Steel fabrication is a complex and precise process requiring a high degree of skill and experience. The steel industry relies on steel fabricators to produce quality products that meet the demands of their customers.
Steel fabricators are an essential part of Australian industry and play a vital role in its success.
Steel fabrication is building structures by cutting, bending, and assembling steel. It is a fundamental process in constructing buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure. Steel fabrication is also used in the manufacturing of equipment and machinery.
As one of Perth’s leading steel fabrication companies, we’ve put together this guide to steel fabrication, including the variety of different processes used. Each has its own advantages and applications that are important to understand.
Read on to learn more about steel fabrication.
What Is Steel Fabrication?
Steel fabrication is a process used to create steel structures and products from steel sheets and plates. Steel fabrication involves cutting, bending, and welding the steel into desired shapes and sizes.
The steel industry is one of the most important in the world, and steel fabrication plays a key role in its success. Steel fabricators use a variety of machines and tools to fabricate steel, including laser cutting equipment, plasma cutters, oxy-acetylene torches, and welding machines.
On an industrial level, most metal fabrication is now carried out using CNC machines – computer-controlled machines – that can create precise shapes. Structural steel fabrication is one of the biggest applications of steel, used to construct buildings, bridges, and other infrastructure. It is also used in the manufacturing of equipment and machinery.
What Is the Difference Between Fabrication and Manufacturing?
The primary difference lies in the end user. Manufacturing processes use raw materials or prefabricated components to create complete products to sell, while fabrication is about building a product that manufacturers can use.
Manufacturing includes five general categories: Repetitive, Job shop, Discrete, Continuous, and Batch. Meanwhile, fabrication entails a range of metal processes, including cutting, punching, welding, folding, machining, shearing, and stamping. It also encompasses the design process that precedes the physical processing.
Custom fabrication also stands in contrast to manufacturing, as custom steel fabrication focuses on creating metal components to specifications, rather than mass production.
What Is Custom Steel Fabrication?
Custom steel fabrication is the process of creating steel pieces designed with exact specifications. These pieces are used anywhere from steel construction beams to delicate steel decorations.
Custom steel fabrication utilises a wide array of industrial tools and equipment to cut, bend, roll, or join steel into intricate shapes and complex constructions. Steels such as carbon steel and stainless steel are most commonly used.
During the process, steel is cut into desired sizes and formed into shapes by manipulating it in specific ways, such as bending or joining pieces together. Next is forming the steel through rolling or press braking, using the mechanical force of specialised equipment.
Last is the assembly and finishing of the product. After the steel pieces are moulded and cut into their intended shapes, the parts of multi-element steel products are assembled and joined. Depending on the design, the finished product may have nuts, bolts, rivets or fasteners, or rely entirely on welding to assemble.
What Are the Advantages of Using Steel for Fabrication?
Steel fabrication allows manufacturers to create strong and durable products, and steel fabricators produce products essential for industries like construction, transportation, and aerospace.
The main advantages of using steel for fabrication are:
- Strength – Steel is a strong material used to make products such as bridges and building sculptures for centuries. Steel’s durability allows it to be thinner than other materials, which means these pieces can withstand more weight without breaking or warping.
- Durability – Steel is a durable metal that can withstand wear and tear, making it perfect for long-lasting products like scaffolding. Steel fabricated materials are also very stable because they won’t rust or corrode easily and stand up against environmental factors such as water damage and sunlight.
- Accuracy – The steel fabrication process involves high accuracy and precision, which is important in industries like auto manufacturing, where products must fit together perfectly to work correctly. The high accuracy of advanced steel fabrication helps ensure that all components come out perfectly.
- Versatility – Steel can be fabricated into various shapes and sizes. The versatility of steel is one reason it’s so popular, with forms that can be forged into almost any shape or size – perfect for fabricating custom parts and products to suit your specific needs! From flat plates to round bars, countless shapes and sizes can be fabricated from this material.
What Materials Are Used in Steel Fabrication?
The primary materials used in steel fabrication include:
- Sheet Metal & Plate Metal – This allows fabricators to mould the pieces into specific shapes.
- Formed and Expanded Metal – This is “grate-like” and is better suited for outdoor applications since it allows moisture to flow off.
- Sectional Metal – These come in different shapes, but the ‘L’ beam is one common example. Other shapes, such as ‘Z,’ are used for rod and bar metals.
