What Is Metal Fabrication?
The word “fabrication” comes from a Latin term that refers to the process of creating an item. It can apply to assembling parts together to make something new or crafting a piece entirely out of “whole cloth” (sometimes literally, since the term “fabric” is from the same Latin word). Metal fabrication, then, is the use of metal to craft an object or a part.
Sometimes metal fabrication as a concept is intended very broadly, being used to cover the whole range of metal part creation. The term machining is sometimes also used as widely, with all machines that work metal being referred to as “machine tools.” A better term to take in the whole of the industry might be “metalworking,” however, since fabricating and machining have distinct definitions within that industry.
Metalworking, as its name implies, includes any work that is done with metal, including cutting, bending, and melting. Machining involves the removal of material from a metal workpiece, utilizing such machine tools as lathes and milling machines. Welding refers to joining pieces of metal together with heat, and while some consider it a subsection of metal fabrication, it is a separate type of metalworking. Concepts such as forging, casting, stamping, and molding are other subsets of metalworking that technically are distinct from metal fabrication.
Metal fabrication revolves around the manipulation of metal, forming it into its intended shape. Using sculpture as a metaphor, as machining is to marble being chiseled, so fabrication is to clay being molded. Metal fabrication often involves sheet metal or plate metal as a blank that is cut to size, then bent (folded) or rolled into the desired shape for the part. Other processes—such as punching holes—may be involved, and the workpiece could be a metal tube, a piece of angle iron, an I-beam, or another metal profile.
A person who does the work of metal fabrication is called a fabricator, and a company specializing in metal fabrication is often referred to by the shortened term “fab shop.” Smaller fabrication shops will focus just on fabricating processes themselves, while larger businesses might set up smaller machine shops or welding areas within their facilities. Many welding shops will also purchase a few fabrication machines and market themselves as “welding and fabrication” services to reach a wider clientele.
The Machines of Metal Fabrication
A machine used in metal fabrication is generally referred to as a piece of fabrication equipment, though many dealers may designate it in their advertising by the more familiar classification of machine tool to make it readily identifiable as a metalworking machine. The following are common types of metal fabrication equipment:
- Press brakes, which bend sheets of metal of different sizes to specified angles.
- Shears, which slice through sheets of metal to cut a workpiece to size.
- Plate rolls—and lighter gauge slip rolls—which roll a sheet of metal into a cylinder or cone.
- Angle rolls, also known as profile rolls, which roll profiles like angle iron into curving shapes.
- Band saws, which cut down solid metal pieces such as blocks or profiles.
- Presses, which can compress metal, straighten it, force it into dies, and perform other functions based on the tooling.
- Punches, which can punch holes across large areas at a time. (Single-station punches, once popular, have mostly been replaced by ironworkers.)
- Ironworkers, which are multi-station machines capable of punching and several other functions based on the model and set-up. Some ironworkers can notch plate metal, perform small press brake bending (usually under a foot in length), and shear profiles like angle iron, rounds, squares, and flats.
- Lasers—usually fiber or CO2 based—used for cutting metal sheets or metal tubes.
- Other metal cutters for use on plate and sheet metal, such as plasma cutters, oxy-fuel cutters, and waterjets.
If there is a shape that a fabricator needs his metal to become, there is a machine on the market that can do the job. From dedicated tube and pipe benders, to dishing, flanging, or beveling machines, specialty or multi-function machines have been created to do every type of metal forming work imaginable.
The Need for Metal Fabrication
Look around you at items you can see at home, work, or while you are on the road. Evidence of metal fabrication is everywhere. Appliances in your kitchen, your office chair, aluminum siding, a file cabinet, metal light poles, bridges, your car—all of them owe their very existence to metal that was fabricated to put them into their current shapes.
If you need a specialized project made of metal, contact some of your local metal fab shops for bids and see what they can offer you.
If you are interested in starting your own metal fabrication shop, contact a reliable fabrication equipment dealer and get their advice on where to begin.
As a career, a hobby, or just a subject of interest, metal fabrication is a fascinating field with a rich history and an expansive future in our society.