At its most elementary level, the basic goal in the metal fabrication industry is to cut, bend, weld, paint, and assemble metal into its final configuration. To complete each of those tasks with efficiency and, most importantly, accuracy requires both manpower and machines.
The available types of metal fabrication machines and equipment can help determine whether a metal fabrication company can achieve a project’s goals and perform complex work at a high level. However, achieving extremely tight tolerances and quality results requires much more than having the right equipment.
Here, we’ll provide a high-level overview of the types of metal fabrication machinery along with critical factors that help to ensure it delivers the intended results.
There are many types of machining tools on a metal fabricator’s equipment list. In general, machining equipment uses rotary cutters to remove unwanted materials from a piece of metal, which can range from drilling a hole to planing a multi-ton sheet of metal into a perfectly flat surface.
Unlike a lathe which rotates a piece of metal beneath the cutting device, a machining center holds a flat workpiece in a fixed position, allowing the cutting device to move across the surface. This is one of the reasons machining centers can achieve such tight tolerances.
There are varying sizes of machining centers to accommodate different types of projects, so it’s important to inquire about a company’s capabilities. For large defense projects, for example, a fabricator may use large boring bars that can cut workpieces up to 94 inches that weigh 22 tons.
Speed and agility must be combined with accuracy. Specialty saws cut metal quickly and safely with clean angles and edges without crushing or distorting the materials. For example, a high speed aluminum used to quickly cut aluminum up to 20° angles and +- .004” accuracy using a tungsten carbide blade.
Laser cutting uses a laser beam to heat metal until it melts, focusing on a small area until it vaporizes. The laser cutting tool never actually comes into contact with the metal, only the laser beam. In particular, CO2 laser cutting machines use a gas like oxygen or nitrogen to help cut through materials up to 1” thick.
Advanced laser cutters use automation and robotics for storage and retrieval of raw materials. This allows the machine to run two types or materials or two different thicknesses at the same time. They cut much faster than machining centers and, as a result, cost less to run. While they are very accurate, they can’t achieve the extremely tight tolerances that a machining center can.
As its name suggests, a dynamic waterjet uses highly pressurized water combined with fine abrasive particles to wear away a material’s surface. This machine can cut four times faster than traditional flat-plate cutting tools without any taper due to the 3D motion of its tilted cutting head. An advantage of waterjet cutting is that it doesn’t use heat, helping to minimize warping and distortion.
CNC stands for Computerized Numerical Control which leverages automation to create precision parts. A CNC press brake forms, bends, or straightens a piece of metal to its intended shape or position prior to welding. If a piece of metal isn’t perfectly straight prior to welding, weld shrinkage will be compounded. A punch press, on the other hand, is used to form holes, slats, or louvers in material, such as those seen on complex electrical enclosures for the defense industry.
There are numerous types of surface finishes applied as one of the final steps in the metal fabrication process. These finishes are produced both for aesthetic and functional purposes. Deburring machines remove burrs or slags that form when metal is cut that could flake off or become a hazard. It also produces a finish that allows for better adhesion of paint. Deburring can be accomplished through sanding, grinding, brushing or vibration. A bead blasting booth is another form of finishing tool that shoots fine abrasives like plastic or glass beads at high pressure to smooth a material’s surface into a shiny finish.
The final touch is painting or powder coating which takes place in a specialized painting booth. Many metal fabricators do not have in-house painting capabilities, so be sure to ask about these cost-saving services. Fox Valley Metal-Tech has invested in its finishing capabilities to become a turnkey solution.
The final step in metal fabrication is inspecting a part to ensure it meets the customer’s specifications. A Faro Platinum Arm is a type of inspection equipment that uses a probe to measure each component and creates a digital report showing the measurements.
For example, if a flat plate has numerous holes across its span, the documentation will show exactly where each hole is in relation to the others and confirm their radius and diameters so that they can be compared to the original drawings. These types of modern inspection equipment can replace traditional hand tools such as micrometers, calipers, and gauges.
Fabrication equipment and inspection tools must be calibrated and certified to ensure that the measurements and resulting documentation they produce is accurate. Just as important is preventive maintenance to ensure that equipment doesn’t malfunction. At Fox Valley Metal-Tech, we have certified full-service technicians who ensure that each piece of equipment is operating within the required specifications and in accordance with our weld procedures.
Many metal fabrication shops have some or all of the tools listed here that position them to achieve a customer’s tolerance. But expensive equipment doesn’t run itself. The most critical aspect of any metal fabrication company is ensuring that it has qualified technicians to operate the equipment and make it do what it’s supposed to.
Just as one might invest in equipment, a metal fabrication company also needs to invest in its employees to ensure they are qualified to run it. Other necessary skill sets include the use of simulation software to ensure a part can meet the design intent, as well as determining cut patterns and nesting materials to minimize material waste.
These types of capabilities allow engineers and estimators to produce more accurate quotes as part of the RFQ process. If you’d like to learn more about the equipment that Fox Valley Metal-Tech uses to produce complex weldments and the people behind them, please contact our team. Also download our complimentary RFQ guide below for additional considerations.