come through for you and help you achieve victory when you are most in need. Please give them a call today and let them show you how you can be even more successful in your fabrication business.