Fabricating For Dummies Cheat Sheet
If you ever sat in the back of the classroom making paper airplanes while the teacher droned on about geometry, Babylonian history, or some other equally boring topic, congratulations! You’re a fabricator. The manufacturing technology just mentioned is called folding, but instead of using human fingers, a folding machine uses ones made of super hard and wear-resistant steel. But that’s just the beginning of the differences between manufacturing paper airplanes and the ones used to carry business people to important meetings. Folding machines, like most of the computerized equipment used in fabricating shops today are expensive, highly accurate, faster than a spitball, and more challenging to program than the TV’s remote control. But don’t worry. If you do decide to pursue a good paying, rewarding career as a sheet-metal fabricator, there’s plenty of help available.
Okay, So What Kinds of Machines Are We Talking About for Fabrication?
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.
What the Heck Is Fabricating, Anyway?
Fabricating is a broad term. If you make formed-metal parts for refrigerators and late-model Chevys, you’re a fabricator. If you climb tall buildings to weld together hunks of structural steel weighing more than a recreational vehicle, you’re a fabricator. Spend your days bending pipe for jungle gyms? Cutting anti-slip tread plates and expanded metal for screen doors? Stamping out electrical connectors for smart phones? Yep, fabricators all. It can be confusing, but simply put, fabricators are people (and companies) who fall into one of these categories:
- Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) who have their own product lines. Automakers are one obvious example, but there are also appliance makers, kiosk and cash machine manufacturers, food processing equipment producers . . . the list is endless.
- Custom fabricators make parts for OEMs and their second- or third-tier suppliers. In industry parlance, these are called “job shops,” an important part of any manufacturing company’s supply chain.
- Custom stampers focus on stamping work. This might mean “heavy stamping” of parts such as the hull of your aluminum fishing boat, but it could also be “progressive stamping,” which converts coils of flat metal into everything from spring clips to battery contacts.
- Industrial fabricators are the folks responsible for cutting and joining heavy vessels, pipes, and tubing for big industrial projects — think oil and gas refineries or hydroelectric plants.
- Architectural fabricators produce the decorative panels and facades that turn ugly office buildings into the aesthetically pleasing places where lawyers, doctors, and real-estate agents are happy to spend their days.
- Structural fabricators are those brave souls who dangle from the sides of bridges and skyscrapers, patiently welding together plate steel and angle iron so the rest of us can go to work each day.
- Metal service centers provide an important service. They receive bulky, unmanageable coils of metal from the mill then slit, shear, and flatten them for use by job shops and OEMs.
These are all neatly-defined categories — wouldn’t it be great if every fabricating company fit into one or the other? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Some shops offer multiple fabricating services, and many use the same or similar equipment to produce different products.
What About the Metals Used in Fabricating?
Can’t wait to slice into a piece of metal the size of your dining room table? As with machining, it’s important to know as much as you can about any given metal before you attempt to make something with it. For now, here are some of the more common ones you’re likely to encounter on your path to metal mastery.
- Aluminum: Everyone knows aluminum. It’s used to make soda cans, siding for houses, car parts, and everything in between. To simply call it “aluminum” however, is grossly misleading, as virtually all of the dozens and dozens of aluminum alloys contain zinc, magnesium, silicon, and even iron, without which “aluminum” would be of little value. Whatever the case, aluminum is generally quite malleable and easy to shape, although some alloys can be challenging to weld.
- Carbon steel: Sometimes called mild steel (not because it’s easy to get along with), carbon steel typically contains between 0.05 percent to 0.50 percent by weight of the element carbon. That said, ultra-high carbon steel like the stuff used to make knife blades contains up to 4 percent carbon and can be made quite hard through heat treating.
- Alloy steel: Here’s where things get fuzzy. Chemically, alloy steels aren’t all that different from carbon steels except that the metallurgists working in their dark towers toss a little chromium, molybdenum, manganese, and other “alloying elements” into the crucible during the manufacturing process. These serve to make relatively wimpy carbon steel into tough, wear-resistant, and eminently hardenable alloys such as 8620 and 4140 steels.
- Stainless steel: Increase one of the alloying elements just mentioned — chromium — to around 10 percent or so and rust-prone alloy and carbon steels will stay shinier than a new penny, no matter how caustic the environment. Sadly, chromium is tough stuff. Metalworking tools require more frequent attention when cutting or forming stainless steel, and the machinery needs more power and greater rigidity to process it.
- Superalloys: Take already tough stainless steel and mix in a little nickel, tungsten, vanadium, or all of the above. Now you have a metal that’s not only more attractive than a Hollywood starlet, but also more rugged than Harrison Ford and Dolph Lundgren combined. Be careful, though. This stuff is not much fun to work with, despite its broad appeal to the aircraft, military, and power-generation industries.
Of course, there’s way more to the metallurgical story than just described. Metals get their mojo through a complex process not unlike baking a Bundt cake, except that the oven temperature measures thousands of degrees Fahrenheit and the cake pan is bigger than a hot tub. And once the cake emerges from the oven, it’s mercilessly squeezed and rolled into bar stock, sheet stock, flats, rounds, pipe, and tubing. Like I said, there’s a lot to this fabricating stuff, and metals are no exception.
Finding (and Keeping) New Fabricating Shop Customers
As with many businesses, one of the most challenging aspects to launching a fabricating shop is finding enough work to stay afloat. Making your customers happy will keep them coming back, but it’s important to maintain a disparate customer base to get you through the lean times and grow the company when times are good. Here are a few ideas to point you in the right direction.
- If you can run a computer numerical control (CNC) machine, you can set up a corporate website. And if you’re too busy making parts to do so, then hire someone to take care of it for you. Even a single web page telling potential customers what you do and how to find you is a good start.
- Facebook is a great way to share photos of your shop and its employees and to get the word out about the vibrant, customer-focused company you’re operating.
- If a trade magazine calls and wants to write a profile on your business, or asks you to participate in a case study, by all means say “Yes, how can we help?”
- Do you, a family member, or one of your employees like to write? Start a blog page as part of your website. It’s a great way to boast about your machining capabilities and get others interested in what you do there.
- YouTube videos are a necessary part of social media. Showing off your new CNC lathe installation or recording a part being machined using a special cutter (or maybe even starting your own YouTube channel) is an increasingly popular way to share information.
- Make sure you and your business are on LinkedIn, then connect with customers and suppliers.
- Too busy to take on more work? It’s tough to say no to customers, especially when you’re just getting started. Be prepared for some long nights. If you decide to subcontract some of your work, that’s fine, but be sure your supplier has been well-vetted and can deliver as promised.
- A number of online part brokers and manufacturer representatives are out there and capable of bringing in all the work you can handle. Tread carefully so that you don’t take on so much that your existing customers suffer.
- One of the cardinal sins in any manufacturing business is becoming married to a single customer. It’s super easy to take the ball and run with your first big-break aerospace or medical company and then let them become your sole source of work. Don’t be a captive supplier, or risk going out of business when your customer is acquired by a giant European conglomerate.