Fabrication, when used as an industrial term, applies to the building of machines, structures and other equipment, by cutting, shaping and assembling components made from raw materials. Small businesses that specialize in metal are called fab shops.
Fabrication comprises or overlaps with various metalworking specialties:
- Fabrication shops and machine shops have overlapping capabilities, but fabrication shops generally concentrate on the metal preparation aspects (such as sawing tubing to length or bending sheet metal or plate), welding, and assembly, whereas machine shops are more concerned with the machining of parts on machine tools. Firms that encompass both are also common.
- Blacksmithing has always involved fabrication, although it was not always called by that name.
- The products produced by welders, which are often referred to as weldments, are an example of fabrication.
- Boilermakers originally specialized in boilers, leading to their trade's name, but the term as used today has a broader meaning.
- Similarly, millwrights originally specialized in setting up grain mills and saw mills, but today they may be called upon for a broad range of fabrication work.
- Ironworkers, also known as steel erectors, also engage in fabrication. Often the fabrications for structural work begin as prefabricated segments in a fab shop, then are moved to the site by truck, rail, or barge, and finally are installed by erectors.
Metal fabrication is a value added process that involves the construction of machines and structures from various raw materials. A fab shop will bid on a job, usually based on the engineering drawings, and if awarded the contract will build the product.
Fabrication shops are employed by contractors, OEM's and VAR's. Typical projects include; loose parts, structural frames for buildings and heavy equipment, and hand railings and stairs for buildings.
The fabricator may employ or contract out steel detailers to prepare shop drawings, if not provided by the customer, which the fabricating shop will use for manufacturing. Manufacturing engineers will program CNC machines as needed.
Standard raw materials used by metal fabricators are;
- plate metal
- formed and expanded metal
- tube stock, CDSM
- square stock
- sectional metals (I beams, W beams, C-channel...)
- welding wire
Cutting and burning
The raw material has to be cut to size. This is done with a variety of tools.
The most common way to cut material is by Shearing (metalworking);
Special band saws designed for cutting metal have hardened blades and a feed mechanism for even cutting. Abrasive cut-off saws, also known as chop saws, are similar to miter saws but with a steel cutting abrasive disk. Cutting torches can cut very large sections of steel with little effort.
Burn tables are CNC cutting torches, usually natural gas powered. Plasma and laser cutting tables, and Water jet cutters, are also common. Plate steel is loaded on a table and the parts are cut out as programmed. The support table is made of a grid of bars that can be replaced. Some very expensive burn tables also include CNC punch capability, with a carousel of different punches and taps.Fabrication of structural steel by plasma and laser cutting introduces robots to move the cutting head in three dimensions around the material to be cut.
Hydraulic brake presses with v-dies are the most common method of forming metal. The cut plate is placed in the press and a v-shaped die is pressed a predetermined distance to bend the plate to the desired angle. Wing brakes and hand powered brakes are sometimes used.
Tube bending machines have specially shaped dies and mandrels to bend tubular sections without kinking them.
Rolling machines are used to form plate steel into a round section.
English Wheel or Wheeling Machines are used to form complex double curvature shapes using sheet metal.
Fab shops will generally have a limited machining capability including; metal lathes, mills, magnetic based drills along with other portable metal working tools.
Welding is the main focus of steel fabrication. The formed and machined parts will be assembled and tack welded into place then re-checked for accuracy. A fixture may be used to locate parts for welding if multiple weldments have been ordered.
The welder then completes welding per the engineering drawings, if welding is detailed, or per his own judgment if no welding details are provided.
Special precautions may be needed to prevent warping of the weldment due to heat. These may include re-designing the weldment to use less weld, welding in a staggered fashion, using a stout fixture, covering the weldment in sand during cooling, and straightening operations after welding.
Straightening of warped steel weldments is done with an Oxy-acetylene torch and is somewhat of an art. Heat is selectively applied to the steel in a slow, linear sweep. The steel will have a net contraction, upon cooling, in the direction of the sweep. A highly skilled welder can remove significant warpage using this technique.
After the weldment has cooled it is generally sand blasted, primed and painted. Any additional manufacturing specified by the customer is then completed. The finished product is then inspected and shipped.
Many fab shops have specialty processes which they develop or invest in, based on their customers needs and their expertise:
- heat treatment
- oven soldering
- plastic fabrication
- powder coating
- powder metallurgy
- English wheeling
And higher-level specializations such as: