CNC manufacturing and metal fabrication both play a significant role in designing and creating metal products for different purposes. Because there can be a significant overlap between the two processes, it isn’t always easy to determine which is best for a particular task. Which one should you choose and what can you expect? Metal fabrication often includes cutting, welding and folding material, while CNC machining involves removing material from a solid block of metal to create a monolithic component.
Each process has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, but one of the most important things to consider when choosing is the intricacy of the design and the characteristics of the material. Metal fabrication is useful for complex designs and repeating shapes and patterns, but CNC is better for complicated curves and contours. In this guide, we will describe the processes and help you decide which one you need. To start, lets dive into a quick guide of what CNC machining and metal fabrication actually involve.
What is CNC Machining?
In simple terms, CNC machining is the method of removing material from a blank piece of metal to leave the final component. This subtractive process takes a Computer Aided Design (CAD) and converts it into a Computer Numerical Code (CNC). The code contains the steps and instructions for the CNC machine to cut and mill the piece, removing material through sawing, routing, drilling, turning, and grinding. An operative places the blank into the machine and lets it complete the process.
What is Fabrication?
In contrast, fabrication is a multistage process that usually involves a degree of manual work to create the finished piece from raw materials. Skilled craftspeople take materials such as metal sheets, rods, bars and use multiple processes such as cutting, bending, welding, drilling, and joining to create the final piece. Unlike CNC machining, fabrication can add material to gradually build up a component.
Which should you choose?
CNC machining and fabrication are both essential processes for a range of industries and have their own pros and cons that make them suitable for different tasks. The optimal technique depends upon the material used alongside the nature and complexity of the final piece. Another important factor is the desired accuracy, especially when you need repeatability to manufacture identical pieces.
What are the differences?
While CNC machining and fabrication both involve manipulating metal, there are a number of significant differences that bring particular advantages and disadvantages.
Metal fabrication has a long history of helping manufacture and engineer components ranging from huge steel bridges down to tiny engine components. However, despite advances in automation and robotics, most fabrication is manual and labour-intensive. It requires multiple stages and processes, and manual fabrication is prone to human errors that can leave weaknesses and imperfections. Another disadvantage is that it lacks the high accuracy and repeatability of CNC machining.
Fabrication also carries benefits, including producing less waste, and it is much easier to carry out on sites away from the factory. Fabrication needs a range of skills, especially for welding difficult materials like aluminium and stainless steel, and shops need multiple types of equipment. However, the equipment is not prohibitively expensive, especially for small companies and start-ups. While fabrication can be slow and lack absolute precision, it is essential for many industries including construction, infrastructure, and auto manufacturing.
There are many applications of CNC machining, which is why it is popular with a range of different industries. The main advantages of CNC machining are speed, precision, and scalability. Programmed machines can manufacture as many identical parts as you need with fine tolerances and few flaws. With skilled operatives, CNC machining has very quick turnaround times and it is easy to tweak the programmes to make sure the part is perfect. Because there is less manual labour involved, CNC machining is much safer and has a lower cost base, especially for large runs of components. Finally, CNC machining is particularly good at handling contours and curves, something that can be difficult with fabrication.
The main drawbacks are that the machines are very expensive to buy and require technicians with IT skills for CAD design and for translating these into CNC. Because of this, it can be more difficult to find a good CNC company, and most work has to be performed in the shop rather than at the job site. Another drawback is that CNC machining cannot always cope with complicated internal geometry or parts with thin walls.
Which one should you choose?
Deciding which process to use really depends upon the material and the nature of the final component. For example, if you want exceptionally high precision or need multiple units made to exactly the same specifications, CNC machining is a great choice. In the same way, the ability to change a design by adjusting the program makes CNC useful for testing prototypes and making complex parts.
Fabrication is a good choice for sheet metal work and components with thin walls, and its versatility when working onsite means that it plays an important role in many industries. In addition, fabrication is often more cost-effective for one-off projects and for large-scale infrastructure and construction.
Metal fabrication may require a big setup because of the labour-intensive processes, along with workforce training needed. On the other hand, CNC can be more seamless to use and operated for longer hours while producing higher quality finishes. But, the ultimate choice depends on the final product and results you want to achieve. The best way to find out which method suits your needs is to talk to an expert company that understands the complexities of working with metal.
Some questions about CNC vs 3D printing are also asked in the manufacturing process. Ultimately, the process you choose will depend on the scale and complexity of the product.
Elite CNC can help you decide
As an experienced CNC machining specialist with all the latest CNC machining technology, Elite CNC has a deep understanding of which processes you need to complete the job. We have worked with countless Australian companies across many industries and can draw upon this knowledge to help you choose the best methods.
We are happy to talk you through the entire process, from beginning to end, helping you deliver the components you need as cost-effectively as possible. Whether you need a large production run or a single part. Elite CNC’s skilled technicians can translate your design into reality.
With competitive pricing and a reputation for delivering on time, every time, visit our site for more information about how we can help you succeed.