- Flat Metal – This is similar to sheet metal and is excellent for steel fabrication. It can also be added to existing steel pieces to add texture and visual interest.
- Castings – These are also used for aesthetic purposes.
- Fittings – Exact use depends on the steel piece and is often necessary to complete products.
- Welding Wire – Comes in various thicknesses and is used to join pieces.
What Is Involved in Steel Fabrication?
The steel fabrication process involves three primary steps: design, fabrication, and assembly. These are usually done within the confines of one fabrication shop as a holistic service.
- Designing – The first and arguably the most crucial step in steel fabrication. Although most businesses will present finished designs to steel fabricators, some will only have prototypes that will be continually refined and tested before starting a large production run. This is where the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) programs come into play. These programs allow for the development of 3D prototypes. Keen attention to detail and technical knowledge during this step will ensure that the product will function as intended. Even slight errors in the design process can result in catastrophic failure, especially if the metal being fabricated is for the automotive or aerospace industry.
- Fabrication – Building, or fabricating, is the next step in the fabrication process. Fabricators will cut and shape components from the previous design phase using various tools and equipment. A variety of specific industrial-grade machines and tools enable the moulding of the steel.
- Assembly and Finishing – The last step is finishing and assembling the pieces into the final product. The procedures in this step help strengthen the final product for its required use. Deburring is one such finishing method that ensures the absence of any excess material. Another equally important finishing method is coating, which helps protect the piece from erosion or deterioration over time.
What Are the Different Processes Used in Steel Fabrication?
A range of metal processes are used in steel fabrication, and these can generally be sorted into four categories: reduction, cutting, welding, and shaping. Each of these processes may be achieved using a variety of techniques: for instance, cutting includes traditional oxy-acetylene cutting as well as plasma cutting and laser cutting.
Learn more about common steel fabrication processes below.
Reduction processes involve taking parts of the material away through specific methods, like cutting pieces away or punching them out using a machine. There are four main types of reduction process used in steel fabrication: shearing, punching, blanking and notching.
Shearing is a process that involves trimming and removing excess material from the steel. It can be done using a high-end machine or tools like a bench shear to cut through steel with high precision.
Since steel is generally sheared at room temperature or while it is still cold, no heat is produced, which means there aren’t any waste materials in the form of chipped materials.
Punching is the process of punching a hole through steel, done by placing the steel sheet between the punch and the die. When materials are in place, the punch moves down onto the die, which causes the steel underneath to be ‘punched.’
There is another process that falls under punching called ‘nibbling,’ which is used to achieve custom hole shapes. This method makes a series of tiny holes one at a time.
Blanking is similar to punching and is the process of punching specific shapes or strips of material away from the steel. The pieces punched out are referred to as the ‘blanks,’ from which the name of the process comes. This process is usually necessary for hardened steel, carbon steel, or stainless steel.
Although blanking is a quick and cost-effective method of producing many identical pieces of steel, these pieces may have deformities such as burrs or cracks at the edges. Using quality tools and post-processing can mitigate this.
Notching is a steel fabrication process closely related to shearing that uses a punch press to cut unwanted material from the outer edges of a steel workpiece.
There are a couple of notching processes, each using different mechanisms to remove material from the edges. An example is ‘Tube Notching,’ which is done on hollow steel workpieces to remove excess material. Another is ‘End Notching,’ which removes material from the ends of a hollow steel workpiece.
Metal Cutting Processes
Metal cutting processes focus on separating pieces of steel from each other. These methods usually require heavy and precise machinery to create complex shapes and compositions.
The most common and effective steel cutting technique used today is laser cutting. In the past, results were more contentious when choosing between laser cutting vs plasma cutting. However, the power and speed of today’s laser cutting machinery make it the stand-out metal cutting method.
Laser cutting is a process that uses a laser to cut steel. Laser cutting is fast, precise, and can be used to cut materials of many thicknesses. Laser cutting has revolutionised how we do many things. It can be used for many materials, providing high-quality work quickly with very little waste.
Laser cutters use a laser in combination with various compressed gases to generate a laser that will burn or melt a material to cut it. There are two main types of laser cutters: CO2 laser cutters and fibre laser cutters.
