The history of modern sheet metal fabrication is a story of the evolution of the processes and advancements of metal working. The use of sheet metals can be traced to pre-historic times. The metal-workers of early periods created hammered sheets from soft metals such as copper, silver and gold. These sheets made it easy to store and distribute the metal for selling, trading and future applications.
1. History of Steel Sheet Metal Fabrication and the Rolling Mill
The steel sheet metal we are most familiar with, used in construction, electronics and manufacturing, came much later in our history, following the introduction of Iron Age metallurgy.
A major turning point in steel sheet metal production was the result of the modern era rolling mill invented by Leonardo da Vinci. In this process, iron bars were passed between the mill’s two rolling cylinders.
The early versions of these rolling mills, used in the late 16th century, were small and water driven. They were used to create flat metal sheets with a thickness determined by the distance between the two cylinders. By the end of the 18th century these mills were powered by steam engines, with an early prototype in Wales used a design that connected the mill to a forge train.
Crude implementations of these types of mills date back to 600 B.C.E. and were used by the peoples of southern Asia and the Mediterranean region.
2. Aluminum Sheet Metal
Aluminum sheet metal fabrication is a much more recent development of the mid-nineteenth century. Known since ancient times, aluminum in its naturally occurring oxidized form was used in first-aid, dyes and in fire-proofing applications.
Prior to 1889, aluminum was considered a rare metal more precious than gold and silver. It was the material from which the rocket described in Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From the Earth to the Moon,” was constructed.
The Wright Brothers used aluminum in their engine designs and sheet aluminum became an essential component of aviation body construction, replacing wood, beginning in World War 1, with the first such use being the German Junker J 1. Today sheet aluminum comprises 50 – 90 percent of alloys used in spacecraft designs.
3. Modern Sheet Metal Processes
In modern times, sheet metal fabrication has continued to evolve as two techniques become more popular: deep drawing and hydro-forming
Deep drawing is a process that creates the metal sheets used to produce aluminum cans, automotive body parts, aircraft components, etc. In the mulit-step technique, the metal is stretched over a forming die. The procedure frequently involves mill rolling to produce a more durable grain structure that resists tearing
Hydro-forming uses high-pressure hydraulic fluid in a die that is specialized for the sheet metal application. It is a cost effective procedure used in the manufacture of higher-end, sports-model vehicles, which make use of the process’ ability to create complex shapes that have enhanced strength.