First off, if you are reading this because you are trying to decide on the right material for your project, our first piece of advice is to trust the experts. We’re out there designing, forming, bending, cutting, and punching various sheet metal materials into the quality parts integrated all around you. Our second piece of advice is to partner early, and get a second opinion. Too many times, we’ve seen companies scale and fail because they didn’t didn’t speak to an expert in the beginning. Minimizing your project’s cost while maximizing quality requires a deep familiarity with fundamental sheet metal materials like carbon steel, aluminum, and stainless steel.
Quickly, let’s talk about the phase when these decisions should be made.
Planning and Prototyping Saves Money
Everyone wants to get their project done for cheap, and there is a common misconception that it’ll work itself out if you cut corners in the beginning. Do you own planning and prototyping, but then bring in professionals for design, cost reduction, and prototyping. Carbon steel, stainless steel, & aluminum each have properties that behave differently during fabrication, under stress, and over time. Not to mention, your part may need to fit into a larger project with other materials, and it’s important to understand the difference between aluminum and stainless steel when subjected to various chemicals and conditions.
Quality and Price: Carbon Steel vs Stainless Steel vs Aluminum
Sheet metal comes with a variety of specified benefits attained from the material used in fabrication and forming. Choosing the right sheet metal material is important because it directly impacts quality and price. Not because any metal is any better than another, but the best metal for one project can be the worst in another. For example, steel is harder than aluminum but aluminum doesn’t rust.
As one of the most widely used steel metals, carbon steel is highly malleable and comes in a range of carbon content levels. Low-carbon steel is popular for its strength and low-cost, while high-carbon steel finds more niche opportunities due to its lighter weight and ability to hold a finely sharpened edge (see image.) Estes distinguishes its carbon steel with four different finishes: cold rolled, hot rolled, galvanized, and galvannealed. Cold rolled steel is more brittle than hot rolled and also causes more concern with forming operations. Hot rolled is used for forming steel and is less expensive than cold rolled finishes. Carbon steel is usually brittle and cannot be used for welding; it loses its flexibility in below-freezing temperatures, causing the steel to crack.
Stainless steel is made from the above described carbon steel with an additional layer of chromium oxide (approximately 10.5% of weight is added with the chromium layer). This layer is protective to the material and prevents corrosion and rusting. Unlike protective coverings that tend to dissolve or wear down over time, chromium is prevalent all the way through the steel, keeping the material continually replenished and protected. More on the expensive side, stainless is used for sinks, street furniture, cable trays, surgical instruments, water tubing, wire, etc.
Known as “the metal of modern life,” aluminum is lightweight yet durable. Its versatile, non-toxic, and corrosion resistant surface makes aluminum the ideal material for more fuel-efficient cars, electronics, and buildings. Finally, its highly recyclable characteristic explains why a large percentage of all aluminum produced in the world is still in use today.
So, which material is best? It depends and it’s complicated because they all have their strengths and their kryptonite. Lucky for you, you are already on a website that can assist you. Just give us a call and we’ll either help you or point you in the right direction of choosing the best material for your project.