The most common type of laser cutting is CO2 (carbon dioxide) laser cutting. However, CO2 laser machines aren’t suited for cutting or etching reflective metals, meaning that their applications are limited.
The other type of laser cutting is fibre laser cutting, which is the superior choice for steel cutting applications. The other advantage of fibre laser cutting is how fast and accurate it is. When it comes to fabrication, accuracy is one of the most critical aspects, and this is where laser cutting far outperforms other steel cutting methods.
Plasma cutting uses a plasma torch to cut steel. Plasma cutting is faster when cutting through very thick pieces, but lacks precision and accuracy, and causes heat damage to steel.
Plasma cutting is best for cutting very thick steel plate where precision and accuracy isn’t a priority. The main applications for plasma cutting are in the automotive and construction industries, where rapidly breaking down heavy metal pieces is the goal.
However, plasma torch cutting is becoming less and less popular for fabrication and manufacturing applications, since it is far less precise and causes more damage to the metal itself.
Oxy-acetylene cutting is a traditional metal cutting process only suitable for certain types of steel. Oxy-fuel torch cutting can cut very thick metal using less fuel than a plasma cutter, which makes it cost-effective, but it lacks precision.
Oxy cutting is typically reserved for cutting mild steel since this cutting method can only be successfully done with metals containing oxides with lower melting points than the base metal it’s contained within. While mild steel is the most common candidate for oxy-fuel cutting, several other metal alloys can be successfully and efficiently cut with this method.
Because this type of cutting is not held back by the amperage of the cutter itself, you have a wider range of metal thicknesses you can cut, from as little as 25mm up to 300mm, although thicker metals will require slower passes with the cutter to ensure smooth and complete cuts. To help accommodate this, there are various torch tip sizes to help maximise cutting efficiency across different metal thicknesses.
Oxy-fuel is known for being cheap and cost-effective. A plasma torch would need unrealistic amounts of power and energy to cut a 300mm piece of metal, a feat much more achievable with an oxy-fuel cutter.
Waterjet cutting uses high-pressure water to cut steel. Waterjet cutting is slower than plasma or laser cutting but produces no heat, which makes it ideal for sensitive materials. Waterjet cutting is also very precise.
However, waterjet cutting is expensive and requires extremely special equipment. The most significant applications of waterjet cutting are in the aerospace and electronics industries. In most industries, laser cutting is a more cost-effective and appropriate choice.
Metal shearing is a steel fabrication method that uses cutting blades to slice, shave, and shear strips from the steel workpiece until it is the desired size or shape. Metal shearing equipment is much cheaper than laser or plasma cutters, and it doesn’t involve heat, making it more accessible for less high-tech workshops.
Unlike other fabrication processes, metal shearing is done at room temperature and doesn’t require the metal to be heated. This increases the different types of metals that can be worked with and make the fabrication process more accessible to entry-level workshops and DIYers.
Band Saw Cutting
A band saw is a cutting machine that uses a round metal band with a cutting edge to rotate around a circuit, providing a continuous cutting force. Band saws are common in metal fabrication as they are simple to use, portable machines, which produce fast and consistent cuts.
Unlike reciprocating saws, which push a sharp edge back and forth to create a cutting force, band saws use a continuously rotating blade edge to cut metal. Because this motion is continuous, band saw cuts are faster and cleaner than reciprocating blades, which can cause overheating issues and sharp, damaged edges.
Band saw cutting for metal is most common for low-tech and DIY applications rather than in professional steel fabrication settings.
Steel welding is a process that joins two pieces of steel together using heat and pressure. Welding is strong and permanent, creating joints in steel by melting the steel and then cooling it to make a strong bond. This process is typically used for creating large steel structures.
There are four primary types of welding: MIG – Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW), TIG – Gas Tungsten Arc Welding (GTAW), Stick – Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW), and Flux -Cored Arc Welding (FCAW).
- MIG (GMAW) – Used mainly in the automotive industry for repairing exhausts and constructing houses and buildings. It is one of the most common types of welding, primarily used when welding large, thick pieces of metal.
- TIG (GTAW) – Works similar to GMAW and is primarily concerned with automotive and aerospace applications. Excels when welding thinner pieces of metal together.
- Stick Welding (SMAW) – This type of welding is portable. It is used in maintenance, construction, and repair work, specifically on industrial fabrication and underwater pipelines.
