Steel fabrication has been integral to the European and Asian economies for centuries, used for creating many objects, from weapons to tools to buildings. From the ancient sword makers of China to the modern-day skyscrapers of Hong Kong, steel fabrication has been essential to various industries.
In Europe, it has been used for centuries to create everything from bridges to castles and has been a cornerstone of the Industrial Revolution.
In Asia, steel fabrication created many monuments and structures that are now iconic symbols of the region.
With the right tools and expertise, a skilled fabricator can create almost anything out of steel, from small components to complex structures.
What is steel fabrication?
Steel fabrication, in its basic form, involves cutting and bending metal into any shape you can picture. It's an incredibly versatile process creating just about any shape you can think of, which makes steel fabrication an excellent choice for engineering and construction projects because it matches almost any need.
As a result, this process is used in various industries, including automotive, aerospace, mining, mining equipment, construction, and more.
Steel fabrication, also known as steel cutting, can be broken down in several ways. These include:
- Punching: The fabricator uses a series of punches and dies to create grooves in the metal sheet. The larger the dies are, the more intricate the pattern will be.
- Shearing: The fabricator uses a series of shears to cut the metal into the desired shape or size.
- Bending: This is the final step in the fabrication process, and it involves either rolling or forging the metal.
Quick Note About Iron and Steel
Although related, the differences between iron and steel are remarkable. Iron is a pure element, while steel is an alloy that combines iron with other elements like carbon.
Adding carbon to steel increases its hardness and strength, making it tougher than iron. Steel also has greater corrosion resistance because of the protective coating or other elements added alongside the iron during the alloying process.
This corrosion resistance makes the steel more suitable for applications where longevity and sturdiness are important.
Origins of Steel Fabrication in Europe
The first smelting of iron occurred approximately 3,000 years BC, and the process was then gradually refined and made more efficient.
By the beginning of the Common Era, smiths knew how to reduce iron ore to a metallic form, and this knowledge would enable a more rapid spread of steel production.
In Europe, restrictions existed limiting iron to producing weapons and tools, but in Asia, people already used it for a wide range of purposes. With the discovery of a method to smelt iron ore, they took the first steps to produce a metal known as “steel.” The process allowed the production of greater quantities of metal than possible, which would significantly impact European populations.
The Roman Empire produced the first European facilities using steel, and similar structures would follow later in medieval Europe.
Steel Fabrication during the Industrial Revolution
As iron production became more efficient and steel use expanded, so did the demand for the new metal. The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century saw the development of new technologies that increased steel demand.
The most important of these was steam power, widely used during the Industrial Revolution for transportation and power. The availability of steam power would significantly impact steel production, while the advent of the Bessemer process in the mid-19th century allowed for manufacturing steel with less labor and lower costs, significantly impacting industries, including the automotive industry, which was experiencing rapid expansion.
The Bessemer Process
In the mid-19th century, the Bessemer process revolutionized steel manufacturing and changed how industries operated. The Bessemer process allowed for producing large quantities of steel with less labor and lower costs. This new method of steel production had a significant impact on the industries of the time, and it was the first step towards the mass production of steel that is so common today. The Bessemer process was a game changer in the 19th century, and we still felt its effects in the industrial world today.
The Bessemer process is a method of producing pig iron or steel, and it was one of the first methods to produce steel on a large scale. Henry Bessemer, a British entrepreneur, engineer, and inventor, patented the process March 17, 1856.
Bessemer previously discovered that when melting scrap iron, the impurities within the iron lose their molecular bonds and become part of the molten metal. The most common impurities to be removed are sulfur and carbon, which handle most of the odor, sputtering, and pitting found in pig iron.
Bessemer Process Advantages
- Moderate Expenses: The process doesn't need expensive equipment like the open-hearth process.
- Better Steel: Trapped impurities, carbon (CO), and sulfur (SO) become part of the molten metal.
- Same Product Regardless of Source: Unlike the open-hearth process, the Bessemer process produces the same steel quality, regardless of its source.
- Fast: The Bessemer process is continuous, allowing for an extensive production capacity.
- Economical: The cost of pig iron decreases significantly with the Bessemer process.
Bessemer Process's Impact on 19th-Century industries
- Steel Production: Using the Bessemer process significantly reduces the cost of producing steel, resulting in a substantial increase in steel demand, which was so high that it even outstripped supply in many areas. The steel demand was so high that fabricators often used it for construction rather than for its original purpose of making tools, which resulted in a boom in the steel industry and became the first step towards the mass production of steel so common today. The Bessemer process also greatly impacted the steel industry by allowing for steel production with less labor and at lower costs. Using mass production techniques in the steel industry is yet another effect of the Bessemer process.
