Custom metal fabrication plays a pivotal role in our economy. Not only does it fuel innovation, but it is also a fundamental process that almost every industry depends on to uphold manufacturing standards, as well as to create and refine product designs. This article will explore the various metal fabrication stages, from initial design through finishing and assembly, and how modern fabrication equipment and collaboration with fabrication professionals can help you turn your vision into a finished product.
Taking projects from concept to creation requires planning and collaboration. Fabrication shops must follow multiple steps to adhere to safety regulations, appropriate budgeting, and specifications from clients such as finishes, notes, and tolerances. The process also involves joining, finishing, and assembly in preparation for shipping and/or distribution.
There are six main stages when it comes to the custom metal fabrication process:
Of course, some projects may not involve all stages, and others may involve spending more time in one stage than the other. While taking a closer look at each stage, let’s bring along an example of a custom stainless steel kitchen sink for these phases.
The design stage starts with an idea or concept, which is then transformed into a comprehensive, workable plan. Engineers, designers, or product development teams use specialized software, such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design), to create detailed 2D or 3D models of the final product. This stage involves careful consideration of the product’s intended function, size, shape, and other specifications.
Accurate design is crucial, as it dictates subsequent steps in the fabrication process, from material selection to cutting, shaping, welding, and finally, assembly, all while adhering to the appropriate tolerances. This step may also include design troubleshooting and last-minute adjustments for complex geometries, material changes, and other concerns. A well-thought-out design ensures efficient production, reduces waste, and contributes to the overall quality of the final product.
Example: The design stage would include the creation of a detailed plan for the kitchen sink, including the dimensions, shape, size of the drain, mounting style, and any additional features like a divider or faucet holes. Designers would use CAD software to create a 3D model of the sink.
The material selection phase in a custom metal fabrication process is integral, as it significantly impacts the product’s functionality and longevity. This stage involves selecting the most suitable type of metal, considering factors such as the product’s intended use, durability needs, environmental conditions, and budget constraints.
Choices can range from various grades of mild steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, brass, and many others, each offering distinct characteristics and advantages. Material selection is a fine balancing act between meeting design requirements, maintaining cost-effectiveness, and ensuring superior performance of the end product.
Example: Given our example, stainless steel would be chosen for its durability, aesthetics, and resistance to rust and stains. The gauge (thickness) of the stainless steel would also be decided here—most residential kitchen sinks are 18 or 20 gauge.
The cutting-and-shaping phase is the transformational stage in the custom metal fabrication process. After a design is finalized and materials are selected, the metal is cut and shaped into the desired form, adhering strictly to the specifications and tolerances outlined in the design.
Advanced technologies, such as laser cutting or water jet cutting, allow for precise and complex cuts, enabling the creation of intricate designs with high accuracy. Shaping methods such as bending, rolling, spinning, milling, punching, or other CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining further refine the cut metal into the desired 3D shape. This stage demands precision and expertise, as any errors can have an impact on the final product’s fit and function.
Example: The stainless-steel sheet would be cut to the dimensions outlined in the design. Then, it would be shaped using processes like bending or pressing to form the bowl(s) of the sink, the mounting edges, and holes for the faucet and drain.
Welding forms the backbone of the metal fabrication process. Once the parts have been cut and shaped, they need to be assembled into a coherent whole, and welding serves to join these individual components together. Various welding techniques, such as MIG (Metal Inert Gas), TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas), and spot welding, may be used depending on the project requirements.
The selection of the right welding method is crucial to ensure the structural integrity and longevity of the final product. The welding process requires a high degree of skill and precision, as inaccuracies can lead to weaknesses in the final product, compromising its performance and safety.
Example: If the sink design includes a divider for the double-bowl sink, welding would be involved to join the separate pieces of stainless steel together. Any seams would be welded for a smooth, seamless appearance.
The metal finishing stage in the custom metal fabrication process refers to the treatments applied to the metal product’s surface after welding and assembly. These treatments serve a dual purpose: improving the aesthetic appeal and increasing the product’s durability by adding a layer of protection against corrosion and wear. There are several types of finishing techniques, such as painting, powder coating, sandblasting, and plating, each offering their own unique aesthetic and protective benefits.
Choosing the appropriate finish depends on the product’s application, the environmental conditions it will be exposed to, and the desired look. This stage requires careful attention to detail to ensure a high-quality, consistent finish that enhances the final product’s functionality and longevity.
Example: Once the sink is fully formed, it undergoes the finishing process to ensure a smooth and attractive appearance. This could include sanding to remove any sharp edges or blemishes, polishing for a shiny surface, and coating for extra resistance to scratches and stains.
Sometimes with certain projects, all the fabricated parts need to be joined together somehow to form the completed part—the project can often be completed after the 5th step, as welding together the necessary components finishes the assembly. Depending on the complexity and requirements of the product, assembly can range from simply connecting a few parts together to putting together numerous intricate components in a specific way. Various methods such as bolting, riveting, or using adhesives may be used for assembly.
Precision is vital in this stage, as any misalignment could impact the product’s function, aesthetics, and durability. Throughout the assembly process, the product is continually inspected for quality assurance, ensuring it meets the predetermined specifications and standards. After assembly, the product is ready for delivery or installation, marking the end of the fabrication process.
Example: For the kitchen sink, assembly might involve attaching any additional components such as the drain assembly, or installing mounting hardware. The sink would be inspected to ensure all components fit together properly and the sink meets the specifications from the design stage.
What machines are necessary for the process? The answer depends on the fabrication shop and what services they can offer. Here are some of the most used tools and equipment in metal fabrication:
When designers, fabricators, and clients collaborate on fabrication services, they can get more done in less time and with less waste. Working together allows for optimal efficiency, productivity, and affordability. It also helps ensure the final product is up to high standards in multiple areas:
Finding a skilled and experienced fabricator is crucial to minimize the risk of error and promote innovation. Custom metal components require a complex metal fabrication process that involves multiple variables. Choosing an experienced, collaborative sheet metal fabricator to bring your projects from concept to creation will help you get the outcome you want as cost-effectively as possible.