- Arc Welding (FCAW) – Similar to GMAW due to continuous wire and power supplies but is used to weld thick metals and in the machining industries.
Steel shaping processes modify, add or remove steel from the workpiece to mould, temper, and form the workpiece into specific shapes.
Steel Folding & Bending
Steel folding is a process that bends steel to create shapes. Steel folding is fast and precise and can be used to create complex shapes. However, steel folding is expensive outside a professional workshop as it requires special equipment such as a press brake.
The main applications of steel folding are in the automotive and construction industries. It allows the metal to be formed into specific shapes that cannot be easily achieved with something like welding.
Compared to two pieces of metal welded into the same form, folded steel is stronger because it is still one solid piece without the weaknesses associated with a seam welded in place.
Other uses of steel folding include creating steel artwork. Since steel artwork is rarely made of a single flat sheet of metal, folding allows artists to create metal artwork and sculptures with natural folds and bends, which are more aesthetically pleasing than multiple welded joints.
Machining is a process where steel is shaped into a desired shape or size by removing unwanted material, achieved by turning, drilling, and milling.
In the Turning method, a lathe is used to rotate the metal while a cutting tool moves in a linear motion to remove material along the diameter. Drilling uses a rotary tool with a drill bit to cut a hole in the workpiece. Lastly, milling uses a rotating multi-point tool to remove material from the workpiece progressively.
Finishing processes are the final stage of metal fabrication, where the workpiece is finished or treated in a way that protects it from external wear, damage, or erosion while in use.
How a piece of fabricated steel is finished depends on the application of the workpiece.
Heat treatment is a thermal finishing process to reduce residual stress, enhance corrosion resistance, and improve mechanical properties.
This process starts with heating the steel to the desired temperature before cooling it in a controlled environment. The alternating heating and cooling process ‘locks in’ the desired microstructure of the steel workpiece, which improves the strength and corrosion resistance of the piece of steel.
Annealing is a heat treatment that brings the steel’s temperature beyond its recrystallisation temperature, then cooling it after a prolonged period, changing the steel’s physical and chemical composition.
During the heating portion, atoms migrate in the crystal lattice, which reduces the number of dislocations, altering its flexibility and hardness. Annealing must be done in a controlled atmosphere to avoid oxidation and scaling.
Applications of Steel Fabrication
Steel fabrication and fabricated pieces of steel are most commonly found in these industries:
- Construction – Architects and engineers often opt for fabricated steel for most construction projects within the construction sector. Metal fabricators produce many widely used steel pieces essential in construction, such as steel columns, trusses, platforms, beams, girders, handrails, and ladders.
- Aerospace & Aviation – Aerospace engineering involves complex designing processes and producing various aircraft, from commercial planes to defence-related fighter planes or drones. The parts for these aircraft are usually made with light steel alloys, such as 304, 304L, 316, and 316 Stainless Steel.
As these industries require precision, steel fabricated for these industries needs to be highly accurate as even slight variances and inaccuracies in fabricated workpieces can have drastic effects.
- Automotive Manufacturing – The automotive industry uses steel fabrication to create the steel frames and bodies of cars and trucks. The application ranges from large production runs to short, low volume runs for prototype parts.
- Mining – Most of the tools used in mining are produced through steel fabrication services, such as pickaxes and shovels. Machines and vehicles used in the mining industry also use complex fabricated steel parts.
- Energy Sector – Energy companies involved with gas, wind, solar, and nuclear energy are the most common users of fabricated steel. Fabricated pieces are used in gas and oil wells, solar panels, electromagnetic shields, electric power turbines, and transmission towers.
- Appliance Manufacturing – Appliance production uses steel fabrication to create the steel shells of refrigerators, washers, and dryers. Stainless steel and carbon steel are generally the materials of choice for modern appliances and are usually fabricated from sheet metals.
What Types of Steel Are Used for Fabrication?
Four primary types of steel are used for fabrication: Carbon Steel, Stainless Steel, Alloy Steel, and Tool Steel. Although there is a range of other steels available in the market, these are the most widely and commonly used in all industries.