- Processing Pig Iron: Pig iron became much cheaper because of the Bessemer process, resulting in more people choosing to process it as their principal source of iron. The growth in the pig iron industry was significant because it also resulted in more people working in the iron and steel industry, which had a significant social impact. The enormous growth in the pig iron industry also led to the discovery of new iron deposits, which were crucial for the development of the steel industry.
- Steel Production: Using the Bessemer process allowed large-scale steel processing with less labor and lower costs—significantly impacting the industries of the time because it was the first step towards mass production.
Bessemer Process Influence on steel production techniques
- Blast Furnace: Using the Bessemer process eliminated the blast furnace, greatly reducing the amount of capital needed to build a blast furnace. Eliminating the blast furnace became a significant issue because it allowed for large-scale steel production. The blast furnace was crucial for steel production because it produced the oxygen needed to melt the iron using the direct reduction method. The direct reduction method reduces the impurities and carbon in the iron by mixing it with oxygen, which also produces slag used to produce flux and serve as a cooling agent.
- Bessemer Converter: The Bessemer process also eliminated the converter required to produce pig iron, greatly reducing the capital cost required for pig iron production, a significant issue because it now allowed for the production of steel to be done on a large scale. The converter was crucial for producing pig iron because it produced the required heat and oxygen needed to melt the scrap iron—a vital process for producing pig iron.
- Direct Reduction Method: The direct reduction method melts the scrap iron and adds oxygen to remove the impurities and carbon. The open hearth method replaced this method because of the Bessemer process. This method of steel production required less capital and was cheaper, slower, and thus less efficient than the open hearth method. The rapid improvement in the production techniques of the open hearth method was yet another effect of the Bessemer process.
Bessemer Process Implications for Modern Industrial Production
- Cost Reduction: The production of steel using the Bessemer process was significantly cheaper than the production of steel using the open-hearth process, which resulted in a substantial cost reduction, yet another effect of the Bessemer process. The cost of producing steel is one of the highest costs in any industry, and the reduction in steel production resulted in significant cost savings across the board.
- Rapid growth in Steel Production: Steel production using the Bessemer process was an important step towards the rapid growth in the steel industry because steel was one of the first industries to embrace the new technology of mass production, resulting in one of the fastest rates of growth of any modern industry.
- Rapid growth in Pig Iron Production: The Bessemer process produced large quantities of pig iron, used to produce the needed amounts of oxygen. Using this new method of steel production significantly impacted the iron and steel industries, two of the major industries of the time. The growth in the iron and steel industries was significant because it resulted in more people working in the iron and steel industry, which had a significant social impact.
Steel Fabrication in Modern Europe
Industry leaders built the first steelmaking facilities in Europe in the late 18th century, followed by many others over the next few centuries. In early 19th-century Europe, the Bessemer process enabled far less expensive steel production than iron.
In the second half of the 19th century, the rise of cities and increasing industrialization created a demand for steel that the production of iron would not meet.
The early 20th century saw several technological innovations that ballooned steel demand, including the invention of the automobile and the construction of the first large cities, which would cause the construction of larger buildings out of steel.
The invention of the internal-combustion engine in the automobile industry significantly impacted steel demand.
Steel Fabrication in Modern Asia
The industrialization of Asia would only occur in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marked by the adoption of new technologies that would see the mass production of steel.
The invention and widespread adoption of the Bessemer process significantly impacted the cost and quality of steel. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new technologies, such as the electric arc furnace and the Siemens-Martin open-hearth furnace for steel production, significantly increased steel quality.
Asia would become a leader in manufacturing steel and compete with Europe for dominance in the production of mechanical goods. By the 1950s, nearly half of all steel produced worldwide was Asian and used primarily in the construction industry.
Origins of Steel Fabrication in Asia
Asian civilizations used iron for thousands of years before introducing steel. In many parts of the continent, iron was the only metal used until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, then gradually replaced by steel production.
Asian steel production began in the Chinese region of Jiangsu, which had the earliest iron furnaces. By the mid-19th century, steel production in the region was growing, replacing iron production in many industries.
Chinese and Asian facilities would produce large quantities of steel, followed by steel production in Europe and the Americas.
Steel production was a natural fit for many of the new technologies used to manufacture mechanical goods and would significantly impact the demand for the material.
From the 1920s onward, steel would be a primary component in producing large buildings and highways.
The Impact of Steel Fabrication on the Global Economy
Using steel in the construction of buildings and infrastructure would have a significant impact on the global economy. The construction of large cities would require the mass production of large quantities of steel and would significantly impact the demand for the material.
