6 Factors Impacting Custom Metal Fabrication Costs

Determining custom metal fabrication costs requires more than calculating labor and raw materials. Yes, those elements certainly are a factor that we’ll cover in this article, but many other parameters play into the RFQ process to ensure accurate quotes.

Knowing the factors that go into the quoting process can help you understand why some metal fabrication and finishing projects cost more than others. Here, we’ll explain these major elements of a custom metal fabrication estimate:

  1. Materials
  2. Labor
  3. Project Complexity
  4. Certifications and Compliance Requirements
  5. Painting and Finishing
  6. Delivery Methods

1. Materials

Understanding the types of raw materials a project needs is foundational to determining custom metal fabrication costs. These might include aluminum, stainless steel, various alloys, carbon steel, and others. Metal thickness can play a part both in the material costs and the labor to fabricate it. There may be multiple materials that will work for your project, so be sure to collaborate with the metal fabricator to explore whether there may be more cost-effective material options than those you’ve specified. The costs of raw materials can experience volatility when supply chains are disrupted – as happened during the pandemic – and your fabricator can provide insights into those markets as well.

In addition to raw materials, consider any hardware or accessories that need to be configured into the design. Some accessories are supplied by the customer, or the customer may specify that the fabricator secure them. Some examples include latches, hinges, hydraulic components, gaskets, EMI shielding, etc., all of which need to be factored into the total cost.

Quantity of materials and finished pieces will obviously affect price, too. As with most purchases, the average cost per item typically goes down as order quantities increase. Larger quantities also result in reduced machine setup times and associated labor. 

2. Labor

Custom metal fabrication requires highly skilled labor, both on and off the shop floor. Whether it’s design or structural engineers who are proficient in CAD/CAM software, professional estimators, inspectors, certified welders, or assembly technicians, labor costs make up a major portion of any metal fabrication project. The more agile and streamlined the fabricator’s processes are, the more efficient they’ll be, which can translate into cost savings.

In addition to human labor is mechanical labor. Specialized equipment and tooling is a major capital expense, and metal fabricators will build a portion of those costs into each project. Machine time for some materials simply takes longer and needs to be factored into an estimate.

3. Project Complexity

Tied closely to labor costs is how complex a project will be. While metal sheeting and welding can be configured in many ways, the fewer the cuts, bends, and welds, the less expensive a part will typically be. Likewise, any required specialty machining or prototypes need to be included in the cost. If extremely tight tolerances are required or there are intricate designs, it will take longer to manufacture, and time is money.  

In general, the greater the complexity, the greater the cost. What looks like it will work on paper may be a different story when a project hits the production floor. That’s why reviewing plans with a design for manufacturability (DfM) approach is critical to ensuring a plan can be produced to specifications and be structurally sound upon completion.

4. Certifications & Compliance Requirements

Defense projects have strict compliance considerations, with many projects requiring inspections, testing, and auditing. These requirements might include an ISO 9001 or AS certification, AWS, DFAR, NAVSEA, MIL SPEC, or other standards. Material certifications, traceability of materials, First Article Inspections, weld mapping, Certificate of Conformance, and other documentation are often necessary. 

A third-party inspector or Government Source Inspector will often visit the metal fabrication shop to perform inspections and tests to ensure compliance to the specifications. The requirement of qualified and approved welding procedures by the customer or other third party services require additional lead times. 

These additional steps and certifications add to the costs of a project. While they are more common for defense contracts, there are times when commercial contracts may require similar documentation. There is peace of mind knowing that a metal fabrication shop has these capabilities because it indicates they have well-documented processes and procedures along with highly trained and qualified personnel who can deliver exceptional quality.

5. Painting and Finishing

Does your fabrication project require painting or a special finish? The variety of finishes and specifications, such as chem-film, zinc, electroless nickel, and anodizing, as well as different types of paint and powder coating, will each come with associated costs. There are also design considerations when applying a finish that will need to be accounted for. As with fabrication, coating processes may need certification and can further increase costs. 

It’s also critical to specify the types of finishes required. Simply stating “black paint,” for example, won't allow estimators to accurately quote a project. They need to know specific product numbers and details, like the type of coating, whether it needs a pretreatment, and whether there are approved suppliers.

6. Delivery Methods

Shipping costs can end up being an unexpected last-minute expense if not factored into the initial quote or budget. The distance that parts need to travel is an obvious consideration in the cost of metal fabrication. Some companies have dedicated trucking companies that will pick up products while others specify FOB destination freight, placing the liability (and cost) of shipping onto the fabricator, which will be passed along to the customer. 

Some large, complex fabrications require custom-designed packaging that needs to be built and engineered to properly secure and protect an assembly in transit. Consider whether these specialized shipping materials can be returned to the fabricator for use on subsequent projects, helping to reduce packaging costs on future orders.

No one likes surprises on an invoice or getting a call from their custom metal fabricator about an unexpected expense or design issue. Determining accurate costs of custom metal fabrication requires detailed drawings and specifications on a request for quote (RFQ) on the front end. To help, we’ve developed a Custom Metal Fabrication RFQ Guide — A Checklist of Commonly Overlooked Specifications. Access this complimentary guide below, and consult with our professional fabricators to answer any questions or walk you through the RFQ process.

Metal Fabrication RFQ Guide