Changes in Sheet Metal Fabrication
Sheet metal fabrication and the changes in skills within this sector during the past forty years.
Sheet metal fabrication engineers have, much the same as other skilled workers adapted to a changing role within their sector. In the early part of the period we are considering the role of the sheet metal fabrication engineer or sheet metal worker was one of the traditional metal basher. Sheet metal would be formed and shaped using traditional methods and tools. Various hammers of different shapes and sizes enables the sheet metal fabricator to work the sheet metal into the forms required for each job in hand. Working with these hammers the sheet metal fabricator would use a variety of “Stakes” upon which to aid the shaping of the metal. These “Stakes” are similar to those used by a blacksmith but whereas the “smithy” generally worked with hot metal the sheet metal fabricator or sheet metal worker generally worked with the sheet steel cold. These “Stakes” were basically different shaped lumps of steel attached to an upright which could either be fixed to an anvil or clamped into a vice. The steel mounted at the top were shaped differently to aid the forming of the sheet metal. These enable the sheet metal fabricator to form the metal and create safe edges, wired edges and lock formed joints to name but a few. The sheet metal was cut to size using a guillotine or by hand with either a nibbler or traditional hand operated tin snips. Once cut to shape any required bends were carried out using either hand operated folding machines or power operated press brakes. Both methods relied on hand eye coordination and a high degree of operator skill.
Skip forward forty years and although it’s been a gradual change over that period we can now witness a very marked change in the skill requirement of the sheet metal fabrication engineer. Today’s sheet metal fabrication engineer is like many skilled operators almost as much a computer operator as they are a craftsman or craftswoman. The Laser cutting machine has replaced the Guillotine and many other hand cutting tools. We no longer are required to manually cut the sheet metal instead we draw the shape we require and ask the Laser cutting machine to carry out the process for us.
Bending of the sheet metal is still achieved in much the same way as thirty years ago in that the sheet metal is bent on a press brake, this however is where the similarity ends. Modern press brakes allow the sheet metal fabrication engineer to form the sheet metal to a much greater accuracy and with greater consistency. The press brakes are now computer controlled with all the bend angles bend sizes and machine pressures calculated by the computer, thus removing operator error.
The advancement of computer drawing programs is making the calculation of the developed form of the sheet metal component much more accurate and with less margin for error. It is however taking away the development skill requirement from the sheet metal engineer and the question now is what happens if the computer stops working, will we be able to revert to traditional skills?