The Raw Materials Of Metal Fabrication

How the Sausage Gets Made

“To all you hunters who kill animals for food, shame on you; you ought to go to the store and buy the meat that was made there, where no animals were harmed.” So said a caller to a newspaper’s 24-hour message line in 2009, where readers were given an opportunity to voice their opinions for inclusion in the paper.

When the transcript was published as part of a regular column, most readers scoffed at what seemed to be an obvious prank. Whether or not the caller was joking or just extremely naïve, it is a fact of life that modern consumers just don’t spend much time worrying about how the everyday items they use make the journey from raw materials to finished product. (And that may well be for the best—as Mark Twain famously quipped, “People who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made.”)

Just as an office worker may not consider the fabrication processes that turned sheet metal into their oft-used filing cabinet, the average fab shop employee likewise may not think about how raw ore eventually becomes the sheets, profiles, and other workpieces they load into their press brakes, ironworkers, and bandsaws.

From the Mine to the Fab Shop

The process of transforming raw metals into workpieces ready for fabrication involves several stages, each crucial for ensuring the quality and integrity of the final product:

  1. Mining and Extraction. The journey of industrial metals begins with mining. Mines are the primary source of raw materials like iron ore, copper ore, and aluminum ore. Once mined, the ore undergoes extraction processes to separate the metal from the surrounding rock or mineral. This extraction can involve crushing, grinding, and chemical processes to separate the metal-rich components from the rest of the ore.
  2. Refining and Purification. After extraction, the raw metal typically contains impurities that need to be removed to achieve the desired quality and properties. Refining processes such as smelting, electrolysis, or chemical reactions are employed to purify the metal. For example, smelting involves heating the metal ore to high temperatures to separate the metal from impurities like sulfur and oxygen, resulting in a more refined product.
  3. Forming Ingots or Billets. Once the metal is refined, it is often cast into large blocks known as ingots or billets. This step facilitates handling and transportation of the metal to various manufacturing facilities. Ingots can be made through processes like casting, where the molten metal is poured into molds and allowed to cool and solidify.
  4. Hot or Cold Working. The next step involves shaping the metal into forms suitable for further processing. This shaping can be done through hot-working or cold-working techniques. Hot working involves heating the metal to high temperatures to make it more malleable, allowing for processes like forging, rolling, or extrusion. Cold working, on the other hand, is performed at or near room temperature and includes processes like bending, cutting, and drawing.
  5. Annealing and Heat Treatment. During the forming process, the metal’s structure and properties may change, affecting its strength, hardness, and ductility. Annealing and heat treatment are techniques used to restore or enhance these properties. Annealing involves heating the metal to a specific temperature and then slowly cooling it to relieve internal stresses and improve its ductility. Heat treatment involves heating and cooling the metal in a controlled manner to achieve desired mechanical properties like hardness and toughness.
  6. Surface Finishing. After shaping and treating the metal, surface finishing processes may be applied to improve aesthetics, corrosion resistance, or other functional properties. These processes include polishing, coating, plating, painting, and anodizing, among others. Surface finishing not only enhances the appearance of the metal but also provides protection against environmental factors and extends its lifespan.
  7. Quality Control and Testing. Throughout the manufacturing process, rigorous quality control measures are implemented to ensure that the metal meets the required specifications and standards. This includes dimensional inspection, mechanical testing, chemical analysis, and non-destructive testing techniques like ultrasonic testing and X-ray inspection. Quality control ensures that only materials of the highest quality are used in metal fabrication.
  8. Transportation and Distribution. Once the metal is processed and quality-checked, it is ready for distribution to metal service centers and to end users like factories and metal fabrication shops. Transportation methods vary depending on factors like the type of metal, quantity, and distance to the destination. Metals are often transported via ships, trains, and trucks to reach their ultimate destinations.

The journey that industrial metals like steel and copper take from their raw form to workpieces ready for metal fabrication involves a series of intricate processes, each essential for ensuring the quality, integrity, and functionality of the final product. Once in the hands of the fabricator and his team, the metal makes its final transformation through the various processes of fabrication like cutting, bending, welding, and assembling to become something entirely new and useful.

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