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The Difference Between Welding and Metal Fabrication

If you’re researching a career in welding, you’ve likely come across employers looking for “metal fabricators” as well.  You might be surprised to find out that “welding” and “metal fabrication” are not the same thing, though people often use them interchangeably.  Let’s look at the differences between the two disciplines.

Fabricator calculating metal measurements

What does a metal fabricator do?

Raw metal materials become machines and structures through metal fabrication.  A metal fabricator will cut, machine, form, measure, and assemble a project. He or she takes it from its original design to final product.  Fabrication jobs can vary in size and scope.  Some metal fabricators build railings for balconies and stairs. Some build pieces for machinery. And others build the framework for office buildings.

Metal fabricators read and translate written plans, or drawings, into a final product. They precisely measure and cut metal according to that drawing, and confirm measurements.  So, metal fabricators use math skills to ensure good fit and function.

Fabricators often use processes like die cutting, in which the fabricator will use a machine that alters the size and shape of stock metals by compressing it against a die that uses a punch. They also might use hydroforming, in which the machine uses pressurized fluid to form metal.  Fabricators might program and/or cut pieces of sheet metal on a CNC plasma table, and then use those pieces to build a final product.

A metal fabricator uses hand tools, press brakes, shears, laser cutters, and mechanical saws. And yes, it’s possible, even likely, that the metal fabricator also has welding equipment in his arsenal of tools and knows how to use them.

What does a welder do?

Welding is a singular and very specific part of the metal fabrication process. Welding joins two or more pieces of metal together by heat, pressure, or both.  They use high temperatures to melt the base material. Then, they add filler material.  Filler material causes a weld pool of molten metal that, when cooled, forms a weld that joins the two pieces.

Welding is a precision process that takes training and practice to master. Welders need to understand basic metallurgy, including metal types, melting points, and what kind of metals will join together. They read drawings and translate welding symbols. And, because technology is constantly advancing in the field, they often possess a knowledge of welding machinery lasers, and computers.

While a metal fabricator is often using tools to get his or her result, the welder is hands-on. Welders use different types of welding:

  • Shield metal arc welding (SMAW, stick welding)
  • Gas metal arc welding (GMAW, MIG welding)
  • Flux cored welding (FCAW) 
  • Gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW, TIG welding)

These are the welding processes that join metals, often creating a weldment that is stronger than its parent pieces.

In addition to a welder’s machine or “rig,” a welder uses tools like a workbench, an auto-dimming helmet, gloves, safety glasses, a respirator, grinders, clamps and measuring tools.

Welder learning under instructor supervision

How do welding and fabrication work together? And can you do both?

More often than not, metal fabricators are efficient, even excellent welders. And welders can also be talented metal fabricators.

IAI Associate Instructor Anna Kohler worked on large machinery and watercraft at Moran Iron Works in Onaway, Michigan prior to joining Industrial Arts Institute. She explained how her shop worked.

“Usually, there was a supervisor reading and interpreting the plans,” she explained. “He might tack the pieces together, then tell a welder to go ahead and weld it all together.”  In that case, the supervisor was acting as a metal fabricator. He used his welding skills to tack together the pieces. Then, he allowed a skilled worker to handle the actual welding.

This is as much a function of efficiency and productivity as it is about skill and talent.  Some people are better suited for the holistic metal fabrication process. Others are excellent welders.  Jeff Brown joined us as an instructor and certified welding inspector after a long career at places like Cadillac Fabrications in Cadillac, Michigan. He recalls being a supervisor, making decisions about which workers to assign to what tasks.

“Some of the workers were better at fitting, and some of them were better at welding,” he explained. “Those were the kind of things I had to consider when I was in that role.”  He added, “If you have the right worker for the right job, it’s half done before you’ve even started.”

Instructor guiding students at IAI

How do I learn metal fabricating and welding?

At Industrial Arts Institute, they incorporate innovative fabrication projects into our industrial welding curriculum. This way students can put newly acquired welding skills to practical use. Smaller projects include fabricating anvils, flowerpots, and hibachi grills. Larger projects often come with a community tieStudents have worked on bridges for local parks. They’ve made swing sets for playgrounds. And they’ve even created pieces of public art displayed throughout the state.

“We emphasize fabrication, because workers entering the field need to have these skills,” said Tamara Ward, Executive Director. Industry advancement informs their curriculum. IAI’s founder, Tom Moran, CEO of Moran Iron Works, provides his guidance and expertise to keep the program relevant to industry demands. Because of that, the program changes with every new class.

Students train on shop machinery and tools early in their curriculum. They continue to use them throughout the course.  Instructors and industry experts design projects to make the most use of those tools. Of course, the projects are challenging enough to require a day or two of work. Industry experts are often on hand to emphasize the importance of learning these skills.

Technology is also considered in the creation of fabrication projects for IAI’s curriculum.  Students are exposed to automated welding technology, CNC plasma cutting, and other leading-edge equipment and processes as a part of their fabrication programs.  “Employers are investing heavily in new technology to optimize their manufacturing processes,” Ward explained.  “Our students are exposed to these technologies so they’re ready to tackle them in the workplace.”

In conclusion...

There are distinct differences between welding and metal fabrication. Welding is a complex, specialized process that’s an important part of the metal fabrication role. While there might be instances where two separate people perform those tasks, it’s become increasingly common to see workers who can do both.

“But like anything,” said Ward, “good skills come with practice.  Welding is hard to learn, harder to master.  Incorporating those fabrication skills, and practicing those as well, will make you a more valuable employee.”

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