The Evolution and Impact of Metalworking in Industry

What is Metalworking?

Metalworking is the process of shaping and reshaping metals to create useful objects, parts, assemblies, and large-scale structures. As a term it covers a wide and diverse range of processes, skills, and tools for producing objects on every scale: from huge ships, buildings, and bridges down to precise engine parts and delicate jewelry.

The historical roots of metalworking predate recorded history, its use spans cultures, civilizations, and millennia. It has evolved from shaping soft, native metals like gold with simple hand tools, through the smelting of ores and hot forging of harder metals like iron, up to highly technical modern processes such as machining and welding. It has been used as an industry, a driver of trade, individual hobbies, and in the creation of art; it can be regarded as both a science and a craft.

Modern metalworking processes, though diverse and specialized, can be categorized into one of three broad areas known as forming, cutting, or joining processes. Modern metalworking workshops, typically known as machine shops, hold a wide variety of specialized or general-use machine tools capable of creating highly precise, useful products.

Many simpler metalworking techniques, such as blacksmithing, are no longer economically competitive on a large scale in developed countries; some of them are still in use in less developed countries, for artisanal or hobby work, or for historical reenactment.

The History of Metalworking

Technically, the history of metalworking starts more than a million years ago, when early humans learned to control fire. After all, without fire, there’s no metalworking.

But if there was a Benjamin-Franklin-flying-his-kite moment of the discovery of forging, it doesn’t appear that anyone recorded it. Rather, the story of metalworking is a long, slow one that developed over several centuries:

  • 8700 BCE – People in what is now Iraq work with copper. This metal has been in use for more than 10,000 years, with ancient societies in places like Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India using copper to fashion weapons.
  • 4500 BCE – Copper and tin are melded together to create bronze tools, art, weapons, building materials and money.
  • 4000 BCE – Copper mining begins in the Balkan region. Using tools made from bone, people living in what is now Serbia can extract large amounts of copper ore from the ground.
  • 2800 BCE – People in China begin smelting copper.
  • 2500 BCE – Brazing – a now commonplace metallurgy practice – begins in Sumer, ancient Greece, and Egypt.
  • 1800 BCE – India begins ironworking. The Ancient Romans recognized India as a country of iron experts, far ahead of what was happening in Europe. Meanwhile, the region of Anatolia – modern day Turkey – begins to smelt iron to create steel.
  • 1400 BCE – Sub-Saharan Africans develop steel working, making steel in blast furnaces that could reach temperatures hotter than anything achieved in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. The only drawback: not enough wood to create charcoal to fuel the furnaces.
  • 600 BCE – Indigenous people in Central America begin smelting copper. They had been working with copper for thousands of years before they developed smelting.
  • 1200 CE – China developed something like what we know as the “Bessemer process” for making steel by using a cold blast over molten metal. In the 1850s, some Chinese steel experts visited America to demonstrate this method. Bessemer was Sir Henry Bessemer, who would patent his own version of this process in 1855.
  • 1700 CE – The first iron foundries were established in Cumbria, Great Britain.

Modern Metalworking Techniques 

The techniques of metalworking follow the same principles, whether the scale of design is industrial or sculptural, or even at the tiny scale of a ring or a pair of earrings.

Engraved plates, for example, are used in printing, and ideas such as applique and repousee can be used in media as different as textiles and ceramics.

  • Cutting. cutting is a collection of processes where material is brought to a specified shape by removing excess using various kinds of tooling.
  • Forming. forming modifies metal by deforming it i.e., forming does not remove any metal.  Forming is done with a system of mechanical forces and, especially for bulk metal forming, with heat.
  • Joining. joining brings two or more pieces of metal together by way of one or more different processes which include welding, brazing, and soldering.
  • Annealing. The process of heating the work-hardened metal in order to restore its malleability.
  • Applique. The technique of creating a design by soldering or granulating cut-out shapes of sheet metal to another metal surface.
  • Casting. The process of shaping a molten metal by means of a mold.
  • Chasing. A technique for surface embellishing of metal is accomplished by driving pointed tools into the metal.
  • Enameling. The fusing of a glassy substance onto metal. Enamels are combinations of flux and metal oxides (for color). Cloisonne is one of the better-known enamel techniques.
  • Forging. Hammering metal on an anvil or form in order to shape, thin, or stretch it.
  • Granulation. A type of surface treatment in which small metal beads or wires are fused onto a metal foundation, or to one another. Can be done in gold or silver.
  • Malleability. The degree to which a metal is capable of being extended or shaped by forging or stretching, without cracking or breaking.
  • Piercing. Sawing lines or designs into sheet metal.
  • Raising. Forging sheet metal so as to shape it into 3-dimensional objects.
  • Repousee. A technique of pushing metal out from its reverse side using hammers and punches in order to create a low relief design on the front.
  • Reticulation. The fusing or melting of a metal surface to create texture.

Metal Finishing Services

The culmination of the metalworking process often involves metal finishing services. These services, which include plating, anodizing, and powder coating, are not just about aesthetics; they provide corrosion resistance, enhance electrical conductivity, improve wear resistance, and increase surface hardness.

With finishing, the functionality of metal components is significantly extended, making this step as crucial as the initial forging, cutting, or shaping in the overall lifecycle of a metal product.

The Future of Metalworking

Metalworking has certainly witnessed lots of changes over time, with plenty of advancements in technology since the early days of merely shaping metal sheets by banging them with hammers. 

Today’s metalworking and fabrication industries now rely more on technology and science instead of hard labor. Although innovations and advancements have always been a part of shaping the way metalworking is done, many of the most recent developments are taking the craft to new heights far and above where it was even a decade ago.

When 3D printing first hit the scene, it was viewed more as a niche method that was still far away from being a functional choice for metalworking. Since then, 3D printing has indeed become functional within the metal fabrication industry, becoming more widespread and used for a few different applications.

With 3D metal printing, metal components undergo a “printing” process that shapes, cuts, and molds the metal to achieve the design, size, and structure set forth by a digitally formatted design. Simply put, this allows metalworkers to upload or scan in the dimensions, setting the stage for the printer to do the rest of the work.

Although 3D printing’s impact on the metalworking industry is still considered to be in its early period, new developments and innovations are being implemented rapidly, making the technology more accessible, and more versatile for a number of different metal industries.

Much of the same technology and advancements that allow for smarter and more efficient metalworking tools also help to create safer conditions. This is accomplished in several different ways.

For one, the improvement in sensors and automated machines allows for real-time communication with some of these machines, enabling them to pinpoint when certain parts are wearing down, or possibly malfunctioning — an advantage that reduces faulty machinery and resulting accidents.