- Carbon Steel – Carbon steel is the most widely used globally. Carbon steel is steel that mixes iron with less than 2% carbon. Higher carbon content equates to stronger and harder steel at the expense of brittleness. According to their carbon content, there are three types of carbon steel. Low Carbon Steel or Mild Steel has up to 0.3% carbon, Medium Carbon Steel has 0.31% to 0.6% carbon, and 0.060% to 1.65% Manganese. High Carbon Steel or Carbon Tool Steel has 0.61% to 1.5% carbon.
- Stainless Steel – Stainless steel is steel with alloying components such as Chromium, Nickel, or Molybdenum. It is distinguished by its Chromium content, which is always at least 10%, which allows it to ‘heal’ over any cuts or corrosion and prevent rusting. There are three main types of stainless steel: Austenitic Stainless Steel, Ferritic Stainless Steel, and Martensitic Stainless Steel.
- Alloy Steel – Alloy steel is carbon mixed with several alloying elements such as Manganese, Nickel, Chromium, Copper, Aluminium, Silicon, and Titanium. The content of these elements ranges anywhere from 1% to 50%. They are usually confused with Carbon Steel, despite being different in content and applications. Alloy Steel is categorised into Low-Alloy Steel (8% of lower non-iron elements) and High-Alloy Steel (8% or more non-iron elements).
- Tool Steel – This type of steel refers to a variety of steel mixed with alloying elements like Vanadium, Tungsten, Molybdenum, and Cobalt. It can be distinguished by its abrasion resistance, hardness, high durability, and heat resistance.
Is Steel Fabrication Expensive?
Small-scale steel fabrication is quite affordable, but the larger the piece that needs to be fabricated, the more it will cost. However, steel fabrication is more cost-effective long-term than fabricating other, weaker metals like copper or bronze.
Is Steel Fabrication Sustainable?
Steel fabrication creates products that can be recycled and reused multiple times, making steel one of the most sustainable materials for construction and manufacturing. Steel can be recycled repeatedly without losing its strength or durability.
In fact, steel is the most recycled material in the world. According to the World Steel Association, over 68% of all steel produced is recycled.
How Do I Choose a Steel Fabrication Company?
The things to consider when choosing a steel fabrication company are:
- Experience, Quality of Work, and Consistency – Check if the fabrication company has extensive experience. Ask about the work they have done for previous clients; if the quality is consistently good, it indicates that they are a capable fabrication company. Make sure you look at public reviews from previous customers to get a good idea of their consistency.
- Design and Production Capabilities – Ensure that the fabrication company can conceptualise a design and produce a product effectively. The transition from concept to reality is one of the most important things to look out for and is one of the most challenging things to master. A reputable fabrication company will make it very easy to track their progression from concept through to production.
- Customer Assurance – Nobody wants to be left with a product that does not satisfy or meet their expectations. So, make sure to learn about their policies on customer satisfaction and what they do to rectify issues.
- Facilities, Material Capabilities, and Technical Knowledge – An excellent steel fabrication company can store materials, produce them, and prepare workpieces for delivery. Finding another place to store your products and another company to deliver them takes away from the ease of doing business with the company. It is equally important that the fabricator knows which types of steel to use and when to use them. This is where their technical expertise comes in.
- Competitive Pricing – Lastly, check their pricing structure. Cheaper isn’t always lower quality, and expensive isn’t always better. Price comes into play after you have carefully studied the previous factors. Paying a high price for a steel fabrication company that excels in all areas may be more cost-effective than going to a fabricator with lower prices who may produce substandard or unsatisfactory products.
Can All Metals Be Fabricated?
Technically yes, every type of metal can be fabricated in some way. Nevertheless, it can be difficult and costly to fabricate certain types of metal, which is why steel is more commonly found to be fabricated.
What Machinery Is Used for Steel Fabrication?
Many machines are used in steel fabrication, such as CNC machines, press brakes, laser cutters, plate rolls, shears, welders, and punches. The steel fabrication tools used depend on the type and application of the steel being fabricated.
Graham Dawe is the Managing Director and Works Manager of Kanyana Engineering. With decades of experience in the metal fabrication industry, he is dedicated to keeping Kanyana at the forefront of the sector’s technological growth. Looking beyond the process itself to holistic, integrated CAD, CAM and MRP solutions, Graham believes Australian manufacturing has an enduring place on the global stage. In Kanyana Engineering’s state-of-the-art workshop in Mandurah, WA, Graham delivers an exceptional standard of work for commercial, industrial and government clients alike.