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Perhaps the most commonly used metal fabrication processes involve cutting, where sheets of metal are split into halves, thirds or smaller sections. In a lot of applications, the metal being cut is freshly made, and has yet to be shaped into anything in particular. In other applications, pre-shaped metals like bars and measured panels are submitted for cutting. Cuts are performed on a range of machinery, from lasers and plasma torches to more elaborate, high-tech pieces of machinery.
One of the more complicated processes of metal fabrication involves folding, where a metal surface is manipulated to shape at a certain angle. With certain folding applications, the intent is to make the metal surface fold at a 90-degree angle, or something else that’s either more or less blunt. However, folding may only be performed in facilities that are equipped with specific, high-tech equipment due to the complexity of the whole process. In many cases where a fold is needed, the joining of two metal panels at select angles would be the more practical alternative.
Along with cutting, welding is one of the most popular metal fabrication processes among crafts enthusiasts. The process of welding involves the joining of two separate metal parts. The parts used in a welding application could be sheets, panels, bars or shapes — as long as the parts are made of metal, it really doesn’t matter. Welding is achievable through numerous methods and tool types. Often, a weld is achieved through the application of heat along the points where the two pieces are meant to be joined. A lot of metalworkers first pursue the area of metal fabrication with welding projects in mind.
When a machine is used to remove portions from a piece of metal, the process is known as machining. Typically, the process is performed on a lathe, which will rotate the metal against tools that trim corners and edges to cut the piece down to a desired shape or measurement. In other machining applications, a hole or set of holes will be formed directly through the metal surface. As such, the metal drill could be classified as a machining tool.
When holes are formed in a piece of metal, the process involved consists of punching, where metal is placed under a die and submitted to a punch-through by a drill. For the punch to be the correct size, the circumference of the drill must slot correctly through the die. Punching falls into one of two sub categories based on the intention of a given application. In most cases, the intent is to punch holes into a panel of metal for the purpose of fastening latches or other foreign parts. In other applications — alternately known as blanking — the area with the hole is specifically extracted from the larger panel to form a smaller bit part.
For sheets of metal that require long cuts, the process is known as shearing. In some cases, the sheet is fed horizontally through a metal-cutting machine. In other applications, a cutting tool is applied vertically against the length of a flat metal sheet. A third method involves placing the metal over the edge of an open cutter and lowering the blade, much like the paper cutters found at copy facilities. Shearing is often applied to trim down the edge of a metal sheet, but the process may be done anywhere along the metal.
Punching is not the only metal fabrication process to utilize a die. In some applications, however, the intention is not to form a hole, but to raise a certain portion of a metal sheet, without penetrating. For applications like these, the process of stamping is used to form certain shapes, letters or images within a metal sheet or panel. In effect, metal stamping is similar to relief carving in wood or marble. A primary example of metal stamping is seen on coins, where words, currency amounts and the faces of presidents are stamped from each surface side on pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.
One of the oldest types of metal fabrication involves casting, where molten metal is poured into a mold and is left to solidify into a specific form. As one of the most flexible methods of metal fabrication, casting is ideal for a wide range of complex shape-making. In some cases, casting provides a solution to fabrication problems that would otherwise take several other methods to solve, such as with assembly parts that would need folding, shearing, and stamping. The most common metals employed in this application include steel, iron, gold, copper, silver, and magnesium.
Additional metal fabrication processes include broaching, honing, grinding and milling. Depending on the needs of a particular application, some metal facilities even perform specially customized types of fabrication.