Okay, So What Kinds of Machines Are We Talking About for Fabrication?

By Kip Hanson

Part of Fabricating For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Back when machine tools were controlled manually, their operators had burly biceps and shoulders like football players from cranking handles and pulling levers all day. Yes, even the men. Today, most machine tools are so easy to operate that even your Great Aunt Sally could do it. That’s because they, like everything else in modern life, are now computerized.

All computer numerical control (CNC) equipment has a special “controller” on board that tells a series of “servomotors” how fast and how far to move each of the machine’s “axes” (that’s plural for axis). Granted, it all sounds terribly complex, but once the program is written and the tools in place, it’s actually about as difficult as starting a coffee maker. Here are some of the different types of CNC machine tools you’re likely to run across if you decide to visit a sheet-metal fabricating shop. (And if you don’t have an invitation, just knock on the door. Most fabricators are friendly folk, and they would be more than happy to show off what they do all day.)

  • Press brakes: A kissing cousin to the folding machine mentioned in the earlier paper airplane example, press brakes use tools called “punches and dies” to bend metal into brackets, cabinets, enclosures, and a universe of other parts. If there’s a bend in it, chances are good it was made on a press brake.
  • Laser cutters: When the evil entrepreneur Auric Goldfinger threatened to cut James Bond in half with an industrial laser, the world learned the awesome power of these devices. Yet lasers are good for lots more than slicing up British secret agents. They’re also perfect for the precision cutting of sheet metal, tubing, and more.
  • Punch presses: Remember the paper punch you used to secure your 11th grade thesis paper into its three-ring binder? Punch presses work on the same principle; they drive a sharp tool called a “punch” into or through a piece of metal into a female die shape below. Pretty much any shape is possible, either by punching it directly or “nibbling” away bite-sized pieces.
  • Stampers: Stamping machines are similar to punch presses in that a punch and die set is used to cut holes and slots, form embosses, and cut away parts from sheets of metal. Stampers, however, process big rolls of metal called coils rather than the flat sheets found on punch presses. They can also be used to form parts like the body panels and bumpers hanging off your family grocery getter.

That’s just the tip of the machinery iceberg, too. Ironworkers are the Swiss Army knives of fabricating shops, especially those that work with structural metals like I-beams and U-channels. Shears are used in “blanking” operations, slicing off big hunks of metal for secondary processing on stamping machines and press brakes. And roll formers convince metal to leave its nice, comfortable flat shape to become a rain gutter or piece of architectural steel.