Aluminum fabrication, just like any type of metal fabrication, is a process that forms the metal into a specific shape. There are numerous different aluminum fabrication techniques and methods that can result in different types of shapes. The process you use depends on what you need to create your product and what qualities you are looking for in each part.
Here we will explore aluminum fabrication techniques, design considerations, and machining challenges.
Aluminum Fabrication Techniques
There are several different aluminum fabrication techniques, each with advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the most commonly used methods of fabrication for aluminum.
This method of fabrication is a subtractive method. This means that rather than joining two or more parts together, it continually removes material from a single piece until it reaches the desired specifications.
This includes processes such as brazing, welding, and soldering and is one of the most commonly used fabrication methods. It is used to join two or more metal parts using heat, pressure, or a combination.
Sheet Metal Fabrication
This is the largest category of metal fabrication techniques. It consists of stamping, punching, cutting, and rolling. Stamping is used to create raised areas in a sheet of metal. Punching, on the other hand, may appear similar to stamping, but it uses a combination of a punch and a die to punch holes into the metal.
There are two primary methods of cutting aluminum sheets for fabrication. These are laser cutting and waterjet cutting. Luckily, these names are quite self-explanatory, and laser cutting uses a high-power to cut through the metal, whereas waterjet uses extremely pressurized water to achieve a similar result.
The final type of sheet fabrication is rolling. For this process, the aluminum is heated (until it becomes more malleable), and it is rolled between two heavy cylinders until it forms a sheet of the desired thickness. You can think of this process as making fresh pasta with a pasta roller — just replace the pasta dough with aluminum.
Another aluminum fabrication method is casting. This method involves pouring molten metal into a mold to form the desired shape. The metal is then cooled, the mold removed, and you are left with a solid casting of your design. This is a very versatile fabrication method and extremely effective for complex shapes.
Extruding is a fabrication process in which malleable aluminum is pushed through a die that shapes it into the desired cross-section of the final form. This can be challenging to picture from just a description, but think about the process like pushing toothpaste out of its tube and creating a perfect cylinder shape on your toothbrush.
The final fabrication process to cover is forging. This process involves shaping the aluminum by pounding, pressing, and squeezing it until it has the desired shape. Parts formed by forging are more resistant to impact due to this process; therefore, they are most commonly used in areas where impact resistance is crucial — such as gears, wheels, pistons, wrenches, hammers, and pliers.
Understanding Aluminum and Its Properties
Aluminum is a silvery-white and very lightweight metal that is soft and malleable. It is also the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust. This means that not only is aluminum incredibly useful in creating lightweight but strong parts for anything from buildings to planes, and it is also an abundant resource.
Other critical properties of aluminum include:
- a high strength-to-weight ratio;
- being non-ferrous, non-magnetic, and non-toxic;
- being corrosion-resistant;
- being machinable; and
- being compatible with other known alloys and surface treatments that can enhance aluminum’s natural properties.
Design Considerations for Aluminum Fabrication
There are two primary design considerations when fabricating aluminum for your projects. These are as follows.
The first design consideration for any project is what the end product will be used for. Knowing what environment your product will be in and its potential risks is crucial to helping you determine what material and design you should use.
You will need to consider:
- the melting point of your metal,
- its toxicity,
- the chemicals it can or cannot be exposed to — for example, aluminum reacts very strongly with anything acidic, and
- how corrosion-resistant your material is.
Coatings and Treatments
The other thing you will want to consider when finalizing your design is what coatings and treatments your final product will have. Depending on your product’s intended purpose, you will need to include coatings or treatments — such as an anodizing coating — to ensure that your product functions properly.
Challenges in Aluminum Fabrication and How to Overcome Them
While aluminum can be used in many different forms, industries, and applications, there are some challenges that you may face when fabricating aluminum for your projects. Some of the most significant challenges include the following.
Ease of Machining
Due to its malleable nature, aluminum can cause issues during the machining process. The most prominent issue that aluminum faces is that it can get stuck in machines and cause them to not function properly. This happens because the aluminum is soft and can get gummy, especially when warmed.
To combat these issues, you can:
- Minimize complicated machining operations by doing as much as possible by welding, brazing, cutting, and soldering.
- Ensure that your machinists are experienced and familiar with the equipment.
- Commission aluminum parts from fabrication houses.
Aluminum is a very flexible metal (just think about how malleable soda cans are). While this can be a great property in certain situations, it can pose certain challenges in aluminum fabrication. To combat this flexibility, you need to account for it in your design. This could mean adding extra thickness to keep the material more rigid or including reinforcing struts to your design.
Another challenge of aluminum fabrication is that it can be extremely energy-intensive. To overcome this issue, you can utilize hydroelectric or solar power for these processes. Alternatively, you can commission the aluminum pieces you need from a metal fabrication shop that has the pre-existing infrastructure needed.
Aluminum is used in many industries and is the most abundant metal on Earth. So, if you haven’t already been part of a project that requires aluminum fabrication, you likely will in the future. But, even as the most abundant metal on the planet, finding the right machined aluminum for your particular needs can be challenging.
If you are looking for custom aluminum fabrication or machining, contact us today at New Age Metal Fabricating (NAMF). We have proudly served the New Jersey area for over 40 years, and we have the advanced tools you need to realize your project.