New technologies, such as the electric arc furnace and the Siemens-Martin open-hearth furnace, would enable the production of high-quality steel at a lower price. The widespread use of steel would significantly impact the global economy. Structures built with steel would require large amounts of the material, increasing demand for the material and encouraging the development of new technologies to produce steel at less cost.
Steel production significantly impacted the demand for coal and iron ore, followed by the development of new technologies, such as the electric arc furnace.
Advantages and disadvantages of steel fabrication
Here are some of the main advantages and disadvantages of steel fabrication.
- High strength: Steel has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of all common construction materials.
- Versatility: Steel can be shaped countless ways, allowing for several applications.
- Durability: Steel has the highest level of durability of any material.
- Cost: Steel is the cheapest to produce of all common construction materials.
- Safety: Steel has the highest level of safety, as it's one of few materials resistant to fire, not brittle when impacted, and unlikely to cause personal injury.
- Environmental friendliness: Steel is one of the most environmentally friendly materials to produce, as it requires less energy than other construction materials.
- Complexity: Steel fabrication is one of the most complex processes in engineering and construction projects.
- Labor: Steel fabrication can be time-intensive, leading to rising costs in certain industries such as mining.
- Injury Risk: Steel fabrication poses a greater risk of injury than other common construction materials.
- Complexity: Steel fabrication is one of the most complex processes in engineering and construction projects.
A fabricator's primary tool in steel fabrication is the metal cutting machine. These machines are programmed with miscellaneous cutting paths, allowing for the creation of intricate shapes and designs.
The metal forming machine is a contour machining tool programmed to create a 3D shape from a 2D drawing or template. This way, the fabricator can create a curved, angled, or otherwise shaped piece to match the design drawing. It is also programmed with a 3D template or drawing, allowing it to create a piece based on that design.
The final tool in steel fabrication is the steel milling machine. It is programmed with various cutting paths, allowing it to create grooves and channels needed to weld the pieces together.
Safety measures for steel fabrication
When working in a steel shop, it's important to follow many safety measures to ensure job safety. Here are some of the most important ones:
- Wear protective equipment: This includes goggles, gloves, aprons, hearing/eye protection, and steel-specific shoes.
- Know the hazards: When working with steel, it's important to be aware of the risks involved with working with fire and with electricity.
- Stay in control: This means controlling your emotions and staying in control of your body and mind.
- Observe the rules: This includes following all safety rules and regulations, wearing all required safety gear, and staying out of the way of other workers.
Applications of steel fabrication
Steel fabrication has become a staple in engineering and construction projects, as it can create just about any shape or size out of metal. Here are some of the most common uses of steel fabrication:
- Buildings: In this application, steel construction projects are used to create skyscrapers and other large buildings.
- Bridges: Steel construction is also used in the construction of bridges. These are typically constructed using heavy, large-scale construction such as bridge piers, cables, and trusses.
- Machinery: This is one of the most common uses of steel in engineering and construction projects. It is used to build large components such as mining equipment, mining and oil drilling equipment, and road and railway vehicles.
- Infrastructure: In this application, steel fabrication is used to build large-scale infrastructure such as roads, railways, canals, and bridges.
- Scaffolds: This is also one of the most common uses of steel in engineering and construction projects. It is used to build large, elevated work platforms where workers can work safely and from which they can safely inspect the structural integrity of large buildings and infrastructure.
- Boats: This is one of the rare uses of steel in engineering and construction projects. It is used, however, to build large, sturdy, and durable boats that can last a long time in the water.
Costs of steel fabrication
Three factors largely drive the price of steel:
- The level of demand for the product.
- The demand for other metals used in its production.
- The cost of fuel to power the engine that produces it.
The strongest factor is the steel demand—the price increases if more people want to buy it than can be produced. The second factor is the demand for other metals used in its production.
If demand for these other metals is high, steel prices also go up. The final factor is fuel cost; if the fuel price rises, so do steel production costs.
Common Steel Fabrication Mistakes
When working with steel, it's important to remember a few things that could lead to serious problems. Here are some of the most common mistakes made during steel fabrication:
- Using the wrong machine for the job: You will have to use a metal cutting machine for cutting, a steel forming machine for shaping, and a steel milling machine for creating a groove or channel.
- Not wearing the required safety gear: It's important to wear steel-specific protective gear while working with steel to protect yourself from serious injuries.
- Working too fast: It leads to poor work quality, and the item could fail during use.
Steel fabrication is an essential part of many industries, with a long and complicated history. It has many advantages, including its strength, cost-effectiveness, and versatility, but it also requires careful planning, safety measures, and experienced professionals to avoid mistakes.